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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Beckett, William James (1870–1965)

by Thomas Sheehy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

William James Beckett (1870-1965), politician, was born on 10 June 1870 at Prahran, Victoria, son of Samuel Beckett, Irish-born cab proprietor, and his wife Margaret, née Cameron, of Glasgow, Scotland. He was educated at state and private schools. On 22 February 1893 at St Matthew's Church of England, Prahran, he married Alice Maud Street. About then he set up business with his brother Henry as Beckett Bros, furniture brokers of Fitzroy, advertising as buyers and sellers of 'billiard tables, pianos, organs, and all descriptions of good household furniture purchased for prompt cash, from 1s to £1,000'. Beckett established a house at Footscray and later moved to Fitzroy; from about 1930 he lived at St Kilda. By then he had retired from the furniture business which was still run as Beckett Bros.

He had grown up to appreciate quality horse-stock, and had early developed an interest in racing and trotting activities which brought him into contact with John Wren. This association influenced his embarkation upon a lifelong career of racing and politics. He became an owner-breeder of horses: in the late 1890s he owned a livery stable off Bourke Street, Melbourne, which he later transferred to a site near the business at Fitzroy. In the early 1900s he raced the champion trotter Lightfoot. Beckett held office in the Victorian Trotting Association (formed in 1908) and was its chairman for thirty years after 1919 when it had become known as the Victorian Trotting and Racing Association and had acquired Wren's trotting and racing interests. Beckett was also president of the Ascot Racing Club for many years. In 1948 the association became the Melbourne Racing Club and he was its chairman in 1949-50. He also served for nineteen years as a trustee of the Victoria Amateur Turf Club, which controlled the Caulfield Racecourse Reserve.

In 1914 Beckett entered both local and State politics as a Labor candidate. In August he won a seat on the Fitzroy City Council, serving until August 1932 with terms as mayor in 1921 and 1925. In September 1914 he entered the Legislative Council as member for Melbourne North Province, holding the seat until his defeat in June 1931; in 1934 he won Melbourne East (later Melbourne) Province, retiring in April 1952. He was honorary minister in the Prendergast government of July-November 1924. He was minister of forests and of public health and vice-president of the Board of Land and Works in the two E. J. Hogan ministries in 1927-28 and 1929-31. From 1940 he was Labor Party leader in the Legislative Council and from 1943 unofficial leader of the House.

Beckett was a Freemason. A member of the St Kilda Foreshore Committee, to the age of 90-odd he swam daily at the beach. He was appointed C.B.E. in January 1953. He had suffered from cancer of the lip for thirty years before his death of bronchopneumonia on 7 May 1965 at St Kilda. He was survived by his son and daughter and was buried in St Kilda cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £31,979.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1931, 618, 1952, 750
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 6 Sept 1903
  • Labor Call, 19 July 1920
  • Age (Melbourne), 8 May 1965
  • Sun-News Pictorial (Melbourne), 8 May 1965
  • minute books and reports (Fitzroy Municipal Council)
  • manuscript collection (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Thomas Sheehy, 'Beckett, William James (1870–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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