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Frederick William Birrell (1869–1939)

by Ray Broomhill

This article was published:

Frederick William Birrell (1869-1939), typographer and politician, was born on 27 August 1869 at North Adelaide, son of Andrew Birrell, labourer, and his wife Eliza, née Banks. Eliza was deserted by her husband soon after Frederick and his twin brother were born but she and her children were helped by the Thomas family; (Sir) Robert Kyffin Thomas was general manager of the South Australian Register. Frederick joined the paper's printing section and in 1892 became a member of the Typographical Society of South Australia (the Printing Industry Employees' Union). In 1909 he 'realised one of the ambitions of his life' by becoming its president, a position he held for four years; he remained a member for over forty years. In 1911-21 he was its representative on the Printing Wages Board (the Printing Trades Board), and in 1911-26 its delegate to the United Trades and Labor Council and the council and annual conference of the United Labor Party. After several years with the Register, Birrell had joined the Labor Party newspaper, the Daily Herald, as a linotype operator, and was later a journalist for it and a member of its board of management. On 15 October 1903 at College Park he had married Ellen Thomas, a machinist.

In 1915 Birrell stood unsuccessfully as a Labor candidate for the safe Liberal seat of Wooroora in the House of Assembly, but polled well. President of the T.L.C. in 1918-20 he believed strikes and lock-outs were 'barbarous', as they often inflicted 'suffering upon the innocent' and that 'anarchy and red revolution have no place in Australian sentiment'. Speaking at his installation as president in 1920 he said: 'It, therefore, behoves us all to tend our energies in the direction of perfecting our arbitration and conciliation machinery'. Birrell was secretary of the State branch of the Labor Party in 1919-20 and president in 1923-24. In 1921 he had entered the House of Assembly, for North Adelaide, and became a quiet, hard-working member. He was not regarded as a gifted orator, spoke infrequently, and was generally seen as a moderate, although in his maiden speech he strongly defended the party's socialization plank. Birrell maintained firm personal support in his electorate and was comfortably returned at the 1924 election. In 1926 the Labor premier John Gunn resigned and in the ensuing reshuffle Birrell became Speaker for seven months.

Because of illness he was unable to take part in the 1927 election campaign, but nevertheless retained his seat. He remained in parliament until 1933 but took little part in debates. In August 1931 the South Australian Labor Party had split over the L. L. Hill government's support for the Premiers' Plan, and twenty-two parliamentarians were expelled from the party. Although Birrell was identified with the Hill group, illness prevented his becoming publicly involved in the controversy. He did not stand in the 1933 election and retired from public life.

Birrell died of cerebro-vascular disease at his home in North Adelaide on 20 January 1939 and was survived by his wife; they had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • Labor's Thirty Years Record in South Australia (Adel, 1923)
  • Australasian Typographical Journal, Aug 1909, Aug, Nov 1911, Oct 1913
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Feb 1920
  • Observer (Adelaide), 31 July 1920, 15 Sept 1923, 18 Sept 1926
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 21 Jan 1939
  • R. Pettman, Factionalism in the A.L.P.: A South Australian Case Study, 1930-33 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1967)
  • S. R. Whitford, An Autobiography (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Ray Broomhill, 'Birrell, Frederick William (1869–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 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

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