Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Edward Crawford Magrath (1881–1961)

by Frank Farrell

This article was published:

Edward Crawford Magrath (1881-1961), printer, trade unionist and politician, was born on 5 February 1881, at Whitehaven, Cumberland, England, one of nine children of Carleton Magrath, mariner, and his wife Elizabeth, née Trohear. The family migrated to Sydney about 1889 and settled at Balmain where Magrath attended Balmain Superior Public School. At 15 he was apprenticed as a compositor to Turner & Henderson, general printers. He became a journeyman compositor in 1901 and over the next decade worked regularly for several major firms, and as a part-time instructor at Sydney Technical College. On 14 December 1903 he married Gertrude Mary Lodge at the Congregational Church in Pitt Street.

His political education began at home in discussions between his conservative father and his radically inclined mother. Magrath associated with mates who 'borrowed' but 'always returned' light reading matter from W. M. Hughes's bookshop, frequented the Balmain Workingman's Institute, developed a voracious appetite for knowledge and soon made his mark in debate. In 1901 he joined the Labor Party and, becoming a shop steward at 22, began to advocate the interests of printing tradesmen and especially apprentices.

In 1908 Magrath was elected to the board of management of the New South Wales Typographical Association. A strong critic of its narrow craft outlook, he was vice-president and president of the union in 1914, organizer in 1914-16, and then secretary of the State branch and vice-president of the Federal council of the Printing Industry Employees' Union of Australia, which absorbed the Typographical Association. The new union was registered in 1916 and was widely publicized as 'the One Big Union of Printers'. Despite his resort to militant phraseology, Magrath was also one of the most businesslike and hard-headed union leaders and disliked the trend towards extremism in the affairs of the Labor Council of New South Wales. He was trade union advocate before the living wage inquiry in 1920, contributed to the apprenticeship inquiry conducted by the Board of Trade, and served as a member of the printing trades advisory committee of Sydney Technical College. In 1924-27 he helped to compile, and successfully pursued in court, the union's complex claim for a Federal award covering the newspaper and printing industry throughout Australia. As a result he was the union's general advocate in 1927-31. He was enthusiastic about the arbitration process but accepted the need for industrial power in reserve.

Magrath was a member of the State central executive of the Labor Party in 1920-22, party vice-president in 1923-25 and State president in 1925-26; he was also a delegate to federal conference in 1926-27. His power base in the Labor Party was firmly established in 1923 when he became president of the Trade Union Secretaries' Association, which operated as a moderate influence on trade unionists, countering the left-wing leadership of the New South Wales Labor Council. With O. Schreiber and T. J. Tyrrell he provided a strong industrial support-base for J. T. Lang's rise to dominance of the party. He was a director of the Labor Daily in 1924-28 and remained a supporter of Lang until they clashed over the future of the Labor Daily in 1936.

Magrath was appointed to the Legislative Council in July 1925 and was elected to the reconstituted council for nine years in December 1933. He resigned from the P.I.E.U.A. in 1931 when appointed deputy president of the Industrial Commission of New South Wales; when the post was abolished in December 1932, Magrath sued the government and was awarded £2900 damages. In 1933 he became federal secretary of the P.I.E.U.A. and resumed his old position as its general advocate. Failing eyesight finally forced him to retire in January 1952. For much of his working life Magrath was separated from his wife. In his quiet retirement he cultivated roses at Maroubra and later Cronulla, before settling in a unit at Brighton-le-Sands. Survived by his wife, three daughters and two sons he died at Kogarah on 7 March 1961. He willed his body to the University of Sydney for medical research.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Hagan, Printers and Politics (Canb, 1966)
  • H. Radi and P. Spearritt (eds), Jack Lang (Syd, 1977)
  • Australasian Printer, Jan 1952
  • Printing Trades Journal, Apr 1961
  • Australian Worker, 13 June 1923
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 10 July 1925
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Sept 1931
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Frank Farrell, 'Magrath, Edward Crawford (1881–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 13 July 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]


5 February, 1881
Whitehaven, Cumberland, England


7 March, 1961 (aged 80)
Kogarah, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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