Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas Bavister (1850–1923)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published:

Thomas Bavister (1850-1923), trade unionist and politician, was born at Sheffield, Yorkshire, England, son of Joseph Bavister, platelayer, and his wife Kesiah, née Langley. On the death of his father next year the family moved to Bedfordshire where he was educated at a local school. At 14 he was a messenger boy, later becoming an apprentice bricklayer. In 1871 he returned to Sheffield and joined the United Operative Bricklayers' Trade Society of Great Britain and Ireland. He was soon prominent in the society and for six years was secretary of the local branch; he became a member of the central executive and in 1877-82 was assistant secretary of the general council. He represented the union at the 1875 Trades Union Congress in Glasgow and joined in the demonstration supporting Samuel Plimsoll in London. He had married Harriet Green with Wesleyan Methodist rites at Luton, Bedfordshire, on 3 September 1873. In 1883 they migrated to Sydney.

Bavister worked at his trade and joined the United Operative Bricklayers' Society of New South Wales. He became active in it and was pleased to find that it had the 'closed shop' and working hours of forty-six per week in summer and forty-seven in winter — he had sought similar conditions in England as his political awareness had been stirred by 'Lib-Labism'. He became his union's delegate on the Trades and Labor Council at a time, 1889-90, when it was preparing to found a political party. He also won repute as a temperance worker and supporter of thrift through friendly societies; he was one of the significant minority of tradesmen who purchased homes in the suburbs; he lived at Ashfield, a long walk from the station.

Bavister was an ideal candidate in his constituency of Canterbury for the Labor Electoral League at its first parliamentary attempt in 1891. The electorate was large, sparsely settled on its perimeter, with many middle-class and some working-class voters nearer the city, and was a free-trade stronghold; Labor won two of its four seats. In parliament he signed the initial caucus pledge and, when the party split in December, he was among the seventeen 'solids' — all free traders except J. S. T. McGowen. He became the parliamentary party secretary, but in 1892 he was reported to the central executive for voting contrary to the platform; he was one of eight members at the unity conference in November 1893, but he refused to sign the new caucus pledge. Early in 1894 he sought J. H. Carruthers' political help assuring him that 'I am not one of the fanatical violent section of Trades Unionists'. Although he won as an independent Labor candidate that year he was a free trader when he retained the seat in 1895. B. R. Wise beat him by five votes in 1898.

Bavister was secretary of the Building Trades Council in 1895-99, and an active delegate of the Sydney Labor Council in 1900-08. He was employed by the Department of Public Works and by 1910 was foreman of works at Long Bay gaol. Aged 72, he died on 2 January 1923 at Kogarah and was buried in the Methodist section of Rookwood cemetery, survived by a son.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1891-92, 5, 774
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 2 July 1891, 2 Aug 1894
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4, 5 Jan 1923
  • Bulletin, 11 Jan 1923
  • Carruthers papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Sydney Labor Council minutes, 1900-08 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Bavister, Thomas (1850–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Sheffield, Yorkshire, England


2 January, 1923 (aged ~ 73)
Kogarah, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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