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Thomas Joseph Byrnes (1860–1898)

by Rosemary Howard Gill

This article was published:

Thomas Joseph Byrnes (1860-1898), barrister and premier, was born on 11 November 1860 in Brisbane, son of Irish immigrants Patrick Byrnes and his wife Anna, née Tighe. Patrick is described variously as farmer, dairyman and grazier. The family, chronically poor, moved to Humpybong on Moreton Bay in 1861, then in 1866 to Bowen, North Queensland, where Patrick died in December next year. Thomas attended the Bowen Primary School where, as an exceptional pupil, he was encouraged by the schoolmasters and the parish priest. In 1873 he was appointed a pupil-teacher but a government scholarship next year took him to Brisbane Grammar School. There in 1875-77, he annually won the Lilley gold medal for distinction in Greek, Latin and English. He was awarded the University of Sydney prize in the junior public examination of 1876 and granted an extension scholarship which enabled him to complete his secondary education at the Grammar School. Having won an exhibition tenable at any university in the British Empire, he chose the University of Melbourne and began arts and law there in 1879. He graduated in arts in 1882 and law in 1884, with honours in both; in 1882-83 he taught at Xavier College.

Byrnes was admitted as a barrister in Victoria on 8 July 1884 but returned for a Queensland admission on 5 August. In 1884-85 he read law in the chambers of Patrick Real and by 1890 had built up a large, successful practice in Brisbane. In his spare time he chaired the Reunion Society for alumni of the Grammar School, was a cricket and football spectator, translated from the classics and shared membership of a select literary circle with Sir Samuel Griffith. In the new coalition government Premier Griffith retained the attorney-general's portfolio but, as he was drawing up proposals for a federal constitution, he desired to be relieved of day-to-day work, so created the new post of solicitor-general which he offered to Byrnes who was appointed to the Legislative Council.

The support given by Byrnes to the workmen's lien bill of 1891 convinced many that he was a sincere liberal, but he was also deeply influenced by current nationalist and materialist attitudes and was principally preoccupied with Queensland's development, prestige and security. Believing that a short continuation of Kanaka labour was the only way to save the valuable sugar industry, he supported the Pacific islanders (extension) bill of 1892. Concern for Queensland's well-being also led him temporarily to support the idea of Federation.

During the shearers' strike of early 1891, in response to Sir Thomas McIlwraith's request for effective action, he invoked an archaic British conspiracy Act under which strike leaders were convicted and imprisoned. Later that year, he forced Crown Solicitor J. H. Gill to accept an articled clerk without the customary premium. Gill's view that this was not a legitimate occasion for ministerial patronage had strong support, and Byrnes was later criticized in parliament for making unwarranted reductions in Gill's salary.

Byrnes continued his private practice and was engaged in two major Supreme Court cases. In Queensland Investment Co. v. Grimley, his successful conduct of the defence was widely praised. In the Robb arbitration case of 1892, praise for his skill was accompanied by public objection to the high fees paid to Griffith as leading counsel and to Byrnes as one of his assistants. In 1891 he was both a member of and a witness before the royal commission on the establishment of a university, and in 1893 he helped to establish the University Extension Council.

After appointment as attorney-general in March 1893 on the resignation of Griffith, Byrnes won the Legislative Assembly seat of Cairns, described by some as 'a Griffith pocket borough'. He revised the law of friendly societies with his Act of 1894. In the same year he championed Premier (Sir) Hugh Nelson's peace preservation bill which permitted imprisonment solely by order of the governor-in-council, and in 1895 he espoused the suppression of gambling bill; both pieces of legislation aroused strong opposition. In 1895 and 1897, he represented Queensland at meetings of the Federal Council of Australasia.

Byrnes now emerged as an opponent of northern separation, arguing that such a colony would inevitably elect a Labor government which would abolish importation of Polynesians. Under-developed and depopulated, the north would then lie open to Asiatic invasion. He realized that this attitude would cost him the support of many Cairns voters and, when the Legislative Council rejected the Mareeba-Atherton railway he had promised his constituents, he took the opportunity to stand for the normally safe ministerial seat of North Brisbane, which McIlwraith had resigned. In the general election of 1896 opponents concentrated on the Peace Preservation Act and sectarian issues. The Brisbane Courier saw Catholic bias in appointments to the Department of Justice and recalled Byrnes's support for grants to denominational schools at a meeting in St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, in January 1895. Some of his fellow ministers believed that his limited resources forced him to neglect his parliamentary duties for his private practice. He was censured too for taking a seven-week pleasure-trip to Honolulu with Nelson and (Sir) Robert Philp. The sectarian issues dominated the contest and no Catholic was elected for the metropolitan seats, but the system of staggered elections gave him another chance. Nelson wanted him for attorney-general, so invited both the candidates for Warwick to withdraw from the poll in Byrnes's favour. Although John Archibald, the government candidate, complied, the independent candidate refused. Nevertheless the backing of (Sir) Arthur Morgan's Warwick Argus, and the large Irish-Catholic vote combined with Byrnes's own prestige and oratory to give him the largest majority ever polled in the electorate.

In 1897 Byrnes accompanied Nelson to England as Queensland representatives at the Diamond Jubilee, and toured Europe. When Sir Arthur Palmer, president of the Legislative Council, died in April 1898, Nelson took his place and on 13 April Byrnes became premier, chief secretary and attorney-general. He had far more electoral appeal than any of his undistinguished colleagues who, despite their covert dislike for him, had to accept their youngest member as leader.

In his 1896 policy speech at Warwick, Byrnes had declared that Queensland needed further time for development before taking her rightful place as leader of a federated nation; government support for early Australian Federation was now withdrawn. He made a two-month triumphal tour through northern and central districts outlining a programme of progressive enterprise. Byrnes joined southern premiers in denouncing an agreement made by Sir William MacGregor granting land concessions in New Guinea to a British syndicate. The Pacific Islanders (Extension) Act was due to expire in 1902, British policy discouraged removal of Papuans from the Territory and Byrnes, who saw New Guinea as a rich source of coloured labour for the sugar industry and was concerned about mineral rights, feared that the presence of the syndicate would strengthen and prolong British influence. He had signified his agreement to the concessions by initialling the document in January 1898, but when Nelson's correspondence on the affair was published, the section that would have revealed Byrnes's apparent change of attitude was deleted at Byrnes's request.

Byrnes and his treasurer Philp introduced the subsidization of migrants. He promised referenda on women's suffrage and 'one man, one vote', but was unable to get his workmen's lien bill past the committee stage. He succumbed to a sudden attack of measles followed by pneumonia on 27 September 1898 when he seemed to be constituting a more progressive form of government than Queensland had yet seen, though in concrete terms his five months premiership had accomplished little. Byrnes's popular policies and well-publicized defence of Queensland interests contributed to the enormous public distress. After a state funeral proceeding through extraordinary crowds, he was buried in Toowong cemetery. He had never married and his estate, sworn for probate at £20,000, was divided between relatives, friends and a religious order.

Byrnes's career embodied cherished contemporary ideals of patriotism and progress: supporters of state education, ignoring the exceptional nature of his success, cited his life as proof that lowly origins did not debar a Queenslander from eminence; Catholic conservatives believed that his success proved the ease of social mobility for the poor Irish which the Labor Party said was impossible under capitalism. A legend developed around Byrnes's memory, hailing him as a man of outstanding integrity and political acumen. A memorial fund initiated the Byrnes medal for scholarship, and statues by public subscription were erected in Warwick and Brisbane. No other Queensland premier has been so honoured. He inspired posthumously a wealth of eulogistic literature, and was enshrined in print by such prominent men as (Sir) James Blair, John Knight, George Essex Evans and Anthony St Ledger. The literature of the legend offers no criticism of Byrnes, even presenting him as an acclaimed champion of religious toleration—a startling reversal of the charges of sectarianism levelled at him when in office. Byrnes was not, of course, the legendary paragon, but his youthful brilliance, his charm and patriotism evoked great public support in his lifetime, and it is these qualities which survive in the popular hagiography of the legend.

Select Bibliography

  • Alcazar Press, Queensland, 1900 (Brisb, nd)
  • A. St Ledger et al, Thomas Joseph Byrnes 1860-1898: Sketches and Impressions (Brisb, 1902)
  • R. Gill, ‘Thomas Joseph Byrnes: the man and the legend’, D. J. Murphy and R. B. Joyce (eds), Queensland Political Portraits 1859-1932 (Brisb, 1978)
  • Echo (Brisbane), 24 Oct 1896
  • Worker (Brisbane), 23 Apr, 1 Oct 1898
  • Age (Brisbane), 30 Apr, 21, 28 May, 4, 25 June, 17 Sept, 1, 8 Oct 1898
  • Bulletin, 8 Oct 1898
  • Brisbane Courier, 27 Sept 1919
  • R. H. Gill, The Legend and the Career of Thomas Joseph Byrnes … (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1975)
  • Palmer-McIlwraith papers (State Library of Queensland).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Rosemary Howard Gill, 'Byrnes, Thomas Joseph (1860–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 16 April 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

Life Summary [details]


11 November, 1860
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


27 September, 1898 (aged 37)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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