Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Swadling, William Thomas (1882–1964)

by Richard Morris

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

William Thomas Swadling (1882-1964), trade unionist, was born on 5 October 1882 in Sydney, sixth child of Edward Swadling, native-born publican, and his Welsh wife Mary Ann, née Davis. He was a sailor when he married Margaret Elizabeth Wright (d.1919) on 12 December 1906 at St Paul's Anglican Church, Sydney; they were to have five children. After the birth of his second child in 1909, Swadling left the sea and lived at Balmain. He was employed by the Sydney Harbour Trust and did general labouring (1913) before working on the docks.

Elected vice-president of the Ship Painters and Dockers' Union of Port Jackson in 1915, Swadling was soon recognized as a diplomatic negotiator in waterfront demarcation disputes. In 1916 he was a trade union delegate to the Naval Dockyards Demarcations Board. Having enlisted as a private in the Australian Imperial Force on 20 February, he embarked for England in August. Blue-eyed and brown-haired, he was 5 ft 5 ins (165 cm) tall. In December 1917 he was posted to the Australian Army Medical Corps Details and on 6 February 1918 to the Australian Base Depot Staff in France.

Returning home a widower in September 1919, Swadling was elected State president in 1921 (vice-president in 1923, 1929 and 1931) of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers' Union of Australia. He regularly represented the union on the Labor Council of New South Wales and at Labor Party conferences. Lobbying on a range of industrial and political issues, he favoured union amalgamations to solve demarcation problems and work rationing to remedy unemployment during trade recessions. In 1922 he condemned Labor's expulsion of Communist Party members. At Labor conferences he identified his union with the support of widows' benefits, motherhood endowments and the 'Hands off China Policy'. On 7 February 1923 he married a widow Margaret Camarsh, née Spalding, at Balmain.

After the death of John McDonald, in 1933 Swadling became secretary of the F.S.P.D.U., the sole salaried official in the State branch. His office was in the Union Hall, Mort Street, Balmain, where the Federal secretary was also located. During the Depression Swadling coped with lean times and the inability of members to pay their dues. In 1937 he reported that financial membership had fallen from 1500 to 700. By the outbreak of World War II numbers had begun to increase; in 1940 'Old Bill' received his first rise to £6 10s. and in 1943 he was paid £10 per week.

The war brought comparative prosperity to Swadling and to his members, about half of whom—according to Justice Sir George Beeby—had been paid 'a long way below the basic wage' in 1939. Swadling encouraged campaigns for better hiring practices for the largely casual ship-painter and docker workforce. Occasionally in conflict with his colleagues, he retired as branch secretary in 1944, but continued as a Federal councillor.

On 16 April 1964 Swadling died in Concord Repatriation General Hospital and was cremated with Anglican rites. Three sons and two daughters of his first marriage and a son of his second survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Commonwealth Arbitration Reports, 42, 1940, p 241
  • F.S.P.D.U. Bulletin, 13, no 2, 1964
  • FSPDU minutes (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Richard Morris, 'Swadling, William Thomas (1882–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/swadling-william-thomas-8722/text15271, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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