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Watkins, David (1865–1935)

by Hilary Kent

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

David Watkins (1865-1935), by T. Humphrey & Co., 1908

David Watkins (1865-1935), by T. Humphrey & Co., 1908

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23366157

David Watkins (1865-1935), miner and politician, was born on 5 May 1865 at Wallsend, New South Wales, third son of John Watkins, miner, and his wife Mary Ann, née Hopkins, both of whom had migrated from Wales. On leaving Wallsend Public School at the age of 13, David began work in the local office of the Newcastle Morning Herald. In 1881 he was employed as a timber-getter and next year entered the Wallsend colliery as a water-baler and wheeler; two years later he started at the coalface.

In his father's house Watkins married Marion Alice Arthur (d.1933) with Wesleyan forms on 30 July 1890. In the aftermath of the defeats of the maritime strike, he became secretary of the Wallsend lodge of the Australasian Coal and Shale Employees' (Miners') Federation and sought to rebuild the union and to pursue its claim for working refuse and pillars. Active in local affairs, he was a member of the committee of management of the district hospital, a founder of the Wallsend and Plattsburg Musical and Literary Society, and a supporter of the Wallsend Choral Society and minstrels; in addition, he conducted at the eisteddfod.

Embarking on a parliamentary career in 1894, Watkins won the new Legislative Assembly seat of Wallsend for the Labor Electoral League, standing as a Protectionist: despite causing disquiet among some members of the league, he gained the favour of the Licensed Victuallers' Association by advocating local option with compensation; he saw the election as a fight between capital and labour, and feared that payment of members might be abolished. Watkins gave evidence to the 1895 royal commission on the coal-mining regulation bill which resulted in improved mine safety and ventilation. He was 'not a fluent speaker', but his reputation grew and Wallsend became a safe Labor seat.

In June 1901 Watkins moved to the House of Representatives and held the Newcastle seat until 1935. He focused on local issues and remained an unequivocal Protectionist. A member of the 1903 royal commission on the bonuses for manufacturers bill, he enthusiastically supported such assistance to develop a local iron and steel industry which would benefit his electorate. He served under Andrew Fisher as government whip (1910-13) and Opposition whip (1909-10 and 1913-14), and was secretary of the parliamentary party (1908-17). Watkins chaired the parliamentary delegation which visited Papua in 1911 and was an Australian member of the Empire Parliamentary Association in England in 1916. In 1920-28 he was temporary chairman of committees.

A 'short, clean shaven' man with merry eyes and the debating style of a 'healthy middleweight', Dave Watkins enjoyed racing and had 'as sharp an eye for form and possibilities' as any tipster. Following his continued support for the banking and arbitration policies of the Scullin government, he faced his greatest test in 1931: at the urging of the Northern Miners, the Lang-dominated central executive of the New South Wales Labor Party expelled Watkins and preselected another candidate for Newcastle. The contest between Watkins (representing the Federal interest) and James Kidd (the Lang Labor candidate) was bitterly fought and split the electorate; Watkins managed to hold the seat with a greatly reduced majority. The 1934 election saw a return of his electoral support.

An active Freemason, Watkins was involved in Mark Master Masonry and belonged to the Newcastle and District Cambrian Society and the Australasian Society of Patriots. Survived by four sons and three daughters, he died of cancer on 8 April 1935 at Newcastle and, after a Methodist service, was buried with Masonic rites in the Anglican section of Sandgate cemetery. His second son, David Oliver Watkins, easily won the ensuing by-election.

Although Watkins never attained ministerial rank and did not always please Labor's left-wing members, he was, at the time of his death, one of only three members of the first Commonwealth parliament who retained an unbroken record of parliamentary service. Unlike Billy Hughes and Sir George Pearce, Watkins did not change his party allegiance; nor did he change his electorate, as Hughes had done.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Gollan, The Coalminers of New South Wales (Melb, 1963)
  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 7, 10, 24 July 1894, 18 July 1934, 9 Apr 1935
  • Punch (Melbourne), 27 Sept 1906
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Mar, 28 Apr, 24 July 1931, 26 July 1934, 9 Apr 1935
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 28 Apr 1931
  • Worker (Sydney), 10 Apr 1935
  • Labor Daily, 31 July, 28 Sept 1931
  • Crouch memoirs (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Hilary Kent, 'Watkins, David (1865–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/watkins-david-8995/text15835, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 23 October 2014.

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

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