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Ernest Charles O'Dea (1889–1976)

by John Shields

This article was published:

Ernest Charles O'Dea (1889-1976), trade unionist, politician and lord mayor, was born on 19 February 1889 at Armidale, New South Wales, second child of Martin Bernard O'Dea, a native-born bootmaker, and his wife Kate Augusta, née Gillett, who came from London. In 1896 hard times forced the family to move to Camperdown, Sydney. Ernie attended the Christian Brothers' school at Newtown until he was 14. After being employed as a commercial traveller for his family's boot-manufacturing business, he worked in Edward Fay's Pitt Street shoe store. At St Paul's Anglican Church, Canterbury, on 30 June 1909 he married Elsie May Remfry (d.1927); they were to have a son and daughter.

In 1910 O'Dea joined both the State branch of the Shop Assistants' and Warehouse Employees' Federation of Australia and the Camperdown Labor Electoral League. In 1912 he was elected to the union executive. He rose rapidly through the union's ranks, becoming country organizer (1915), assistant secretary (1917) and a delegate (from 1915) to the Labor Council of New South Wales. Active in the anti-conscription campaigns, he founded a union journal and played a prominent role in persuading the union's country branches to amalgamate. In 1919 he was elected general secretary of the union's New South Wales branch. O'Dea served (1921-23) on the Australian Labor Party's State central executive. A delegate to the party's 1921 federal conference in Brisbane, he was among the minority who opposed the 'socialisation objective'. He served as a Labor alderman (1924-27 and 1930-65) on Sydney Municipal (City) Council. Seeking to expand his political influence, he threw his union's support behind the premier in the 1926 challenge to J. T. Lang's leadership of the New South Wales parliamentary Labor Party. On 26 October 1927 at St Benedict's Catholic Church, East Brisbane, he married Johanna Ellen Gleeson, née Elliott (d.1960), a 30-year-old widow.

Developing a solid expertise in industrial law and advocacy, O'Dea represented the shop assistants on an investigation (1937) by the Industrial Commission of New South Wales into employment in department stores, and gained award provisions for equal pay for some male and female shop assistants in large retail stores. Although he was a Langite in the internecine struggles of the late 1930s, he had a strong industrial power base which left him well placed to survive Lang's downfall. In 1939 he joined a deputation to the party's triennial federal conference to seek mediation to end the 'blood-letting' in the New South Wales branch. Reappointed to the A.L.P.'s State executive in 1941, he was elected to the Legislative Council for twelve years in December 1942 and again in November 1954. During World War II he consolidated his influence in the shop assistants' union. As federal secretary-treasurer (from 1942), he worked to strengthen the federal organization, and oversaw the affiliation of the Newcastle, northern New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australian and Tasmanian branches. By 1945 he had emerged as a vehement opponent of communist influence within the unions and as a supporter of the anti-communist industrial groups.

In December 1948 O'Dea was elected lord mayor of Sydney by his fellow aldermen. He revelled in the trappings of his office and entertained such visitors as the archbishop of Canterbury and the film star Maureen O'Hara. During his four years in the post, he visited London to supervise the distribution of proceeds from the Food For Britain Appeal, of which he was an unofficial patron. His administration, however, was characterized by political controversy. His insistence on wearing the robes of office, in defiance of Labor Party practice, spurred opponents in the Labor movement to taunt him with the epithet 'Ermine Ernie'. One of his first acts was to ban the use of the Sydney Town Hall by left-wing unions and political groups; he refused to receive deputations protesting against the ban, and clashed publicly over the matter with the colonial secretary Clive Evatt in November 1950. A member (1935-59) of the Sydney County Council, O'Dea was its president in 1958-59.

While his combative style alienated him increasingly from left-wing and moderate elements, O'Dea saw his support from the 'grouper'-dominated State executive and municipal Labor caucus gradually undermined by internal rivalry and rumours of administrative corruption. He averted defeat at the 1951 mayoral pre-selection meeting on a technicality, and did not seek endorsement in the following year. On his departure from office, his opponents publicly accused him of malpractice in issuing development permits, allocating street vendors' licences and leasing council-owned hotels. O'Dea sued his accusers. A subsequent police investigation into the charges proved inconclusive. Having failed to regain Labor's mayoral nomination at the end of 1953, he ran as an 'outside' candidate in a three-way contest in 1956.

His command of a sizeable block of union votes meant that O'Dea continued as a force in the industrial and political spheres. He remained one of the staunchest supporters of the 'groupers' until the eruptions of 1954. He devoted much of his attention to campaigns for compulsory unionism and equal pay, and against Saturday retail trading and late-night shopping. He was an architect of the compulsory unionism legislation introduced by the Cahill government in 1953. In the early 1960s his intractable opposition to extended trading hours brought him into conflict with Labor premier R. J. Heffron and the party's State executive.

O'Dea retired as an alderman in 1965. While visiting Athens in 1966, he suffered severe cerebral thrombosis. That year he shared first prize of $200,000 in the Sydney Opera House lottery. His term in the Legislative Council expired in 1967. He relinquished leadership of the federal and State branches of the shop assistants' union early in 1968. Known affectionately as 'The Bull', he had a commanding physical presence, an unembellished mode of public address, and an abiding commitment to the principles and practices of Catholic social conservatism and trade-union mateship. He belonged to the New South Wales National Coursing Association, and enjoyed walking and playing bowls. Survived by the son of his first marriage, and by his stepdaughter and the son of his second, O'Dea died on 2l November 1976 at St George Hospital, Kogarah, and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Kane, Exploding the Myths (Syd, 1989)
  • S. Fitzgerald, Sydney 1842-1992 (Syd, 1992)
  • People (Sydney), 24 Oct 1951, p 29
  • Nation (Sydney), 1 July 1961
  • Shop Assistant of Australia, June 1967
  • Voice (Sydney), Jan 1977
  • Australian Worker, 27 Nov 1919
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 19 Dec 1948, 11 Dec 1953, 13 June 1957
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Dec 1949, 21, 23, 28 Nov 1950, 3 Nov 1951, 6 Dec 1952, 7 Nov, 12 Dec 1953, 20 Sept 1956, 5 Nov 1967, 23 Nov 1976
  • O'Dea papers, CRS 817 (Sydney City Council Archives).

Citation details

John Shields, 'O'Dea, Ernest Charles (1889–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


19 February, 1889
Armidale, New South Wales, Australia


21 November, 1976 (aged 87)
Kogarah, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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