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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Riley, Frederick John (1886–1970)

by Frank Bongiorno

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Frederick John Riley (1886-1970), political activist and trade unionist, was born on 18 May 1886 at Stirling, South Australia, eldest of six children of Frederick Riley, blacksmith, and his wife Susannah, née Williams. His father was a leading trade unionist, a pioneering Labor Party activist and a municipal councillor. Young Fred left Hindmarsh State School at the age of 12 and worked as a labourer in every mainland State except Western Australia.

In Sydney, Riley associated with Harry Holland in socialist agitation. At Wollongong in 1914, while defending the principle of free speech, he ignored a policeman's directive to cease addressing a public meeting and 'move on': he refused to pay the fine, and was gaoled for a week. He moved to Adelaide before settling in Melbourne. In 1916 he became secretary of the Victorian council of the Australian Peace Alliance. A 'large, thick-set man' with a prominent chin, he frequently found himself involved in brawls for leading anti-conscription rallies; he was often fined, even when he tried to protect Vida Goldstein and other women speakers from being attacked by off-duty soldiers.

Riley was a founding member (1918) of the Y Club, a discussion group of socialists and rationalists, which he later served as secretary. In 1919 he took part in the Melbourne waterfront strike. He helped to collect and distribute more than £10,000 in relief, and to negotiate a settlement of the dispute. In a civil ceremony at 362 Little Collins Street, Melbourne, on 27 April 1920 he married Alice Ann Warburton, née Large, a 44-year-old divorcee and fellow organizer of strike relief. After the unions had appointed him (1919) to collect evidence for the Commonwealth royal commission on the basic wage, his career took a crucial turn in 1922 when he became secretary of the Manufacturing Grocers' Employees' Federation of Australia and of its Victorian branch. He proved an effective defender of the interests of a largely female rank and file. According to one observer, he was 'the most subtle and charming propagandist at Melbourne Trades Hall'.

From the mid-1920s Riley was a powerful force in the Victorian labour movement. President of the Trades Hall Council in 1931-32, he was president of the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party in 1941-42. Frank McManus, a Riley protégé, recalled his mentor as 'a wily tactician' who—as chairman of the agenda committee at various conferences—was 'followed like the tail of a comet by delegates who wanted some item on the agenda that Fred did not'. Riley was a member of the Victorian Advisory Committee on Price Fixing (from 1939) and of its successor, the Victorian Prices Decontrol Advisory Committee (until 1954). In January 1942 he was appointed an adviser to (Sir) Douglas Copland, the Commonwealth prices commissioner. A widower from 1940, he married Annie Elliott Warn, a 37-year-old housekeeper, on 17 July 1943 at St Luke's Anglican Church, Fitzroy.

Strongly anti-communist since the 1930s, Riley was one of the delegates of the 'old', right-wing Victorian executive refused admission to the A.L.P.'s federal conference in Hobart in 1955, and one of the few non-Catholics to align himself with the Democratic Labor Party (State president 1960-61). He retired as union secretary in 1961. Between 1913 and 1955 he had made four attempts to enter the New South Wales, Commonwealth and Victorian parliaments, standing once as a socialist, twice as an A.L.P. candidate and once for the D.L.P. Survived by his wife, he died on 2 April 1970 at Reservoir and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $110,713. The political ephemera which Riley had avidly collected is held by the State Library of Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Murray, The Split (Melb, 1970)
  • F. McManus, The Tumult and the Shouting (Adel, 1977)
  • Riley papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Frank Bongiorno, 'Riley, Frederick John (1886–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 15 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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