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Tunnecliffe, Thomas (Tom) (1869–1948)

by Peter Love

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

Thomas (Tom) Tunnecliffe (1869-1948), bootmaker, trade unionist and politician, was born on 13 July 1869 at Coghills Creek, Victoria, son of John Tunnecliffe, a bootmaker from England, and his Irish wife Sarah, née Thompson. Thomas's early years were unsettled by the death of siblings and by an interrupted state school education due to his family successively shifting to Newlyn, Dean, Clunes, Newbridge and Ballarat.

Following in his father's trade, Tunnecliffe moved in 1886 to North Melbourne where he opened a bootmaker's shop which also became a centre for earnest discussion of contemporary social issues. Active in the Victorian Operative Bootmakers' Union, of which he was to become president and treasurer, he became involved in the radical political sects which flourished during the 1890s. He was president of the Knights of Labor; a delegate to the International Socialist Congress at Sydney in 1888; a member of the Victorian Socialists' League, the Australian Natives' Association and the Land Nationalisation Society; an original member of the Tocsin and other co-operatives; and treasurer and co-founder—with Frank Anstey—of the Victorian Labour Federation in 1898. He was later president of the Trades Hall Council and the Eight Hours' Committee.

An earnest believer in self-improvement, Tunnecliffe took first prize for deductive logic at the Working Men's College in 1892. Throughout his career he maintained a steady literary output, mostly on political subjects: among his better-known pamphlets were The Problem of Poverty (1904) and Successful Socialism (1906). At various stages he contributed to Tocsin and its successor Labor Call, to Ross's Monthly and Stead's Review which he edited in 1925-27.

He entered parliament in 1903, winning the Legislative Assembly seat of West Melbourne for the Labor Party at a by-election, but the seat was abolished; despite vigorous campaigns for Melbourne in 1904 (and the Senate in 1906), he did not return to State parliament until 1907 when he won the provincial seat of Eaglehawk. In the meantime he supported Tom Mann's Victorian Socialist Party. On 12 February 1908 at West Melbourne Tunnecliffe married with Presbyterian forms Florence Bertha Bishop (d.1911), a music teacher.

During his thirteen years as member for Eaglehawk he won respect as a well-read and forceful debater whose unusually rapid delivery was spiced with benign but pointed wit. He served on the public accounts committee in 1912-21 and was a member of the 1909 royal commission which investigated Sir Thomas Bent's dubious land dealings. With the decline in Eaglehawk's mining population, Tunnecliffe's electoral support diminished and he was defeated by (Sir) Albert Dunstan in 1920. Punch saw Tunnecliffe as round faced and fresh complexioned, only his greying moustache suggesting his 50 years.

Returning to Melbourne, Tunnecliffe served as secretary of the Public Service Association in 1920-24. In August 1921 he re-entered the Legislative Assembly as the member for Collingwood, at the centre of John Wren's patronage network. In 1924 he was appointed chief secretary in the short-lived Prendergast government. Two years later the State Labor caucus elected him deputy leader and, when the first Hogan ministry took office in May 1927, he became minister for railways and electrical undertakings. The high point in his career coincided with the most difficult years of the Depression. In the second Hogan ministry (1929-32) he was again appointed chief secretary, which put the old socialist in the uncomfortable position of having to defend the police against allegations of brutality at unemployment demonstrations. As acting premier in early 1932, he presided over a minority government under pressure from its Country Party colleagues to implement the Premiers' Plan in the face of opposition from his party machine. When he refused, the government was defeated and lost the subsequent election in a landslide victory to the United Australia Party-Country Party coalition.

With the defection of Hogan, Tunnecliffe was elected leader of the Opposition, a position he held until 1935 when Labor moved to the cross-benches. In 1937-40 he was Speaker. In 1940 a royal commission investigated allegations that he had accepted bribes from monopoly interests to prevent the passage of the Milk Board Act of 1939. Owing to the 'evasive and unsatisfactory' key witness, Commissioner C. Gavan Duffy made no charges. Tunnecliffe served as a back-bench 'elder statesman' until ill health obliged him to resign in August 1947. He died at his Clifton Hill home on 2 February 1948 and was given a state funeral at Fawkner crematorium. Warmly remembered as one of Victorian Labor's pioneers, he was survived by his second wife Bertha Louise, née Gross, to whom he had been married by Rev. Charles Strong at Armadale on 31 July 1913, and by their son and daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • LA Vic, One Hundred Years of Responsible Government in Victoria, 1856-1956 (Melb, 1957)
  • L. T. Louis, Trade Unions and the Depression (Canb, 1968)
  • V. Burgmann, ‘In Our Time’ (Syd, 1985)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 27 Apr 1948, p 669
  • Stead's Review, 1 May 1926
  • Tocsin, 29 Mar 1906
  • Punch (Melbourne), 9 Dec 1920
  • Labor Call, 28 Aug 1924, 6 Feb 1948
  • Age (Melbourne), 3 Feb 1948
  • Tunnecliffe papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • S. Merrifield collection (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Peter Love, 'Tunnecliffe, Thomas (Tom) (1869–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tunnecliffe-thomas-tom-8878/text15591, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 26 October 2014.

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

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