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John Henry O'Neill (1888–1971)

by Quentin Beresford

This article was published:

John Henry O'Neill (1888-1971), trade unionist, was born on 30 August 1888 at Sandy Bay, Tasmania, son of John O'Neill, labourer, and his wife Maria, née Bevis. Educated at St Peter's School, Hobart, Jack was apprenticed in the printing trade and also worked on riverboats, in sawmills and as a fruitpicker. He began his involvement with unionism in 1907 when he joined the Carters and Drivers' Union, becoming honorary assistant and financial secretary next year and member of the relevant wages board when constituted in 1911. On 25 July 1910 at the King Street Independent Church, Hobart, he married Florence Mabel Stead, a carter's daughter.

In the early decades of the twentieth century when Tasmanian unions were generally weak or conservative, O'Neill gained a strong foothold among the small craft-based unions unable to pay full-time officers. He collected secretaryships 'like postage stamps'. State secretary of not only the Carters and Drivers' (1916-42) but the Electrical Trades (1917-53), Storemen and Packers' (1917-51), Gas Employees' (1918-51), Meat Industry Employees' and Miscellaneous Workers' unions, he is best remembered for his work with the State branch of the Federated Confectioner's Union whose membership he greatly increased over twenty-five years as secretary (1944-69). His trade unionism, 'my only religion', cost him his job at least twice.

Active in the Hobart Trades Hall Council from 1917, O'Neill was its secretary in 1927-67 apart from a break, caused by a dispute with its Launceston counterpart, in 1958-62. He was secretary of the Eight Hours Day Committee in 1921-67 and was responsible for the building and later relocation of the Trades Hall premises. Always a rugged fighter for his members' interests, he used his mastery at mustering numbers, skill in committee and his 'full blooded utterances' to improve working conditions and wages. He was involved in the foundation of the Commonwealth Federation of Trade Unions (1923) and was on the Women's Employment and Fair Rents boards.

A radical early in his career, O'Neill mellowed over the years and was long associated with the right wing, especially when he sided with the 'Groupers' in the 1955 split in the Tasmanian branch of the Australian Labor Party. Suspicious of Labor politicians, he was determined to exclude them from union matters; he clashed with most Labor premiers, regarding the Lyons government as useless to workers, and after a row with Albert Ogilvie refused to attend A.L.P. conferences, except briefly in the mid-1950s.

Known to supporters as 'the Colossus' or 'the Doyen', O'Neill was described in 1952 as a 'short, broad, greying man … with rasping voice, crooked chin and thick horn-rimmed glasses'. He was a justice of the peace from 1920 and in 1954-71 an associate commissioner of the Hydro-Electric Commission. Apart from his propensity for political fighting, he was moderate in his habits; his next love after trade unionism was homing pigeons.

O'Neill died at Howrah on 23 January 1971 and was cremated. His wife, son and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. P. Davis, Eighty Years' Labor (Hob, 1983)
  • Papers and Proceedings (Tasmanian Historical Research Association), 28, no 2, June 1981, p 85
  • Mercury (Hobart), 1 Sept 1962, 24 July 1964, 25 Jan 1971, 18, 19 Dec 1985
  • Examiner (Launceston), 24 Feb 1967
  • Herald (Melbourne), 21 Sept 1986
  • University of Tasmania Archives, 01/1, 2, 3, 5.

Citation details

Quentin Beresford, 'O'Neill, John Henry (1888–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 24 May 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

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