Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John William Billson (1862–1924)

by R. Kiss

This article was published:

John William Billson (1862-1924), trade unionist and politician, was born on 10 January 1862 at Leicester, England, son of William Daniel Billson, shoemaker, and his wife Betsy, née Sharp. His background is obscure but reputedly by the age of 16 he had joined the National Operatives' Union; he was a laster by trade when on 14 October 1882 at the parish church of St Mary, Leicester, he married Sarah Jane Sarson Coverley. In 1886 they migrated to Australia.

One of Billson's first acts on arrival in Melbourne was to enrol in the Victorian Operative Bootmakers' Union. By September 1890 he was elected to its executive committee and as a delegate to the Trades Hall Council; in September 1893 he became both trustee and president, holding office during the bootmakers' strike from September 1894 to January 1895. He left his work to organize the stoppage and was boycotted by employers when he tried to return to his trade, but he refused the union's offer of compensation. He apparently went to Sydney to seek work, but was recalled in March to become general secretary of the union, a position he held for the next six years. In April 1902 Billson chaired the Interstate Boot Trade Conference held in Melbourne, and in 1903 was a delegate to meetings held to discuss a federation of the boot-trade unions. He was also on the Eight Hours' Committee in 1895-1900 and was a delegate to the United Labor Party Conference in July 1896. In February 1897 he was elected to the boot-trade wages board and was involved in establishing boards for other occupations. In June 1900 he was vice-president and in 1901-02 president of the T.H.C.; he was also president of the council's organizing committee in 1901.

In August 1898 Billson had been elected to the Richmond City Council where he worked unsuccessfully for women's representation. After failing in a bid for the Legislative Assembly seat of West Richmond and Jolimont in 1897, he stood for Fitzroy in 1900, winning a seat with (Sir) Robert Best. He moved to the electorate, which he represented for the rest of his life.

Billson spent his political career fighting to improve the conditions of employees and to relieve the plight of the unemployed. He was minister for railways and vice-president of the board of land and works in the Elmslie ministry of December 1913, and during World War I became deputy leader of the Labor Party. He was a hard-working member of the Parliamentary Voluntary Recruiting Campaign Committee in 1915, but he was fervently opposed to conscription: his comments during the referendum campaigns brought him before a police magistrate in Prahran and called forth a tirade of abuse from W. M. Hughes. He was a member of the Standing Committee on Railways in 1907-13 and 1914-24 and became chairman in May-December 1924. He had been a delegate to the federal Labor conferences of 1905 and 1915.

Billson was regarded by many as one of the foremost debaters in the House, who 'put his arguments with force and lucidity, and obviously from the depths of conviction'. Sir Frederic Eggleston remembered him as a modest, unassuming and 'very abstemious' man. He was a member of the Australian Natives' Association and took a close interest in the Fitzroy cricket and football clubs. Illness prevented his inclusion in the Prendergast Labor ministry of 1924, and he died on 23 December. Survived by his wife and two married daughters and predeceased by a son, he was buried in Box Hill cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £5841.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1925, 1, 27
  • Tocsin, 1 Sept, 13 Nov, 15 Dec 1898, 20 Apr 1899
  • Fitzroy City Press, 16 Nov 1900, 28 Feb 1902
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 Oct 1916, 5 Feb, 4, 14 Dec 1917, 24 Dec 1924
  • Bulletin, 1 Jan 1925
  • Labor Call, 8 Jan 1925
  • F. W. Eggleston, Confidential Notes: The Victorian Parliament as I Knew It (Australian National University Library)
  • Australian Boot Trade Employees Federation, Victorian Branch records, T5 series 1, 2 (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

R. Kiss, 'Billson, John William (1862–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 15 June 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]


10 January, 1862
Leicester, Leicestershire, England


23 December, 1924 (aged 62)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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