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Broughton Barnabas O'Conor (1868–1953)

by G. E. Sherington

This article was published:

Broughton Barnabas O'Conor (1868-1953), by unknown photographer, 1908

Broughton Barnabas O'Conor (1868-1953), by unknown photographer, 1908

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 11338

Broughton Barnabas O'Conor (1868-1953), barrister and politician, was born on 1 November 1868 at Numba, Shoalhaven district, New South Wales, fifth child of Irish parents John O'Connor, catechist and later Church of England clergyman, and his wife Anne, née Connolly. As a child he lived at Guyong, Hill End, Cobar, Sutton Forest and Kurrajong, where his father took up charges. The family moved to Sydney in 1883 and from 1885 O'Conor attended Sydney Grammar School, where he excelled at cricket and football, and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1892; LL.B., 1895). He was admitted to the Bar on 9 March 1895 and practised from chambers in Wentworth Court. At St James' Anglican Church, Smithfield, he married Icey Britannia Johnson Barber on 25 April 1901; they lived at Killara.

Defeated as an independent free trader in 1895, O'Conor was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Sherbrooke for (Sir) Edmund Barton's National Federal Party in 1898, and held the seat as an Independent in 1901 and a Liberal in 1904. Known affectionately as 'B.B.' in the House, he 'was a towering figure of large proportions, a forceful debater with a gift for telling a good story'. (Sir) Henry Manning recalled that during O'Conor's 'early years his personality was so outstanding that, without conscious effort, he drew to him prominent people who admired his genial disposition [and] fertile intellect'. In 1904-07, as minister of public instruction and minister for labour and industry, O'Conor was the youngest member of (Sir) Joseph Carruthers' ministry. He presided over educational reform in New South Wales in the wake of the Knibbs-J. W. Turner royal commission on education. In January 1905 Peter Board was appointed first director of education. It was Board who initiated most of the changes of 1905-07, including the establishment of Teachers' College, Sydney, in 1905-06, but O'Conor piloted through parliament the Free Education Act of 1906 which abolished fees in primary schools.

O'Conor resigned his portfolios on 13 May 1907 and did not contest the September election. Next year he was nominated to the Legislative Council. As chairman of committees in 1912-34, he was always dignified and 'a master in the art of smoothing out difficulties in the usual party comings and goings and in removing troubles that beset legislations'. He was acting president of the council for two months in 1928-29. A member of the National and later the United Australia parties, he was elected to the reconstituted Legislative Council for six years in December 1933.

A member of sundry select committees, O'Conor served on the royal commissions into the case of William Cresswell, a Tichborne claimant, in 1900, and on the question of legalizing and regulating the totalizator in 1912; he signed the minority report recommending its introduction. He was a government representative on the Senate of the University of Sydney in 1923-34, but took little part in its discussions. He continued to practise at the Bar until 1930 and was a director of Parramatta and Granville Electric Supply Co. Ltd, Electric Light and Power Supply Corporation Ltd, Toohey's Ltd and Toohey's Standard Securities Ltd.

A practising Freemason, O'Conor died on 2 February 1953 at Darlinghurst and was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife and two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. R. Crane and W. G. Walker, Peter Board (Melb, 1957)
  • Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1911-12, 4, 1912, 4
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1953, p 1, 47
  • Australian Field, 17 Sept 1904
  • Senate minutes, 1923-34 (University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

G. E. Sherington, 'O'Conor, Broughton Barnabas (1868–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Broughton Barnabas O'Conor (1868-1953), by unknown photographer, 1908

Broughton Barnabas O'Conor (1868-1953), by unknown photographer, 1908

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 11338

Life Summary [details]


1 November, 1868
Numbaa, New South Wales, Australia


2 February, 1953 (aged 84)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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