This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990
Josiah Thomas (1863-1933), miner and politician, was born on 28 April 1863 at Camborne, Cornwall, England, son of Josiah Thomas, farmer and mine agent, and his wife Ann, née Rablin. As a child he went with his father to Mexico, then worked in Cornish mines before coming to Australia in the mid-1880s. He worked at the Barrier Range, was a member of a royal commission on collieries in 1886, and was a mining captain and assayer at Broken Hill South in 1890. On 27 July 1889 at Broken Hill he had married Henrietta Lee Ingleby (d.1901).
Elected to the executive of the Amalgamated Miners' Association in July 1891, Thomas became president of the Broken Hill branch in 1892. A member of the all-union Labour Defence Committee formed during a prolonged strike in 1892, he was sent to Adelaide and Queensland to raise funds. While he was absent, eight other committee-members were arrested on conspiracy charges. On his return he made a speech reflecting on the integrity of the magistracy; his commission as a justice of the peace was withdrawn. Black-balled by the mining companies, after the strike he was reduced to labouring. As president of the A.M.A., however, he sat on a New South Wales Legislative Assembly board of inquiry (1892) into lead poisoning at Broken Hill mines.
In 1894 Thomas won the Legislative Assembly seat of Alma for Labor and held it until 1901. In the assembly he took a particular interest in workers' safety and health; he campaigned against the Federation bills on the grounds that they made inadequate provision for national referenda. From 1901 to 1917 Thomas held the Federal seat for the Barrier. In Andrew Fisher's administrations he was postmaster-general in 1908-09 and 1910-11, and on the death of E. L. Batchelor became minister for external affairs (1911-13). As postmaster-general he favoured measures such as penny postage and scaled telephone charges, and constantly endeavoured to secure the resources of the state from exploitation by commercial interests. While he held the external affairs portfolio, immigration from Britain increased rapidly. He showed particular interest in establishing an Australia House in London and in the development of northern Australia. He served on a select committee (1905) and a royal commission (1906) on the ocean shipping service. In 1916 he visited England as a member of the Imperial Parliamentary Association.
Absent during the conscription split, Thomas—whose son was killed in action in France—followed W. M. Hughes into the National Party. In 1917 Thomas was elected to the Senate. Defeated in 1922, he was re-elected in 1925 but again defeated in 1928. Under the Constitution he sat until June 1929, in which year he chaired the select committee into beam wireless charges.
After he left parliament Thomas devoted himself to the British Empire League. An enthusiastic Methodist of 'cheerful disposition and moral enthusiasm', he was active in establishing 2CH as a radio station for the Council of Churches. He was a circuit steward at the Broken Hill Wesleyan Church and a popular lay preacher who urged congregations to improve the conditions of their fellows. Opposed to gambling, smoking and drinking, he pursued prohibition energetically and persistently. Always a 'robust speaker' in parliament, Thomas corrected Biblical allusions, spoke against the adjournment of the House for the Melbourne Cup and insisted on Canberra's hotels being 'dry'.
Although an able administrator, whom the Bulletin found 'offensively erudite' in 1904, Thomas has been criticized for having a more limited conception of external affairs than did his predecessor; more radical contemporaries regarded this 'least combative of men' as timid and easygoing early in his political career. He was, nonetheless, respected as a man of principle. Thomas had taken the unusual step of giving up a mine-managership to become union president. He retained his interest in working conditions and even as postmaster-general marched at the head of a procession in the 1909 Broken Hill strike. His presence on the platform lent particular distinction to Rechabite meetings when he attained cabinet rank.
Thomas died of heart disease at Croydon Park on 5 February 1933 and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. At Adelaide on 20 February 1909 he had married Clara Ingleby. She survived him, as did a son by each of the sisters he had married.
Bruce Pennay, 'Thomas, Josiah (1863–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thomas-josiah-8779/text15391, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 18 April 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990