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William Halliwell Demaine (1859–1939)

by D. J. Murphy

This article was published:

William Halliwell Demaine (1859-1939), printer, newspaper proprietor and politician, was born on 25 February 1859 at Bradford, Yorkshire, England, son of Joseph Demaine, cabinetmaker, and his wife Elizabeth, née Halliwell. Apprenticed to a lithographic printer, he went with his family to Uruguay and Argentina about 1874. Returning in 1879, he married Mary Susannah Preston at Bradford on 10 January 1880. She objected to settling in South America, so they migrated to Queensland, landing at Maryborough in March; they were to have nine children.

Demaine worked as a joiner for Fairlie & Sons, formed an Eight Hour Association in 1882, and participated in a campaign to remove black labour from the sugar industry. In 1890 he left Fairlie's and formed the General Labourers' Union, absorbed later by the Australian Workers' Union. Secretary of the Wide Bay and Burnett Branch of the Australian Labor Federation, he organized support for the shearers in the 1891 pastoral strike, represented the Maryborough Workers' Political Organization at the first Labor-in-Politics convention of 1892, and was elected to the central political executive in 1892-94. Though William Lane went to Paraguay on his advice, Demaine considered his own family and stayed behind.

He earned a precarious living through the 1890s, in business as a cabinetmaker in 1892 and as a casual workman and part-time union secretary. In 1898, with Charles McGhie, he founded the weekly newspaper Alert which he edited until his death. It, too, had a precarious existence over forty years.

In 1901 Demaine again attended the Labor-in-Politics convention. Elected to the central political executive, he attended every convention and remained a member of the executive until 1938. He won the presidency by one vote from T. J. Ryan in 1916 and held it unopposed for twenty-two years. Gradually, as real power shifted to the State secretary of the Australian Workers' Union, he was left as a figure-head. Although he was effective and impartial at the small central executive meetings, he was not strong enough to control the unwieldy convention satisfactorily and was elected chairman only in 1923. His continued presidency was a measure of his general respect in the labour movement.

Demaine was a fierce opponent of conscription and corresponded at length on the subject with Andrew Fisher in London. Appointed to the Legislative Council in October 1917, he voted for its abolition in 1922. In the party he supported a minority urging education as an instrument of reform. Under Labor governments his radicalism was tempered; he blamed the loss of office in 1929 on the impatience of militant industrialists and firmly supported the moderate reform programme of the Forgan Smith government.

Entering local politics briefly in 1895 on the municipal council and the fire brigade board, Demaine rejoined the council in April 1924 and became mayor in March 1933. Willing to use political friends for the benefit of his town, he was able to keep Walker's Union Foundry, the biggest local employer, provided with government contracts through hard times. Despite rejection of a sewerage scheme at a civic plebiscite, he secured a government loan, did the work by day labour, added repayments to the rates and thus made Maryborough one of the first sewered cities in Queensland. His nomination for mayor in 1937 was signed by all aldermen, irrespective of party. In 1925-30 and 1931-39 Demaine was government nominee and chairman of the Maryborough Hospital board. He was also at various times chairman of the fire brigade board, trustee of the Trades Hall and government nominee on the boards of the Maryborough grammar schools. Foundation secretary of the Workers' Political Organization in 1890, he remained secretary of the Maryborough branch of the Australian Labor Party in 1939. By winning the Maryborough seat without opposition at a Legislative Assembly by-election in February 1937, he became the oldest person to enter the Queensland parliament; he did not stand in 1938.

Demaine died at Maryborough on 18 August 1939 and was buried in the local cemetery after a state funeral. He had been an enthusiastic Bible-reader but a convinced agnostic. His old friend J. S. Collings honoured a long-standing pact by delivering a panegyric at the grave.

Nurtured on the rhetorical radicalism of the 1880s and 1890s, Demaine became a supporter of Labor's substantial practical reforms. He retained the regard of radicals because of past struggles, while becoming a confidant of the real leaders of the Labor Party. Always immaculate, he neither smoked nor drank. He was commemorated by a Demaine wing for the Maryborough Base Hospital, a medal for schoolchildren and the Demaine building housing the State Government Insurance Office at Maryborough.

Select Bibliography

  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Labor in Power: The Labor Party and Governments in Queensland, 1915-57 (Brisb, 1980)
  • Maryborough Chronicle, 19 Aug 1939
  • Australian Worker, 23 Aug 1939
  • Fisher papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

D. J. Murphy, 'Demaine, William Halliwell (1859–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


25 February, 1859
Bradford, Yorkshire, England


18 August, 1939 (aged 80)
Maryborough, Queensland, Australia

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