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Willis, Albert Charles (1876–1954)

by Frank Farrell

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

Albert Charles Willis (1876-1954), miner, trade unionist and politician, was born on 24 May 1876 at Tonyrefail, Glamorganshire, Wales, son of James Willis, sinker, and his wife Louisa, née Morse. From the age of 10 Albert worked in a Monmouthshire mine, but also attended Brynmaur Board School and later, on a bursary, the London Labour College and classes at Ruskin College, Oxford, and King's College, University of London. In 1899 he became a lay preacher of the Church of God and on 1 October 1901 married Alice Maud Parker at St Mary's parish church, Haggerston, London. A labour intellectual steeped in the industry of coal, Willis was a founding secretary of the Cardiff Workers' Educational Association. He became president of the western district branch of the South Wales Miners' Federation and Labour representative on the Monmouthshire County Council before deciding to migrate to Australia.

Arriving in Sydney in 1911, he presented himself to the secretary of the Trades Hall, Edward Kavanagh. Willis began work at Balmain in the State-owned coalmine, but soon changed to the Illawarra district where there was a higher percentage of Welsh miners. At a time of heightened interest in industrial issues among the southern miners of New South Wales and of strike activity in 1912, Willis was a clear-minded and far-sighted advocate of reorganization; acting secretary in 1913, he became president of the Illawarra Miners' Association. For his wider basis of support in the Illawarra, Willis depended on Nonconformist Protestants, a section of society beguilingly similar to that in Wales. He moved easily between miners' lodges and Protestant churches, perceiving them to be closely linked.

The experience of war hastened the trend towards reorganization and unity between the northern and southern coalfields and culminated with the formation in 1915 of the Australasian Coal and Shale Employees' Federation (Miners' Federation); John Baddeley was its president and Willis secretary (1916-25). During World War I disaffection among the miners increased, direct action was pursued and anti-conscription sentiments grew. Assuming a leading role in shaping and channelling the developing radical outlook, Willis favoured the tactic of confining disputes to a single mine or district while other pits worked. A member of the Industrial Section (from 1918 Industrial Vigilance Council), he was elected vice-president of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party in 1916. Drawn into the disastrous general strike of 1917, Willis and Kavanagh were gaoled, charged with conspiring to strike and neglecting their duty as public officers; the charges were later withdrawn.

Willis used the débâcle of the strike's defeat to take the Miners' Federation to leadership of the One Big Union movement, drawing on concepts associated with the De Leonite version of the American Industrial Workers of the World. This revitalization drive generated enthusiasm in the wider labour movement and culminated in the decision of the miners' central council in 1921 to reconstitute their union as the Workers' Industrial Union of Australia (Mining Department). The struggle with the dominant Australian Workers' Union for leadership of the One Big Union movement led in 1919 to Willis's expulsion from the State branch of the Labor Party. With others who were expelled, he moved towards the far left and to leadership of the Industrial Socialist Labour Party. His own enthusiasm did not long survive the new party's first electoral rebuff; he then sought to stem the drift of radical unionists to Marxist-Leninism and helped to popularize the guild socialist ideas of G. D. H. Cole.

As secretary of the council of action established by the All-Australian Trade Union Congress of 1921, Willis tried to implement its programme in an atmosphere of declining militancy and a period of considerable turmoil. The council failed as a co-ordinating instrument in a strike action late in 1922, but next year the anger of the rank and file led to the victory of a coalition of unionists and parliamentarians against the A.W.U. faction led by John Bailey in the State A.L.P. Willis re-entered the party in 1922 and was State branch president in 1923-35. With the new parliamentary leader Jack Lang, he soon excluded the Communists, though he later offered a renewed alliance to the 'Trades Hall Reds' associated with John Garden.

In 1924-31 Willis was chairman and managing director of the Labor Daily, then financed by the Miners' Federation. Contemporaries believed that, through his newspaper, Willis exerted great influence over Lang: Vernon Goodin observed to Voltaire Molesworth that the 'bland, subtle, apparently unassuming' Willis was 'the most powerful political potentate Australia had ever known'; Bert Evatt similarly noted that, while allowing Lang to wear the imperial purple, Willis—with Garden—retained 'the real direction and control'. Nominated to the Legislative Council in 1925, Willis was vice-president of the Executive Council under Lang in 1925-27 and 1930-31.

A weakening of Protestant identification with the Labor Party during the war and renewed sectarianism in its aftermath undermined Willis's appeal even within the close-knit mining community. His own emphasis on Methodist rather than Marxist inspiration for labour ideals further narrowed his bases of support on the left. Willis's attempt with Rev. Albert Talbot in 1923-25 to establish the Industrial Christian Fellowship failed, though it contributed to his reputation as an anti-Catholic employer while editor of the Labor Daily.

Short, stolid, with hair receding to baldness by his late forties and a face in perpetual repose, the 'King Coal of Australia', as he had been portrayed by his critics in the press, was now at the limit of his political achievement. Lang brought Willis's political career to an end. He appointed him agent-general for New South Wales in 1931 and, on the eve of his departure for London, presented him with 'a sterling gold albert [watch chain] for an Albert of sterling gold'. In Willis's absence Lang gained effective control of the Labor Daily. Recalled from London when the Lang government fell, Willis faced an openly hostile Labor machine. He resigned from the Legislative Council in 1933 to contest the by-election for the assembly seat of Bulli, but failed against the official Labor candidate, despite strong support from some radical unions and the Socialisation Units within the party. Again expelled from the State branch of the A.L.P., Willis sued Lang for libel over statements made during and after the by-election; following an appeal to the High Court, Lang won. In 1934-36 Willis was a member of the Federal Labor executive and in 1934 unsuccessfully contested the Federal seat of Barton.

Willis increasingly withdrew to his home at Burraneer, Sydney. His immense experience in arbitration and industrial relations was drawn upon during World War II when he was a conciliation commissioner and chairman of the Commonwealth Central Coal Authority (1943-47). Predeceased by his wife, he died on 22 April 1954 at Cronulla and was cremated. His son and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Gollan, The Coalminers of New South Wales (Melb, 1963)
  • I. Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics (Canb, 1965)
  • R. Cooksey, Lang and Socialism (Canb, 1971)
  • M. Dixson, Greater Than Lenin? (Melb, 1977)
  • H. Radi and P. Spearritt (eds), Jack Lang (Syd, 1977)
  • R. B. Walker, Yesterday's News (Syd, 1980)
  • F. Farrell, International Socialism and Australian Labour (Syd, 1981)
  • B. Nairn, The ‘Big Fella’ (Melb, 1986)
  • Journal of Religious History, no 4, Dec 1963, p 303
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14, 28 Nov, 5, 18 Dec 1916, 13, 14, 24 Nov 1917, 18 Aug 1921, 19, 23 May, 26 Sept, 29 Nov 1933, 24 Apr 1954
  • Punch (Melbourne), 1 May 1919
  • Australian Worker, 13 June 1923
  • Daily Standard (Brisbane), 4 Feb 1925.

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Citation details

Frank Farrell, 'Willis, Albert Charles (1876–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/willis-albert-charles-9122/text16089, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 28 November 2014.

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

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