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Sir James O'Grady (1866–1934)

by Michael Roe

This article was published:

James O'Grady (1866-1934), by Beatties Studios

James O'Grady (1866-1934), by Beatties Studios

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H22635

Sir James O'Grady (1866-1934), governor, was born on 6 May 1866 at Bristol, England, son of Irish parents John O'Grady, labourer, and his wife Margaret, who reared him in his lifelong Catholic faith. Starting work at 10, after attending St Mary's Roman Catholic School, Bristol, he tried various jobs before training as a cabinetmaker. In the 1890s he became a labour activist, showing ebullience and skill. President of the Trades Union Congress in 1898, he was forthright in his socialism and after election to the House of Commons in 1906 showed much interest in Imperial and foreign affairs; he fervently upheld the war effort from 1914.

In April 1917 the British government entrusted O'Grady with a mission to persuade Kerensky to keep Russia in the war. In 1919, with greater success, he negotiated with the Bolsheviks for exchange of prisoners and when the MacDonald government came to power in early 1924 report suggested that he might be the first British ambassador to the Soviet Union.

Instead he became governor of Tasmania, the first Labour appointment of a Labour man to such office. Contemporary Australia saw hostility between the Australian Labor Party and its opponents on such matters, the former urging local appointments; a further complication was Tasmania's poverty, which forbade increase of the governor's salary. O'Grady accepted the post only after lengthy negotiation specified that his social responsibilities would be modest. Appointed K.C.M.G., he arrived in Tasmania in late December. His wife Louisa, née James, whom he had married at Bristol on 30 July 1887 and by whom he had ten children, was an invalid, dying in England in 1929. A daughter, Margaret, accompanied O'Grady to Tasmania and acted as hostess for most of his term.

The nature of the society increased sensitivity to a governor of O'Grady's Catholic-Labour background. The Hobart Mercury spoke of Sir James with a strange mix of condescension and respect. O'Grady wrote in January 1926 that 'the quite natural uneasiness of a section of the community at my appointment' seemingly had disappeared; this had notes both unctuous and wrong. The major 'incident' of his term came in December: O'Grady applauded a bill exempting schools from rates; the Mercury and the Legislative Council had opposed it, aware that Catholics would benefit most and the council debated O'Grady's statement.

Reference to the council's obduracy was the most explicit political theme in the governor's reports. He preferred to emphasize his advocacy of economic development. While stressing that industrial growth alone could check emigration, he also urged better farming techniques (Government House pigs won show-prizes). He chided Tasmania's wealthy for investing elsewhere, timber interests for profligacy, and small farmers for resistance to co-operative marketing. Another faint echo of radicalism sounded in his plaint that 'bounders' deluded 'our simple honest islanders' into subscribing capital for phoney enterprises. His warmest praise was for the heroic resilience evoked by the floods of March 1929. Less happy was O'Grady's depiction of Cape Barren Islanders as mixed-breed degenerates—yet his report testified to their self-image as 'descendants of the original owners of Tasmania' with its corollary that 'all the white people … are usurpers'.

Overall O'Grady developed a mildly distinctive style. His affability, travels and interests all spread wide. At his departure in December 1930 expressions of goodwill were general and apparently sincere. Soon after, O'Grady became governor of the Falkland Islands. The post offered little, his health worsened and he died in London on 10 December 1934.

Select Bibliography

  • Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Peter Ross Eldershaw 1927-1967 (Hob, 1968)
  • J. M. Bellamy and J. Saville (eds), Dictionary of Labour Biography, vol 2 (Lond, 1974)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 12 Dec 1934
  • Governor's Office, series 75 and Premier's Dept, file 110 annually (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Michael Roe, 'O'Grady, Sir James (1866–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 13 April 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

James O'Grady (1866-1934), by Beatties Studios

James O'Grady (1866-1934), by Beatties Studios

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H22635

Life Summary [details]


6 May, 1866
Bristol, Gloucestershire, England


10 December, 1934 (aged 68)
London, Middlesex, England

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