Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sydney James Bryan (1883–1957)

by Brian F. Stevenson

This article was published:

Sydney James Bryan (1883-1957), trade unionist, was born on 17 March 1883 at Ultimo, Sydney, son of James Newport Bryan, brewer, and his wife Margaret, née O'Brien, both native-born. Educated locally, Syd completed an apprenticeship as an electrical mechanic and joined the government railway workshops. He was a member of the State branch of the Electrical Trades Union from 1903 and attended the conference of the Political Labor League in January 1910 as an E.T.U. delegate. On 3 May 1907 he had married Ellen Beatrice Richardson at St Barnabas's Anglican Church, Sydney.

After his trade career was curtailed in October 1912 when his right hand was mutilated in an electrical accident, Bryan became State organizer for the E.T.U. In mid-1915 he formed a Queensland branch of the union; next year he travelled thousands of miles to nurture its affairs and membership. Moving to Queensland permanently, he was State secretary of the union from March 1918 until November 1944 and its federal president in 1920-24 and 1928-44. He played a prime role in 1926 in establishing a branch of the E.T.U. in Western Australia. He had also been a Brisbane City Council alderman (1924-25).

An able and conscientious advocate, in 1919 Bryan had succeeded in his efforts to have a 44-hour week implemented in his industry in Queensland and had convinced Justice T. W. McCawley that 'apprentices only, and not other juniors' should be engaged in electrical work. In 1923, as a result of Bryan's lobbying, legislation for an improved system of licensing electrical workers was enacted and he became a foundation member of the newly created Electrical Workers' Board. From that year he attended Labor conventions, usually representing the E.T.U., but occasionally one of the three other organizations of which he was also secretary: the Federated Miscellaneous Workers' Union, the Queensland Theatrical and Amusements Employees' Association, and the Federated Jewellers, Watchmakers and Allied Trades' Union. He was president of the Queensland Trades and Labor Council in 1929-37. As the representative of a union under the mantle of the T.L.C. rather than that of the Australian Workers' Union, he was frequently outmanoeuvred by the combined forces of Premier Forgan Smith and Clarrie Fallon, the president of the State executive of the Australian Labor Party and secretary of the Queensland branch of the A.W.U. Nonetheless, at Forgan Smith's instigation, Bryan and Fallon travelled to Canberra in 1942 to protest, unavailingly, to the Labor government over the introduction of uniform income tax.

As Labor became seemingly entrenched in government in Queensland, Bryan became more conservative. A member (1932-47) of the Queensland central executive of the A.L.P., he was party secretary in 1940-52. The executive remained neutral during the strikes of 1946 and 1948, often ignoring representations from their own constituents. Bryan turned his attention to obtaining a party broadcasting licence (granted in 1947) and raised £35,000 in debentures to finance radio station 4KQ. He gradually shed his many responsibilities, but retained until 1955 his secretaryship of the jewellers and watchmakers union. Survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters, he died on 25 July 1957 in South Brisbane and was cremated with Methodist forms. The S. J. Bryan bursary fund was established for the children of E.T.U. members.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Dawson, Points and Politics, D. Murphy ed (Brisb, 1977)
  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Labor in Power (Brisb, 1980)
  • Australian Labor Party (Queensland) records (State Library of Queensland).

Citation details

Brian F. Stevenson, 'Bryan, Sydney James (1883–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 14 June 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]


17 March, 1883
Ultimo, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


25 July, 1957 (aged 74)
South Brisbane, Brisbane, Queensland, 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.