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Thomas Ryan (1870–1943)

by Geoff Browne

This article was published:

Thomas Ryan (1870-1943), railway worker, estate agent, trade unionist and politician, was born on 9 January 1870, probably in Ireland, son of Thomas Ryan, labourer. Much of his early life is obscure. When Thomas was three months old his parents arrived in South Africa where his father worked as a navvy. Orphaned at 9, Thomas reputedly went to sea. By his own account he 'came from a walk in life in which god-fathers were not generally found'.

About 1890 Ryan settled in South Australia and found employment in the Milang district. A dedicated self-improver, he was a prominent member of model parliaments and literary and musical societies, and won numerous debating prizes. He also became active in the labour movement. Ryan worked as a porter in the South Australian Railways in 1897-1906, resigning to contest unsuccessfully the State seat of Wooroora for Labor. He then formed a partnership with E. J. Hosking, an Adelaide bookseller and stationer. From 1908 Hosking and Ryan operated as real estate agents, specializing in farm properties. On 18 April 1900 at Port Pirie Ryan had married Minnie Moffit, daughter of a Churches of Christ minister.

In 1909 Ryan narrowly won the East Torrens by-election for the Labor Party. Defeated in 1912 for Alexandra, he returned to the assembly as member for Sturt in 1915. Ryan's powers of expression made him a 'strong stimulating force' in parliament. His special interest was education, and he argued vehemently that expansion of technical education was 'essential to national efficiency'. He initiated and chaired a select committee and royal commission on the University of Adelaide (1910), which became a royal commission into all aspects of education (1911-13). In October 1914 the Peake government commissioned him to report on the New Zealand education system. In 1915 Ryan assailed his own party, alleging that the Vaughan ministry had ignored the recommendations of the royal commission.

Ryan held important union offices: he was president of the State branch of the Tramway Employees' Association in 1911-14; in 1913-14 he was president of the Trades and Labor Council and founding president of the Grand Council of Federated Labor Councils. Throughout his career he opposed the use of the strike.

A fervent conscriptionist, Ryan broke with the Labor Party in 1917 and became a Nationalist. The 'fiery little man with the fighting chin' was much in demand as a speaker during the referendum campaigns. Late in 1917 he moved to Victoria and after a bitter contest won the assembly seat of Essendon from Maurice Blackburn, whom he described as a 'traitor to the working classes'. Ryan did not resign his South Australian seat until the day after his election for Essendon. He joined the Australian Imperial Force in June 1918 and went to England as a sergeant in the Victorian Railway Unit but arrived after the Armistice. He travelled through the United States of America before his return to Australia in April 1919.

In the Victorian parliament Ryan was one of the 'metropolitan liberals', a group often at odds with the country-dominated ministries of the period. (Sir) Frederic Eggleston described him as a 'blatherskite … with a consuming greed both for money and publicity'. Defeated in 1924, he spent six months touring England. When he returned in 1925 he unsuccessfully contested the Federal seat of Ballarat.

Ryan had been an Unley city councillor in 1916-17. He chaired the Workers' Educational Association in South Australia, the New Settlers' League in Victoria, the South Australian Kennel Association, the Essendon branch of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia and was president of the Sturt (Adelaide) Football Club. Though he also founded the British Empire League in Victoria, it reputedly 'existed only at lunches at Menzies [Hotel], presided over by Ryan'. Rose-growing was his recreation.

From 1923 to about 1927 Ryan was chairman of the Northern Newspapers Publishing Co., publishers of the Essendon Gazette and the Flemington Spectator. He then attempted a political comeback, contesting a by-election for the assembly seat of Brighton in 1928 when he lost his deposit. Subsequently he advertised as a company attorney, real estate and general agent, but his principal source of employment was probably the Sydney entrepreneur Hugh McIntosh. At his death in the Hotel Australia, Sydney, on 22 November 1943 Ryan was described as a parliamentary agent. Survived by two sons, he was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • T. H. Smeaton, The People in Politics (Adel, 1914)
  • Parliamentary Debates (South Australia), 1909, p 711, 1911-12, p 4, 1915, p 957
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1910 (113), 1911-12 (27), (106), 1912 (27), 1913 (75)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 4 Mar 1911, 12, 15 Nov 1913, 17 Nov 1917, 24 Nov 1943
  • Register (Adelaide), 29 Mar 1915
  • Essendon Gazette, 27 Sept 1917, 27 June, 5 Sept 1918, 9, 15 May 1919, 31 July, 21 Aug 1924, 26 Feb, 9 Apr 1925
  • Punch (Melbourne), 14 Feb 1918
  • Argus (Melbourne), 20 Aug 1924
  • Ballarat Courier, 7 Nov 1925
  • Southern Cross (Melbourne), 14, 28 Apr 1928
  • Herald (Melbourne), 24 Nov 1943
  • F. W. Eggleston, Confidential Notes (Australian National University Library).

Citation details

Geoff Browne, 'Ryan, Thomas (1870–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 17 June 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]


9 January, 1870


22 November, 1943 (aged 73)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.