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John Mullan (1871–1941)

by Joy Guyatt

This article was published:

John Mullan (1871-1941), by Swiss Studios, 1910s

John Mullan (1871-1941), by Swiss Studios, 1910s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23378228

John Mullan (1871-1941), public servant, union organizer and politician, was born on 8 September 1871 at Loughlinstown, Dublin, son of John Ponsonby Mullan and his wife Mary, née Stanley. His parents died during his childhood and he was cared for by relatives. He was educated at National and private schools in Dublin.

Arriving in Melbourne in 1888, Mullan worked for two years as a clerk before going to Queensland. There he briefly became a railway maintenance worker, then a letter carrier and postal assistant in the Post and Telegraph Department, Charters Towers, before joining the Government Savings Bank there. He married Mary Ellen Farrelly, a miner's daughter, in St Columba's Catholic Church, Charters Towers, on 11 September 1895.

Mullan was a miners' union organizer in 1905-06, secretary of the Amalgamated Workers' Association (later Amalgamated Workers' Union) in 1912-13, and general organizer for the Queensland central executive of the Australian Labor Party in 1917. He attended Labor-in-Politics conventions in 1910 and 1920-38 and was a convention delegate to the central executive in 1920-23 and 1926-41.

After failing to win a by-election for the seat of Charters Towers in 1905 and Townsville in 1907, he won Charters Towers in 1908. His defeat in 1912 was attributed to an electoral redistribution and the general strike. Elected to the Senate for Queensland in 1913 and 1914, Mullan was on the executive of the Parliamentary Labor Party in 1916-17. An anti-conscriptionist, he lost his seat largely because of the way the 1917 Senate vote was counted. In 1918 he won the State seat of Flinders, merged after 1932 in the new Carpentaria electorate, which he held until his retirement from politics in 1940.

Mullan was in turn parliamentary whip (1909-12), minister without portfolio (1919-20) and attorney-general (from 12 November 1920 to 21 May 1929 and 17 June 1932 to 14 November 1940). His long term as attorney-general was interrupted when the Moore government won office. A close friend and valued counsellor of Premier Forgan Smith and acting premier on many occasions, Mullan was a capable, fair-minded minister who gave no quarter in debate but who had few enemies. It was said that his many successful reforms to the State legal system were possible because he did not belong to the legal profession. He had a personal library on legal subjects and was well respected by lawyers and officials of the Justice Department for his common-sense analysis of the advice he received. His speeches in parliament were based on a sound understanding of the matters being debated. His belief that major and lasting reforms could be achieved by Labor in power never flagged.

A small man with a shock of black hair, a high forehead and bright eyes, he was known as Johnny Mullan and, affectionately by public servants in the Justice Department, as 'the little man in the brown suit'. Speaking of himself as the only attorney-general who was neither an attorney nor a general, he was the first of a line of attorneys-general in Queensland without legal qualifications. After his health began to decline, Mullan spent much time at his house at Surfers' Paradise where he refused to install a telephone, saying that if the premier really wanted him the police would let him know. He died in the Mater Misericordiae Private Hospital, Brisbane, on 1 October 1941, survived by his wife, three sons and six daughters. A requiem Mass at St Stephen's Cathedral was followed by a state funeral to Toowong cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • C. A. Bernays, Queensland—Our Seventh Political Decade, 1920-1930 (Syd, 1931)
  • J. Larcombe, Notes on the Political History of the Labour Movement in Queensland (Brisb, 1934)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1941, p 569
  • Australian Law Journal, 15, 1941, p 196
  • Daily Mail (Brisbane), 30 Sept 1924
  • Worker (Brisbane), 14 Jan 1941
  • Truth (Brisbane), 19 Jan 1941
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 2 Oct 1941
  • Mullan papers (Queensland State Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Joy Guyatt, 'Mullan, John (1871–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 19 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

John Mullan (1871-1941), by Swiss Studios, 1910s

John Mullan (1871-1941), by Swiss Studios, 1910s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23378228

Life Summary [details]


8 September, 1871
Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


1 October, 1941 (aged 70)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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