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William Henry Lambert (1881–1928)

by Peter Spearritt

This article was published:

William Henry Lambert (1881-1928), by Crown Studios, 1920s

William Henry Lambert (1881-1928), by Crown Studios, 1920s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24233209

William Henry Lambert (1881-1928), politician and union leader, was born on 24 March 1881 at Swallow Creek, near Orange, New South Wales, son of James Lambert, Irish-born stonemason, and his native-born wife Elizabeth, née O'Brien. He attended primary school and as a young man worked as a shearer. Soon involved in the Australian Workers' Union, in 1903 he helped to convert the Yacannia shed (north-west of Broken Hill) to the union. He married Bertha Anne McConnell, a 19-year-old waitress, at Dubbo on 9 October 1909. That year he became an organizer for the A.W.U., and in 1915 secretary of its central branch, a post he held until 1921.

Like many union officials, Lambert did not enlist during World War I but became active in the anti-conscription movement. This brought him to prominence in the Labor Party and he served as State president in 1917-21; the party then was later described by J. T. Lang as an 'AWU dictatorship' with control shared by Lambert and Jack Bailey. In December 1918 Lambert was elected to Sydney Municipal Council for Denison Ward and was lord mayor in 1921. Holding the balance of power with his casting vote, Lambert enforced Labor policy — the promised 'Greater Sydney' plan degenerated into a scheme to amalgamate the city with inner working-class suburbs to enable permanent Labor domination of the council. Various sharp practices, such as letting contracts through negotiations instead of open tender, were perpetrated and created great mistrust. He also gave precedence to the Australian flag over the Union Jack.

Lambert won a House of Representatives by-election for the safe Labor seat of West Sydney in September 1921. In parliament he had remarkably little to say, except for occasional statements about juvenile labour, employment conditions, the threat of 'coolie labour' and the rights of trade unionists. Reflecting his early days as a shearer and union organizer he regarded the farmer as a 'loafer upon the State'. Lambert continued to pursue fierce faction politics. In the early 1920s he was accused of staging 'crook ballots' for the A.W.U.'s central branch elections, and was allegedly involved with Bailey, who apparently had considerable influence over him, in a scheme to misappropriate funds and to inflate membership of the branch to obtain extra delegates at the 1921 party conference. The A.W.U. convention found that the charges could not be sustained; nor was Lambert implicated when Bailey was expelled from the party in 1923, but with Lang now leader of the State Labor Party his political fortunes waned.

Furious at losing pre-selection for the seat of West Sydney in 1928, and apparently egged on by Bailey, Lambert told the Daily Telegraph Pictorial that in 1925 he had been offered £8000 if he would resign his seat in E. G. Theodore's favour. The same allegation had been published in the Evening News in December 1925, but Lambert had specifically denied it. His 1928 revelations led the Bruce-Page government to appoint a royal commissioner, who discounted Lambert's accusations, because of his denial in 1925, but found that another member, W. G. Mahoney, had been compensated for resigning in Theodore's favour.

It was a last-ditch stand by Lambert, now in failing health, against a Labor Party in which he and the A.W.U. now had little influence. He died of heart disease on 6 September 1928 and was buried in Randwick cemetery with Catholic rites. A quiet and shy man, who had no children, he had remained a 'sterling laborite'.

Select Bibliography

  • A. B. Berry, Lambert and Co. Ltd. Secrets Exposed (Syd, nd)
  • J. T. Lang, I Remember (Syd, 1956)
  • V. G. Childe, How Labour Governs, F. B. Smith ed (Melb, 1964)
  • I. Young, Theodore (Syd, 1971)
  • F. A. Larcombe, The Advancement of Local Government in New South Wales, 1906 to the Present (Syd, 1978)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1926-28, 4, p 1235
  • Labor Daily, 7 Sept 1928
  • Australian Worker, 12 Sept 1928, 29 Jan 1936, supplement
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7, 10 Sept 1928.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Spearritt, 'Lambert, William Henry (1881–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Henry Lambert (1881-1928), by Crown Studios, 1920s

William Henry Lambert (1881-1928), by Crown Studios, 1920s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24233209

Life Summary [details]


24 March, 1881
Orange, New South Wales, Australia


6 September, 1928 (aged 47)
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.