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William Brooks (1858–1937)

by Heather Radi

This article was published:

William Brooks (1858-1937), by unknown photographer

William Brooks (1858-1937), by unknown photographer

City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 54/170

William Brooks (1858-1937), printer, publisher, politician and patriot, was born on 31 December 1858 at Tiverton, Devonshire, England, son of James Brooks, a lacehand, and his wife Mary Ann, née Williams. Educated at Tiverton Board School and trained as a compositor, he worked in London before going to South Africa. He later claimed that he had established the first trade union in South Africa. From 1884 he was in Sydney, and he married Martha Jessie Taylor (d.1931), of Cape Town, on 20 July at a North Shore Congregational church. After working briefly for the Sydney Morning Herald, he set up as a printer.

Brooks's business expanded rapidly after he won a Department of Public Instruction tender for school readers, which were widely used in Australian schools; he also produced a series of Australian Catholic readers. He extended his activities to manufacturing and retailing; William Brooks & Co. Ltd was incorporated in 1901.

Prominent in the Master Printers' and Connected Trades Association, Brooks represented it on wage boards in 1908-11 and was its president in 1911-24. A council member of the Chamber of Manufactures of New South Wales in 1914-25, he was also on the council of the Employers' Federation of New South Wales in 1913, and its president in 1914-20 and 1921-24. He was a vigorous opponent of the trade unions. Claiming he had worked as many hours as he could get when he was on wages, Brooks condemned union opposition to piecework. He established the industrial department of the Employers' Federation to fight arbitration cases for the federation's members. From seeking to consolidate employer organizations, he became fearful that a single organization would be an added incentive for the unions to form 'One Big Union' which would make industrial conflict more hazardous. He redirected his efforts to getting amendments to arbitration legislation which would restrict the operation of arbitration to the minimum wage and the standard working week.

Brooks was involved in negotiations for the National Party, and channelled funds to it from New South Wales employers until 1919 when (Sir Edward) Owen Cox reorganized the financing of the party in the State. Brooks was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1917. Under amending legislation in 1918 responsibility for the minimum wage in New South Wales was removed from arbitration to a specially created Board of Trade. In the absence of legislative change in the direction desired by Brooks, the advisory service which he had set up became more heavily involved in fighting arbitration cases, especially at the Commonwealth level.

Brooks was co-founder with Mary Booth of the Soldiers' Club in 1915, and a vice-president of the Citizens' Referendum Six O'clock Association; behind both lay the concern that soldiers on leave would be drawn to hotels and brothels at the risk of venereal disease. Brooks expected Australians to go to the help of the 'Old Country', to the last man, and he believed that the contribution of those who went should be fully and formally recognized. At the Soldiers' Club in 1915 he helped organize the Returned Soldiers' Association, acting temporarily as its first president. He was joint honorary treasurer of the Anzac Day fund in 1916 and later a trustee of the Anzac Memorial fund. Among his suggestions to honour the fallen was the creation of memorial parks. He was pledged to 'follow the King' and not take alcohol during the war, but he was no wowser and crossed the floor in 1931 to defend the working man's right to gamble.

In 1916 Brooks was a founding member of the Property Taxpayers and Ratepayers' Association, formed in protest against rent control and to fight adult suffrage in local government, and in 1924 he became president of a new Taxpayers' Association. In 1919-27 he represented Bourke Ward on Sydney Municipal Council, serving on its finance and health committees and advocating a separate authority to control electricity. Until 1933 he continued to be vice-president of the Employers' Federation and a spokesman for the abolition of compulsory arbitration. His criticism of Australian wage levels hardened over the years. In 1926 his firm failed to pay its customary 7 per cent dividend on its paid-up capital of £65,000.

Brooks was honorary treasurer for the Australian National Defence League in 1933 and president in 1925-35 of the Adult Deaf and Dumb Society of New South Wales, a cause his wife had supported since its foundation. She bore him five daughters; possibly he paid tribute to her when he opposed legislation giving illegitimate children a right to a father's estate: he held that a wife and her children had prior claim as family wealth was as much due to the work of the wife as of the husband.

Survived by his daughters, Brooks died at his Double Bay home on 14 October 1937 and was buried in the Presbyterian section of South Head cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £9136.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Commission on Industrial Arbitration, Report, Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1913, 2nd S, 1, 558-65
  • Employers' Federation of New South Wales, Annual Report, 1913-34
  • Property Owner, 2 June 1916
  • Sydney Stock and Station Journal, 13 July 1914
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Feb 1925, 16 Oct 1928, 15 Oct 1937
  • D. H. Coward, The Impact of War on New South Wales (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1974)
  • Anzac Fellowship of Women papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Heather Radi, 'Brooks, William (1858–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 17 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

William Brooks (1858-1937), by unknown photographer

William Brooks (1858-1937), by unknown photographer

City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 54/170

Life Summary [details]


31 December, 1858
Tiverton, Devon, England


14 October, 1937 (aged 78)
Double Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.