Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Joseph Alexander Browne (1876–1946)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published:

Joseph Alexander Browne (1876-1946), lawyer and politician, was born on 25 February 1876 at Darlows Creek, near Adelong, New South Wales, second son of Edward Brown, a native-born farmer, and his wife Eliza Jane, née Hodge, who was born at sea en route to Australia from England. Joseph was educated at Grenfell Superior Public and Fort Street Training schools, and taught at Wombat, Grenfell, Willoughby and Penrith in 1893-1903.

Having formed a friendship with W. A. Holman at Grenfell, Browne joined the Labor party in 1897. Next year he helped Holman to win the Legislative Assembly seat of Grenfell and enrolled in law at the University of Sydney (LL.B., 1904). An evening student from 1899, he was a clerk in the Department of the Attorney-General and Justice in 1903-04. He was prominent among the young Labor men who sought to qualify in law; in addition to Holman, he coached William Morris Hughes and D. R. Hall. Browne was admitted to the Bar on 6 May 1904 and read in chambers with (Sir) George Rich; his first brief came from (Sir) George Beeby in 1904. Concentrating on Equity cases and specializing in company law, by 1910 Browne was a leading junior. On 7 January 1909 he had married Laura Hannah Amos at the Methodist manse, Brunswick, Melbourne; they were to remain childless.

Although he left the Labor Party in 1904, Browne retained links with his many political friends. In March 1912, at Holman's persuasion, he was among eleven men nominated to the Legislative Council. He espoused the council's traditional role as an independent house of review, and criticized Holman's scheme to extend the duration of the Legislative Assembly after the premier formed a National government in 1916.

Browne was not a Catholic, but in 1924 he led the Legislative Council in perceiving the dangers to a liberal-democratic society of T. J. Ley's proposed amendments to the 1899 Marriage Act which sought to nullify the 1908 ne temere papal decree. He derided those 'who can see but one little aspect of religion, and no matter what happens, they think the Pope is behind it'. In 1925 he crowned his attack on sectarianism by successfully amending the legalisation. When J. T. Lang tied with P. F. Loughlin in September 1926 in a caucus ballot for leadership, Browne's opinion that, as Lang had not been defeated, he remained leader, helped Lang to stay as premier. In 1931 Browne actively opposed Lang's attempts to make the council a party-political House.

He had a successful legal career and assisted the royal commissioner J. L. Campbell in his 1919 inquiry into the coal industry. Made a K.C. in March 1926, Browne was appointed president of the Industrial Commission of New South Wales on 16 June 1932. He criticized the complexities of the Factories and Shops Amendment Act, 1936, and that year spent much time travelling on the buses as part of his examination of the working conditions of transport employees. Because of ill health he resigned from the commission on 2 July 1942. Survived by his wife, he died on 13 November 1946 and was buried with Anglican rites in Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • H. V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader (Syd, 1942)
  • B. Nairn, The 'Big Fella' (Melb, 1986)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Mar 1912, 3 Dec 1931, 17 June 1932, 3 July 1942
  • teachers' records (Department of Education Archives, Sydney).

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Browne, Joseph Alexander (1876–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


25 February, 1876
Adelong, New South Wales, Australia


13 November, 1946 (aged 70)
New South Wales, Australia

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.

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