Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas O'Sullivan (1856–1953)

by Brian F. Stevenson

This article was published:

Thomas O'Sullivan (1856-1953), politician and judge, was born on 13 December 1856 at Ipswich, Queensland, son of Irish parents Patrick O'Sullivan, storekeeper and politician, and his wife Mary, née Real. Educated at the state school and St Mary's Catholic school at Ipswich, in 1873 Thomas was employed by and later articled to Charles Frederick Chubb, solicitor, of Ipswich. Two years later he was articled in Brisbane to Robert Little, but when his elder brother James died in 1877 he returned to Ipswich to supervise his legal business. On 13 September 1878 he was admitted as a solicitor.

O'Sullivan married Rosanna (Rose) Mellin (d.1937) at St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, on 20 January 1886. He moved from Ipswich to Brisbane that year, after forming a partnership with Charles Bertram, son of Sir Charles Lilley. When the partners separated O'Sullivan carried on his business while studying for the Bar, to which he was admitted on 20 March 1900. He specialized in insolvency cases and later co-authored The Insolvency Law and Practice of Queensland (Brisbane, 1910).

After unsuccessfully contesting the State electorate of Stanley in 1899, in September 1903 O'Sullivan 'gratefully accepted' (Sir) Arthur Morgan's offer of a Legislative Council seat and a ministry without portfolio; he became government leader in the council. As president of the Queensland Irish Association, O'Sullivan believed Morgan had chosen him as a representative of the Irish community.

At the suggestion of his friend William Kidston who succeeded Morgan as premier, O'Sullivan resigned from the council in January 1906 to contest and narrowly win Morgan's former seat of Warwick in the assembly. In Kidston's cabinet he became secretary for public works and for agriculture. In August 1907 he introduced a bill to establish the first wages boards in Queensland but it was drastically amended by the council. Kidston tried to appoint additional councillors to pass this and the elections bill but the governor, Lord Chelmsford, refused. Kidston resigned and a general election was held in February 1908. O'Sullivan lost his marginal rural seat and attributed this to the fear that farming would be brought under wages board legislation.

Having been loyal in Kidston's cabinet, he was soon reappointed to the council and served briefly as secretary for agriculture until appointed attorney-general in October 1908, a position he held also under Denham until June 1915. He was appointed K.C. in 1911. After the Brisbane general strike of 1912 O'Sullivan helped to formulate the industrial peace bill which, when passed, established an industrial court with far greater powers than the wages boards (although these were continued) and prohibited strikes and lock-outs in public utilities except under certain conditions.

On 9 December 1915 O'Sullivan was simultaneously appointed a District Court judge and chairman of the newly formed Central Sugar Cane Prices Board. When the District Court was abolished in 1922 he became a Supreme Court judge. He also served as a chairman of the Land Appeal Court and on the Court of Industrial Arbitration. He retired in December 1926.

Although a conservative, O'Sullivan was associated with some legislation for social and industrial reform. His unpublished, undated memoirs 'Reminiscences of the Queensland parliament, 1903-1915' (written in the late 1940s) reveal a shrewd observer who was dissatisfied with the political party system. He was sometime president of the Johnsonian Club and a member of the Constitutional Club.

O'Sullivan was the oldest Q.C. in Australia when he died in Brisbane on 22 February 1953. Survived by three sons and two daughters, he was buried with Catholic rites in Toowong cemetery after a state funeral.

Select Bibliography

  • Notable Men of Queensland (Brisb, 1950)
  • D. J. Murphy, T. J. Ryan (Brisb, 1975)
  • D. J. Murphy and R. B. Joyce (eds), Queensland Political Portraits 1859-1952 (Brisb, 1978)
  • R. Johnston, History of the Queensland Bar (Brisb, 1979)
  • Pugh's Almanac, 1912
  • Australian Sugar Journal, 16 Mar 1953
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 27 Mar 1907, 23 Feb 1953
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 13 Dec 1946.

Citation details

Brian F. Stevenson, 'O'Sullivan, Thomas (1856–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 18 July 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

Life Summary [details]


13 December, 1856
Ipswich, Queensland, Australia


22 February, 1953 (aged 96)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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