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John Abel McPherson (1860–1897)

by Suzanne Edgar

This article was published:

John Abel McPherson (1860-1897), printer and politician, was born on 28 January 1860 at Aberdeen, Scotland, son of Ann McPherson, domestic servant. Educated at St Paul's Street School and the mechanics' institute, he was apprenticed with the Free Press Printing & Publishing Co. In 1881 he married Mary Ann Wight. McPherson belonged to the Scottish Typographical Association and in 1882 he and his wife migrated to Adelaide where he joined the South Australian Typographical Society, of which he was president in 1893-95. He worked for J. H. Sherring & Co., printers, and later joined the composing staff of the South Australian Register. In 1889 McPherson left the newspaper during a strike over the right of employees to join the union. He was unemployed for some time before finding work with Vardon & Pritchard.

In 1890 he became honorary secretary of the United Trades and Labour Council. McPherson organized the building and management of the Trades Hall (opened 1896) and was an effective conciliator in disputes between employers and butchers, drivers, tanners and carriers, and maritime workers over shorter hours and wage regulation. In 1891 he was at the U.T.L.C. meeting which formed an elections committee; this became the United Labor Party and McPherson was its founding secretary.

Next February he won a by-election for East Adelaide and became the first Labor member of the House of Assembly, proudly noting the part taken by typographical societies in all colonies in achieving wage-earners' election to parliament. In his maiden speech McPherson deplored coloured immigration, noted the hundreds of unemployed in city and country, and advocated opening up the land to smallholders and a progressive land tax. He accused Chief Secretary C. C. Kingston of conservatism and threatened to withdraw support, saying that he would pursue Labor policy whichever side of the House introduced bills that approximated to it. Re-elected in 1893, McPherson chaired the growing Parliamentary Labor Party with tact and scrupulous attention to detail.

In 1892 he had sat on the shops and factories commission that recommended consolidation and simplification of the Health Act and new laws to cover factories and working conditions. But he was unsuccessful as a dogged presenter of petitions and spearhead of pressure for an early closing law. One of the first secretaries of the Working Women's Trade Union (formed 1890), in 1893-94 he supported moves that gave women the vote.

McPherson's recognition of the need for a labour newspaper dated from the Register strike; he was on the managing committee of the company that from 1894 produced the Weekly Herald. From 1896 he was a member of the State Children's Council. Next year he spoke frequently in the House on Federation, to which he gave characteristically cautious support, from a democratic standpoint; he feared the power of the Senate. McPherson was admired by peers and colleagues of all views for his honest, broad-minded approach. He disliked ostentation and lived plainly, with little leisure, but he loved poetry.

By August 1897 he was ill, with cancer. In early December he called for his boyhood friend James Hutchison. 'I never truckled to anyone', he said, 'Tell the boys to pull together'. He died on the thirteenth. One thousand mourners, led by members of the typographical society and the W.W.T.U., followed his coffin to West Terrace cemetery. A memorial fund to assist his wife, three daughters and son collected £600. An oil portrait by Mrs E. Anson was presented to the Trades Hall and an inscription from Robert Browning carved on his tombstone:

'One who never turned his back but marched breast forward …'

Select Bibliography

  • D. J. Murphy (ed), Labor in Politics (Brisb, 1975)
  • Australasian Typographical Journal, Mar 1890, Feb, Nov 1892, Dec 1897, Jan, May 1898
  • Quiz and the Lantern, 5 Feb 1892, 26 Mar 1896, 16 Dec 1897
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 14, 15 Dec 1897
  • Weekly Herald (Adelaide), 17 Dec 1897
  • Observer (Adelaide), 18 Dec 1897
  • South Australian Typographical Society, minute book (deposit E92 series 1/2, 1/3, 1/5, Australian National University Archives)
  • Arch. 1348, p 72 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar, 'McPherson, John Abel (1860–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 19 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, 1860
Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scotland


13 December, 1897 (aged 37)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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