Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Edward Fitzgerald Russell (1867–1943)

by Charles Fahey

This article was published:

Edward Fitzgerald Russell (1867-1943), trade unionist, was born on 27 June 1867 at Rocky Lead, near Daylesford, Victoria, second child of Henry Russell, an Irish-born teacher, and his wife Maria Louisa, née Doyle, from England. Edward was a compositor when he married Catherine McCoy (1872-1939), a domestic servant, on 24 October 1890 at St Mary's Catholic Church, Dandenong. They had six children. By 1894 the family had moved to Port Melbourne where Edward continued in the printing trade until 1899.

Russell was working as a labourer in 1902 and as a candlemaker in 1904 and 1906. These were difficult years for the family, and he tried his hand as a casual dockhand. In 1907 Kate recalled that he would 'earn 10s. one week, 15s. the next, £1 the next and some weeks more, and some weeks nothing at all'. When he moved to John Kitchen's soap factory, work as a vat man was 'heavy and labourious' but more regular. On only thirty-six shillings per week, it cost her all her husband earned to live and they got by with a little monetary assistance from an aged parent.

In August 1907 Russell was appointed secretary to the Victorian Agricultural Implement Makers' Society. He had no experience in this industry, but was a member of the Victorian Socialist Party, which had strong links with the union. Within a month Russell conducted the society's case in the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration opposing H. V. McKay. When Justice Higgins called for evidence on the cost of living, Russell had to rely on that of assembled trade union leaders and of a few union members' wives, including Kate. In his Harvester judgement, which established the concept of a living wage for a worker and his family, Higgins drew on the evidence of Kate Russell and her battles to economize. Next year, however, the judgement was set aside by the High Court of Australia, Russell had to seek wage increases through wages boards and the union was deeply in debt for its legal fees.

After experiencing frustrating delays in the wages boards, in January 1911 the agricultural implement makers' society declared that all workers in the industry must join the union. McKay led the employers in a lockout. After a bitter and sometimes violent eight weeks, during which free labour was recruited, Russell was forced to compromise and his members went back to work with only minimal wage increases.

Formerly a member of the Labor Party, in 1907 Russell failed to win in Port Melbourne municipal elections as a revolutionary socialist. Rejoining Labor, he was municipal councillor for Port Melbourne in 1912-14 and mayor in 1913. A sometime member of the Industrial Workers of the World, he was Labor candidate for East Gippsland in the Legislative Assembly in 1911 and for Echuca in the House of Representatives in 1919. For the conscription referenda of 1916-17 he helped to organize the 'no' campaign in South Australia. He was president of the Trades Hall Council, Melbourne, in 1918-19.

From 1911, leading a bankrupt trade union, Russell avoided industrial action. By 1925 the union had regained sufficient strength to attempt to win wage increases through the arbitration court, but Justice Sir John Quick rejected his case. Next year Russell failed to convince the court that, because technological change had intensified the pace of work, hours should be reduced. By the late 1920s, unemployment among his members forced Russell to join the manufacturers in demanding increased tariffs on machinery. With mass unemployment among implement makers, in 1930 the finances of the union were again in a parlous state. In January his salary was reduced by £1 per week and his son Roy, who worked for him, was made an honorary assistant. The financial position of the union did not improve and in February 1933 Russell resigned.

Becoming embroiled in a bitter row with his former colleagues, he and his son claimed almost £500 in back pay, while the union executive accused Russell of misappropriating union property. In April 1936 Roy addressed the union on behalf of his father. Stating that his father was destitute, he threatened to take the matter to the press. The executive agreed to pay off the debt at £1 per week and to settle for the balance when the union was in stronger financial position.

Russell became a secretary for local friendly societies and other bodies and was treasurer of the Melbourne Technical College council. A Freemason, he was past master of the Cruffel Lodge, Yarraville. Russell died on 14 August 1943 at his home at Footscray and was buried with his wife in Dandenong cemetery. Two daughters and one son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Bongiorno, The People’s Party (Melb, 1996)
  • C. Fahey and J. Lack, '"We Have to Train Men From Labourers”: The Agricultural Implement Trade 1918-1945’, Journal of Industrial Relations, 42, no 4, Dec 2000, p 551
  • C. Fahey and J. Lack, '"A Kind of Elysium Where Nobody Has Anything Difficult to Do”: H. B. Higgins, H. V. McKay and the Agricultural Implement Makers, 1901-26’, Labour History, no 80, May 2001, p 99
  • Argus (Melbourne), 20 Aug 1914, p 6
  • Age (Melbourne), 16 Aug 1943, p 3
  • Agricultural Implement Makers, minutes, 1906-36 (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • B1958/3, items NN1925 and 22/1925, and series C2274 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Charles Fahey, 'Russell, Edward Fitzgerald (1867–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 23 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


27 June, 1867
Rocky Lead, Victoria, Australia


14 August, 1943 (aged 76)
Footscray, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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