Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Arthur McGuinness (1878–1970)

by Bruce Mitchell

This article was published:

Arthur McGuinness (1878-1970), schoolteacher and union leader, was born on 28 January 1878 at Auckland, New Zealand, son of Arthur McGuinness, boilermaker, and his wife Elizabeth, née Kirkpatrick. His parents returned to Scotland, leaving Arthur with grandparents in Sydney, but they soon returned to settle at Bathurst where he went to school. McGuinness became a teacher-pupil at Lucknow in 1896, but failing the examinations was transferred to Kelso where he completed the four years training. He began as an assistant teacher on probation at Mount Hope on £90 a year, was transferred to Crown Street Public School, Sydney, in 1904 and promoted in 1909. In Sydney he organized Rugby competitions for primary schools. At St Stephen's Presbyterian Church he married Constance Jemima McManus on 8 January 1906.

In 1910-24 McGuinness was teacher in charge of small country schools: Araluen, Matong, Kangaroo Valley and Bombo. He returned to Sydney in 1925 to Caringbah on £507 a year and was moved in 1931 to Blakehurst where he remained until final retirement in 1945. He did not seek promotion to the highest levels of the service. He was much liked at Blakehurst, organizing a parental campaign to obtain a new school and then moving tons of rock and soil to improve the site.

McGuinness threw himself into teachers' politics and trade unionism and in 1928-45 served on the executive of the New South Wales Teachers' Federation. While he was president in 1929-32 the federation continued its aggressive defence of teachers and public education, and resisted suggestions of pay cuts and dismissal of women teachers as the Depression deepened. McGuinness became president in 1930 of the Crown Employees' Protection Committee which aimed to represent all State public servants, and caused Premier Lang to describe him as 'a tough negotiator, a hard hitting blunt public speaker, … a born politician'. By late 1932 McGuinness had begun to reflect the rising mood of caution and passivity among teachers and refused to call mass meetings to oppose government legislation to cut salaries and dismiss married women teachers. He did not stand for the presidency in 1933 and was defeated in 1934 by a moderate, but he returned for the next two years when teachers were more optimistic.

In his final term as president in 1940-45 McGuinness led vigorous and imaginative campaigns for better conditions, for teachers' professional and civil rights and for a strong war effort against Japan. In 1943 the federation achieved a new system of classifying schools and teachers which recognized professional qualifications, and its affiliation with the Labor Council of New South Wales and the Australasian Council of Trade Unions. During the war some able communists rose to prominent positions in the federation, but they never challenged McGuinness who believed he retained effective control.

A remarkably popular teachers' leader, McGuinness drew general support because he was seen as a fearless critic of political and departmental complacency and authoritarianism, and a defender of teachers' exercise of professional integrity. Although they had many clashes, he earned the respect of D. H. Drummond and was praised by Frank Tate for a public attack on timid departmental administrators. He was awarded a Carnegie scholarship to travel abroad in 1938.

In retirement McGuinness lived at Penshurst. A widower, he died at Kogarah on 15 March 1970 and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. Two sons and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • B. A. Mitchell, Teachers, Education and Politics (Brisb, 1975)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Mar 1970
  • Dept of Education, New South Wales, Teachers' records (Sydney)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bruce Mitchell, 'McGuinness, Arthur (1878–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 16 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]


28 January, 1878
Auckland, New Zealand


15 March, 1970 (aged 92)
Kogarah, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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