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Joel Moses Gabb (1882–1951)

by C. J. Lloyd

This article was published:

Joel Moses Gabb (1882-1951), by T. Humphrey & Co., 1910s

Joel Moses Gabb (1882-1951), by T. Humphrey & Co., 1910s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23432079

Joel Moses Gabb (1882-1951), politician and preacher, was born on 21 November 1882 at New Glenelg, Adelaide, eldest of nine children of Charles Henry Gabb, a plasterer from England, and his native-born wife Hannah, née Whittaker. Educated at St Peter's Anglican School, Glenelg, Moses was an adherent of the United (later Australian) Labor Party, reputedly chalking the names of its candidates on the footpath at the age of 12. He became a grocer before undertaking Methodist home mission work (from 1905) on Kangaroo Island and at inland pastoral stations. In 1908 he spent a few months at Prince Alfred College studying for the ministry.

Sent to conduct a mission on the Murray River, Gabb travelled by motorboat to hold regular services between Swan Reach and Loxton, using loudspeakers to preach to communities along the banks and bluffs. He retired from missionary work because of doctrinal differences and did not enter the ministry, but he had established a reputation as a 'fighting parson' who responded vigorously to any intrusion or insult, either to himself or the cloth. On 9 October 1912 at Bath Street Methodist Church, Glenelg, he married Florence Ethel Hobbs; they opened a grocery business at Yatala (Alberton). Standing as an A.L.P. candidate, in 1919 he defeated P. M. Glynn, the sitting member for Angas in the House of Representatives and a minister in W. M. Hughes's Nationalist government. Gabb lost the seat in 1925 and regained it in 1929.

Too idiosyncratic in his personal and political style ever to submit comfortably to the yoke of Labor caucus discipline, Gabb was essentially an agrarian socialist, a rare creature in the party's ranks. His political career was dominated by two pronounced personal quirks: a passion for calling regular quorums, and an undeviating commitment to the frugal administration of the Federal government, particularly its parliament. Neither quality endeared him to fellow politicians. He described his colleagues as 'too tired and too indifferent' to watch the interests of taxpayers. According to Gabb, the quorum bell forced members to do the work they were paid for, rather than spending time in the billiards and refreshment rooms. Prime Minister Scullin privately urged him to desist from an overly punctilious observance of the quorum rule, but he declined. On one notable occasion he was derided by members from both sides when he was caught outside the chamber on a quorum call.

In May 1920 Gabb had earned fame as a political populist for refusing to accept a pay rise, claiming that he had contracted with his electors to serve them for £600 a year. By October 1922 he had forfeited £965 and at the elections in December he campaigned on the slogan 'Gabb did not Grab'. He practised economical management of parliament in outlandish ways, such as constantly stalking the corridors to turn off electric lights. He also urged the closing of the parliamentary dining-room, claiming that members were too lazy to walk to their hotels for meals. In January 1931 he resigned from the A.L.P. and from March was aligned with the breakaway group led by Joseph Lyons, a man he admired.

Unlike other A.L.P. defectors, Gabb did not join Lyons's United Australia Party. Nevertheless, with the backing of the South Australian Emergency Committee, which had been a principal agent in establishing the U.A.P., Gabb was re-elected. He supported the government, but sat as an Independent. His crusade to reduce parliamentary salaries led to Charles Hawker's resignation from the ministry in September 1932. Showing an inclination towards extreme right-wing politics, Gabb once declared that parliament should be shut down and that he ought to be allowed to act as a Mussolini. He retired in August 1934. In 1938 he unsuccessfully stood as an Independent for the seat of Light in the House of Assembly.

Despite his eccentricities and onomatopoeic surname, Gabb was not a particularly colourful or personable politician. One press report described him as 'having a remarkable faculty for dullness . . . a sort of inverted alchemist afflicted with an ambition for turning gold into lead'. He committed suicide by cutting his throat on 6 March 1951 at his Alberton home. Survived by his wife, two sons and one of his two daughters, he was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at £9435.

Select Bibliography

  • Uniting Church in South Australia Historical Society, Newsletter, 30, Aug 1986, p 2
  • C. J. Lloyd, The Formation and Development of the United Australia Party, 1929-37 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1984)
  • Gabb papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

C. J. Lloyd, 'Gabb, Joel Moses (1882–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Joel Moses Gabb (1882-1951), by T. Humphrey & Co., 1910s

Joel Moses Gabb (1882-1951), by T. Humphrey & Co., 1910s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23432079

Life Summary [details]


21 November, 1882
Glenelg, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


6 March, 1951 (aged 68)
Alberton, Adelaide, South Australia, 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.