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Peter Joseph Brennan (1843–1906)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published:

Peter Joseph Brennan (1843-1906), trade unionist, was born at Liverpool, Lancashire, England, son of Matthew Brennan, stevedore, and his wife Catherine, née Conron. About 1862 he migrated to Victoria and in August 1868 married Catherine O'Leary in Melbourne. He worked mainly as a steward on both sailing ships and steamships and tried without success to compete in the catering and hotel trade. In 1883 he moved to Ultimo in Sydney with his family. By then Brennan had gained wide experience in the maritime industry and was appalled by the low wages and working conditions of ships' stewards and cooks, both male and female, who worked not less than sixty hours a week, often without adequate meals and berths, for about 2d. an hour.

Brennan had enlightened ideas about the need to modernize the fragmented coastal shipping, which in the 1880s suffered increasing competition from overseas lines. When shipowners met this threat by dismissals and lower wages, the seamen resisted with the help of a very strong union, but the stewards and cooks had no union and suffered as a result. In April 1884 with help from the New South Wales Trades and Labor Council Brennan founded the Stewards' and Cooks' Union and by 1886 had organized most Australian stewards and cooks into a federation. He could see the need for a general control of industrial relations; in April 1884 he registered his union under the 1881 Trade Union Act (N.S.W.), and in August affiliated it to the Trades and Labor Council.

Brennan soon made a mark on the council as he gained its co-operation in rationalizing stewards' and cooks' wages and working conditions. By September 1884 he was vice-president of the council and had some success with grading ships into three classes by size, with wages regulated accordingly; he had also helped to organize public meetings on the danger to Australian shipping from low-paid coloured labour in overseas ships which were taking a growing part of the local trade. In 1885 Brennan used the council to help him to abolish the old system whereby stewards and cooks signed articles at 1s. a month and had to get the rest of their wages from the ship's providore, who often failed to pay. The general modernization of the shipping industry included a conference in September 1886 between the Steamship Owners' Association, the Seamen's Union and the Stewards' and Cooks' Union. In a long speech, revealing his grasp of industrial detail, Brennan lucidly rebutted the owners' case for wage reductions and their claims that the unions were interfering in management. 'It is not our intention', he said, 'to make anything known or to do anything here that will in any way prejudice our employers … but to show them the true way to gain passengers which they have hitherto thrown into the way of the ocean steamers'.

Brennan was now one of the leading trade union organizers in New South Wales. In 1886 he helped to form the Colliery Surfacemen's Association, Hunter River District, and represented them in the Trades and Labor Council. He remained interested in the catering and hotel trades, difficult areas for unions; in 1889 he founded the Amalgamated Slaughtermen and Journeymen Butchers' Union and by 1891 had helped to form the Hotel and Caterers Employees' Society.

Brennan's industrial experience sharpened his understanding of the general social role of Labor. He was an intelligent observer of politics and his protectionist bias, derived from his years in Victoria, represented majority opinion on the Trades and Labor Council: but he astutely avoided firm commitment to any of the multifarious protectionist associations formed in New South Wales in the 1880s. He assessed correctly the powerful tradition of political independence instilled into the council by Francis Dixon, which, however, did not exclude direct political intervention. As free trade and protectionist parliamentary groups shakily emerged in the confused politics of 1887-89 reformist industrial legislation had little chance. In September 1889 Brennan was elected to the parliamentary committee of the Trades and Labor Council and on 3 October articulated Labor's frustrations with notice of motion that the council organize for parliamentary representation. The proposal provoked great interest publicly and in the council where it was debated from November until January 1890 and finally carried by 35 to 3. In February Brennan became president of the council.

A political platform was drawn up in April and Brennan organized a council deputation to seek support for the general political plan against some union opposition. However, the council was then embroiled in various disputes that led to the great August-November maritime strike, of which Brennan was a prominent leader as president of the Australian Labor Conference. In October he inspired a request from the conference to the Trades and Labor Council 'to take immediate action relative to Labor candidates being run … at the next general elections'. It stimulated renewed and determined action on the council and led to the foundation of the parliamentary Labor Party and the election of thirty-five Labor members in June 1891.

Meanwhile in October Brennan had been selected by the council to contest a by-election at West Sydney; for reasons of solidarity he withdrew because certain maritime unions preferred the non-unionist, Adolphus George Taylor, who won but did nothing in parliament to help Labor. The incident was significant in ensuring firm control by the Trades and Labor Council over the projected party and in dampening Brennan's slight parliamentary ambitions.

Despite his work in founding the Labor Party Brennan was a trade union leader of the first rank rather than a potential politician. Although at times emotional and excitable, he was a witty and effective speaker, and a consummate negotiator at his home, at union meetings, at the Trades and Labor Council and at discussions with employers. His leadership and example were vital in the acceptance by the Labor movement of a system of voluntary conciliation and arbitration in the 1880s; opposed to all forms of compulsion, he believed that the enlightened self-interest of employers and the strength of trade unions would result in mutually acceptable collective agreements. He stressed the combined power of trade unions and believed fervently in the federation of all Labor.

In February 1891 at Sydney under Brennan's chairmanship a conference of unionists from New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia drafted a plan that was substantially adopted as the Australasian Labor Federation at the next Intercolonial Trade Union Congress, at Ballarat. Brennan sponsored the scheme enthusiastically in New South Wales, where by April 1894 the Trades and Labor Council had been mortally stricken by economic depression. He became in July the first president of the Sydney District Council of the federation, which was also accepted in Queensland but only a small minority of unions in New South Wales joined it and it did not operate in other colonies. In November he resigned because he was attacked for alleged irregularities in his re-election to the Council of Arbitration created under the Trades Disputes Conciliation and Arbitration Act in 1892. With Andrew Garran and Alexander Kethel, he had been a foundation member of this council from September 1892.

Brennan gradually withdrew from activity in the Labor movement with his two cherished principles outmoded: voluntary conciliation and arbitration as revealed in the impotence of the 1892 Act; federation of Labor in its rejection by unions. He had accumulated a modest capital and was able at last to realize successfully his dream of keeping a hotel. He retained his organizing ability and at his death on 11 March 1906 was treasurer of the United Licensed Victuallers' Association. He was buried in the Roman Catholic section of Rookwood cemetery and was survived by his wife and four of their six children. According to the Worker, 'On Sunday last died P. J. Brennan … a trades unionist of the old school, who in his time was a prominent figure in the labor movement'. This laconic obituary did much less than justice to the man who with foresight had evaluated the complex forces shaping a parliamentary Labor Party in the 1880s and who had formally begun the process that had established it in 1891.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Commission on Strikes(Syd, 1891)
  • Worker (Sydney), 15 Mar 1906
  • New South Wales Trades and Labor Council minutes, 1884-94 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Brennan, Peter Joseph (1843–1906)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Liverpool, Merseyside, England


11 March, 1906 (aged ~ 63)

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