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O'Toole, Thomas William (1885–1957)

by Bob James

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Thomas William O'Toole (1885-1957), coalminer, was born on 28 July 1885 at Chester-le-Street, Durham, England, second of nine children of Edward Toole, a Scottish-born coalminer, and his wife Annie, née Dinning, who came from Newcastle upon Tyne. The Tooles emigrated to New South Wales in 1890 and settled in the Hunter Valley. Edward worked at Stockton colliery. Blacklisted because of his industrial activities, he moved with his family to the Fingal area of Tasmania. There Tommy began work as an underground miner. He changed his surname to O'Toole, returned to the South Maitland field about 1901, and was employed in John Brown's colliery at Pelaw Main, a 'Geordie' stronghold.

At St Mary's Anglican Church, West Maitland, on 25 April 1906 O'Toole married Margaret MacMillan; they were to have five sons and two daughters. He served (from 1912) as president of the Pelaw Main miners' lodge. In 1924 he was elected secretary of the lodge, and of its funeral and sick funds, a post he held for thirty years. William (Billy) McBlane, secretary of the Richmond Main miners' lodge, and O'Toole emerged as key spokesmen for the Kurri Kurri community during the 1929-30 lockout. They led a rank-and-file movement against the policy of the Australasian Coal & Shale Employees' (Miners') Federation which sought to confine the dispute to certain mines in the northern district. Challenging the coal-owners' attacks head-on, the O'Toole-McBlane breakaway group called for a general stoppage.

O'Toole and McBlane addressed some of the largest meetings ever seen in the South Maitland area, and won the loyal support of local miners. It was said that 'What Tommy O'Toole and Billy McBlane think today, the whole town of Kurri will think tomorrow'. After fifteen months of industrial action, however, the strikers reluctantly accepted the recommendation of the Miners' Federation to agree to a compromise settlement and resume work. Their backdown was criticized by the Militant Minority Movement, a communist-front organization. During the Depression O'Toole helped to establish the Kurri Kurri Citizens' Relief Committee, and served on the miners' central council and northern board of management. Nominated by the Australian Labor Party for the House of Representatives seat of Hunter in 1939, he stood aside in favour of the incumbent, Rowley James.

Although O'Toole survived two cave-ins at the mines, the second (1942) buried him up to his chest, fractured both his legs and left him with a permanently damaged foot. In 1944 he agreed to be appointed as an industrial officer to investigate coal disputes at Newcastle and Maitland, on the condition that he could retain his membership of the Miners' Federation. His findings were fair and practical, and rarely questioned. Throughout his life he opposed overtime for coalminers, arguing that it kept fellow workers unemployed. He retired in 1954.

In 1955 O'Toole helped the northern executive of the Miners' Federation to resist a new code of working conditions sought by employers. At Kurri Kurri he was an executive-member of the Co-operative Society, and a board-member of the district hospital and the workers' club. He belonged to the Grand United Order of Free Gardeners of Australasia. Survived by his sons, he died on 19 June 1957 at Royal Newcastle Hospital and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Ross, A History of the Miners' Federation of Australia (Syd, 1970)
  • A. Metcalfe, For Freedom and Dignity (Syd, 1988)
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 20 Aug 1924, 24 Mar, 13 Oct 1942, 6 Jan 1943, 26 Oct 1944, 21 July 1957
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26, 27 Oct 1944
  • J. Comerford, 'Tommy O'Toole' (manuscript held by Coalfield Heritage Group Inc, Kurri Kurri, New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Bob James, 'O'Toole, Thomas William (1885–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/otoole-thomas-william-11321/text20213, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 28 July 2021.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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