Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Richard Leo Purcell (1904–1984)

by Moira Scollay

This article was published:

Richard Leo Purcell (1904-1984), political activist and co-operative housing founder, was born on 2 May 1904 at Warragul, Victoria, sixth of seven children of Victorian-born parents Richard Peter Purcell, commission agent, and his wife Mary Emily, née O’Donnell. The family moved around Victoria before settling at Northcote, Melbourne, and Leo had a disrupted education. Leaving St Thomas’s Christian Brothers’ School, Clifton Hill, at about 13, Leo worked as a messenger-boy at the Myer Emporium and then as a roadworker. A fine athlete, he played Australian rules for the Collingwood Football Club seconds and trained runners for the Stawell Gift and other foot races. He also raced greyhounds and dodged the law as a starting-price bookmaker.

Securing a job as a depot-starter with the Melbourne tramways, Purcell became active in the local branch of the Australian Tramway and Motor Omnibus Employees’ Union. On 31 May 1930 at St Mary’s Catholic Church, Thornbury, he married Annie Margaret Mussett. Enlisting in the Citizen Military Forces on 15 July 1940, he served with the Army Pay Corps; he was commissioned as a lieutenant in April 1942. After his demobilisation on 28 July 1945 he became postmaster and shopkeeper at West Thornbury.

Purcell was a grassroots activist in the Australian Labor Party, undertaking formal roles as a branch president, at Thornbury in the 1930s and at Lalor in the 1950s. Between 1937 and 1953 he made several unsuccessful attempts to enter politics at local, State and Federal levels, sometimes losing by a slim margin. In 1945 he became secretary of the ex-servicemen’s committee of the Victorian ALP’s central executive. He was active in the Returned Sailors’, Soldiers’ and Airmens’ Imperial League of Australia. Especially vocal on housing issues, from 1946 to 1955 he hosted the ‘Labor Hour Servicemen’s Question Box’, broadcast over 3KZ. In 1952 he contested ALP preselection for the State seat of Northcote against his friend, the leader of the Opposition John Cain. Some believe that Purcell ran as a ‘grouper’, but his dispute was over a land development. Although allied with the Catholic right of the ALP, he did not join the Democratic Labor Party. He was a stirring orator and spoke his mind, thereby making some political enemies.

Strongly influenced by the ‘distributist school of social Catholicism’, Purcell was the central figure in the creation in 1947—a time of severe housing shortage—of the Peter Lalor Home Building Co-operative Society Ltd. Its aim was ‘better living conditions for the working classes’. With Purcell as chairman (1947-49), the co-operative purchased land near Thomastown, 11.5 miles (18.5 km) north of Melbourne, and laid out plans for a new ‘co-operative world order’, in a garden suburb. Purcell and his family moved into their home at Lalor in 1949. He sold his West Thornbury shop and worked for the co-operative, losing everything when the venture failed financially in 1954. Nonetheless it was one of the most successful co-operative housing developments in Australia.

Purcell later started a timber business and, although declared bankrupt in 1960, he worked as a timber merchant into old age. Survived by his wife and their three sons and two daughters, he died on 31 August 1984 at Ringwood North and was buried in Templestowe cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Labor Call, 2 May 1946, p 6
  • Labour History, May 2007, p 89
  • M. Scollay, ‘Homes for the People’: The Peter Lalor Housing Co-operative, 1947-2004 (PhD thesis, ANU, 2010)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Moira Scollay, 'Purcell, Richard Leo (1904–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 19 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 May, 1904
Warragul, Victoria, Australia


31 August, 1984 (aged 80)
Ringwood, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.