Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sydney James Law (1856–1939)

by Mark Lyons

This article was published:

Sydney James Law (1856-1939), politician, was born on 23 November 1856 at Redfern, Sydney, son of John Law, cabinetmaker, and his wife Sarah Anne, née Pollard, both Londoners. As a young man, he learned shorthand, but first prospered hawking drapery 'on the time payment system'. In 1881 he opened a drapery store at Balmain. He soon acquired other property in the area and was a provisional director of the New Balmain Steam Ferry Co. formed in 1892. He had married Mary McLean on 4 July 1883 at St Barnabas' Anglican Church.

In 1889 Law was vice-president then president of the local branch of the Free Trade and Liberal Association of New South Wales, but when the Balmain Labor Electoral League was formed in 1891 he joined it. He unsuccessfully sought pre-selection for the 1891 election but by late that year had become president of the local league. In 1894 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Balmain South, which he represented until 1904. About 1894 he joined the Balmain Labourers' Union. The involvement in the Labor Party of a small businessman like Law provoked internal critics but, at the local level at least, he provided organizing and publicizing skills and a certain respectability.

Law was no high-flier. In parliament he concerned himself largely with local issues. He also supported female franchise and shared Labor's opposition to the Federal constitution, but after its adoption he was defeated for the Federal seat of Dalley. Increasingly resentful of caucus discipline, Law, by voting in November 1902 with the Opposition on the estimates for the Attorney-General's Department, found an opportunity to demonstrate his dissatisfaction with the action of the attorney-general B. R. Wise in freeing Moss Friedman, who had been found guilty by a jury of receiving. Rebuked by J. S. T. McGowen for failing to support the government, Law resigned his seat and party membership. His resignation caused a flurry of interest in the press: standing as Independent Labor, he won the lively by-election.

While Law did not plan his defection, he was attracted by the development of a revitalized free-trade, now liberal, movement which was catching up free traders, sectarian Protestants, temperance, women's and business groups into a powerful party. He was a member of the Evangelical wing of the Church of England, a temperance supporter, an Orangeman and in 1901 an original member of Rev. William Dill Macky's Australian Protestant Defence Association. For many sectarian Protestants, Labor seemed a tool of the Catholic Church and Law, with a strongly self-righteous streak, was an awkward colleague. In 1904 as a Liberal Reform candidate he won Rozelle. He tried to maintain a base among sectarian Protestants and working men but was defeated in 1907. A strong element of sectarianism marked his last three campaigns.

Late in 1907 Law began business as an auctioneer and estate agent. He was moderately successful and in the 1920s moved his residence to more fashionable Drummoyne. He died there on 7 October 1939 and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. His wife, son and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • I. Wyner, With Banners Unfurled (Syd, 1983)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 July, 19, 29 Nov 1902
  • Balmain Observer, 27 July, 28 Sept, 21 Dec 1907
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 4 July 1894
  • L. G. Lynch, A Community Study — Balmain 1860-1894 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Sydney, 1982).

Citation details

Mark Lyons, 'Law, Sydney James (1856–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


23 November, 1856
Redfern, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


7 October, 1939 (aged 82)
Drummoyne, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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