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Willcock, John Collings (1879–1956)

by Noelene Doohan

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

John Collings Willcock (1879-1956), engine driver and premier, was born on 9 August 1879 at Frogmore, Boorowa district, New South Wales, sixth child of Joseph Willcock, miner, and his wife Ellen, née Webb, both English born. Educated at Sydney Boys' High School, John worked in a bakery before moving to Western Australia in 1897 where he was employed on the Fremantle harbour works for two years. Beginning as a railway engine cleaner, by 1902 Willcock had become a railway fireman at Geraldton; after 1912 he was an engine driver, and an active member and official of the Engine Drivers', Firemen's and Cleaners' Union. On 24 September 1907 he had married Sicily Ann Stone at St Francis Xavier's Church, Geraldton; they were to have six children.

During World War I Willcock belonged to several patriotic groups, including Geraldton's confidential recruiting committee. He was a co-founder of the local labour women's organization, president (1914-17) of the district council of the Australian Labour Federation and a member (1917-23) of the branch executive of the Amalgamated Workers' Union.

Narrowly defeated as Labor candidate in the Legislative Assembly by-election for Geraldton in April 1917, he captured the seat in the September general election and moved to Perth. Shortly afterwards he became secretary of the parliamentary Labor Party, then in opposition. Led by Philip Collier, Labor won power in April 1924 and Willcock was minister for railways and justice until the government's defeat in April 1930; between April 1924 and June 1928 he was also minister for police. In 1927 he succeeded William Angwin as deputy premier and deputy leader of the party, but lost the latter position to Alexander McCallum in 1930. After Labor's landslide victory in 1933, Willcock again became minister for railways and justice, and held the education portfolio until March 1935 when he regained the deputy leadership. Following Collier's retirement as party leader, on 19 August 1936 Willcock was commissioned as premier, treasurer and minister for forests.

In its early years in office his government—like its predecessor—concentrated on agricultural development and the construction of public works. Though his administration refused to provide full-time employment for men on relief, or to implement a 40-hour week for the State's workforce, Willcock was able to maintain a co-operative relationship with the entire labour movement. He was a conscientious and competent administrator with a penchant for carefully balanced budgets. Disliking extravagance, he rarely made use of government vehicles, preferring instead to drive his own car or to travel by public transport. In the late 1930s he introduced direct government involvement to encourage diversification of Western Australia's economy: development of a range of small secondary industries was fostered, many of which were in production by the mid-1940s. In 1939-41 Willcock and his cabinet extended carefully considered support for a Jewish proposal for a migrant settlement in the East Kimberley region.

A keen Imperialist, Willcock represented the State branch of the Empire Parliamentary Association at the coronation of King George VI in 1937 and strongly supported Australian involvement in World War II. His opposition, however, to John Curtin's attempts to expand the Commonwealth's wartime powers caused some disquiet in the Western Australian labour movement; although Willcock eventually relented, the tension remained. Throughout his eighteen years as minister and nine as premier, he was beset by bouts of serious illness which hospitalized him on occasions and eventually forced him to give up his forestry portfolio in December 1943 and to retire to the back-bench on 31 July 1945. He left parliament in March 1947. That year he was converted from Methodism to Catholicism.

With his full moustache, spectacles and fob watch-chain, Willcock presented a picture of respectability. Described as 'quiet, solid and likeable', and as 'disarmingly modest', he was popular with his party colleagues and respected for his honesty and sincerity. Yet, as premier, he had been prepared to act without consulting caucus. His amiable demeanour masked a shrewd and alert mind, and stories abounded of his powers of observation. He held personal prejudices against university education, but was a keen reader and an astute student of public affairs. More of a conversationalist than an orator, he could still make lengthy speeches in parliament without recourse to written notes. Survived by his wife, three daughters and a son, Willcock died on 7 June 1956 in St John of God Hospital, Perth; after a state funeral, he was buried in Karrakatta cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £16,707.

Select Bibliography

  • I. N. Steinberg, Australiathe Unpromised Land (Lond, 1948)
  • V. Courtney, Perth and All This (Syd, 1962)
  • G. C. Bolton, A Fine Country to Starve In (Perth, 1972)
  • C. T. Stannage (ed), A New History of Western Australia (Perth, 1981)
  • G. S. Reid and M. R. Oliver, The Premiers of Western Australia 1890-1982 (Perth, 1982)
  • Geraldton Express, 1 Oct 1917
  • West Australian, 26 July 1945, 8 June 1956
  • R. F. Pervan, The Western Australian Labor Movement, 1933-47 (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1966).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Noelene Doohan, 'Willcock, John Collings (1879–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/willcock-john-collings-9106/text16057, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 November 2014.

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

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