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Thomas Joseph (Tom) Ryan (1876–1921)

by W. Ross Johnston and D. J. Murphy

This article was published:

Thomas Joseph Ryan, c.1920

Thomas Joseph Ryan, c.1920

National Library of Australia, 24096100

Thomas Joseph (Tom) Ryan (1876-1921), premier and barrister, was born on 1 July 1876 at Boothapool, near Port Fairy, Victoria, fifth of six children of Timothy Joseph Ryan, an illiterate Irish labourer who had migrated to Victoria in 1860 and become a small farmer, and his Irish wife Jane, née Cullen (d.1883). Tom's father shared his keen interest in politics with his family but was himself never politically active.

From the Pretty Hill State School Tom won a scholarship to St Francis Xavier College, Melbourne. At 14 he transferred for financial reasons to South Melbourne College and paid his way as a pupil-teacher until he matriculated at the University of Melbourne where he completed an arts degree (B.A., 1897). He then studied law while teaching classics at the Church Grammar School, Launceston, Tasmania, as 'a splendid teacher of Latin' and 'more Christian than the ordinary school master'. He completed his law degree at the University of Melbourne externally with an extra subject (LL.B., 1899) while teaching classics at Maryborough Grammar School, Queensland, in 1899-1900. In 1901-03 he was second master at Rockhampton Grammar School, having been admitted to the Queensland Bar in December 1901.

Slowly his legal practice grew. Ryan's advocacy in workers' compensation cases was building his reputation among the trade unions and awakened him politically. In May 1903 he joined the Rockhampton Political Association and on 3 June became president of the Rockhampton branch of the Australian Natives' Association. At the Federal elections of 1903 he stood for Capricornia—as a candidate of Deakinite liberal persuasion (an inheritance from his Victorian years) although his platform was very close to that of the Labor Party. After being soundly beaten in a three-way contest by Labor, Ryan joined the Labor Party in 1904. He gained endorsement in the State elections of that year, but as part of a coalition agreement his candidature was withdrawn. At the 1907 State elections he stood for Rockhampton as an unendorsed Labor candidate, in a period of party confusion. Accused of fence-sitting and opportunism, and caught up in a badly conducted campaign, Ryan failed yet again to win political honours.

Although contemplating standing for Federal parliament, in 1909 the politically ambitious Ryan settled upon Labor endorsement for the western State seat of Barcoo. His name was becoming familiar among shearers and the Australian Workers' Union because of his advocacy of their legal cases. Although highly educated and suspect among many of the rank and file, Ryan impressed ordinary unionists by his capacity to reduce complex legal questions to simple arguments that anyone could understand: 'words should be used that would not only be understood, but which could not be misunderstood'. In 1909 he easily won Barcoo, and had no trouble retaining it through the rest of his career in State politics, even though for most of those years he resided in Brisbane. In the House his intellect and background in law soon established for him a prominent place as an Opposition debater, eager and efficient in jousting and parrying with conservative politicians such as (Sir) Edward Macartney. At the same time his popular standing in central Queensland and elsewhere in the State was growing, partly through his ownership of the Rockhampton Daily Record from 1910; his grazier friend Tom Purcell later bought the paper but allowed Ryan to exercise his editorial voice. Ryan also appeared as an Australian nationalist in these years, arguing strongly for the Federal cause in the referenda of 1911 and 1913 to increase the Commonwealth parliament's powers to control and regulate monopolies. Combating monopolies became an integral part of Ryan's political philosophy. And he also unabashedly spoke up for a white Australia.

By 1912 Ryan looked like a leader, as evidenced by his role in the general strike and State elections of that year. His political ideas firmed. He favoured the establishment of a system of arbitration and conciliation, and of state-owned enterprises to compete with monopolies. Gradually he overcame the unfavourable image held of him by some labour rank and file as a political opportunist and academic. In July 1912, after an exhaustive ballot, he defeated William Lennon for the deputy leadership of the party and in September, on the resignation of David Bowman, he was unanimously elected leader.

Over the next two years, with firm supporters such as Edward Theodore and John Hunter, Ryan deliberately set the party upon the course of electoral victory in 1915. The rural vote in dairying and sugar areas was consciously wooed. He set out plans to give primary producers a better deal, at the same time suggesting controls over high food prices (in particular meat). He also championed the public service, while the Catholic vote was swinging increasingly towards Labor; Ryan himself was a Catholic and a good friend of Archbishop (Sir) James Duhig. At the Labor-in-Politics Convention of 1913 Ryan had stressed Labor's national scope, that it was a party open to all classes: to professional men, farmers, clerks, labourers. With Digby Denham's Liberal government in decay, Labor, operating a well-organized machine, easily won the May 1915 elections and Ryan became premier, chief secretary and attorney-general, positions he held until 22 October 1919. He also briefly covered several other ministries.

World War I had brought on a crisis in supply and price of basic foods like butter, flour and meat. Ryan's government immediately tackled this problem, drawing upon concepts of state acquisition, fixed prices, orderly marketing and embargoes on export. As to sugar, the state acquired the whole crop and made arrangements with the Federal government for its disposal within Australia and overseas. Prices boards were set up to regulate fair returns to growers and to check the demands of millers (especially the Colonial Sugar Refining Co.). The mechanism used to bring order and justice to this industry was applied to other economic sectors. In the face of dogged opposition from milling and other interests in the sugar industry, the government had to persist with negotiations and regulations to protect the growers.

Ryan's government laid the foundations of the Labor rule of Queensland from 1915 to 1929 and 1932 to 1957. Major reforms in labour and industrial relations as well as a new deal for primary producers were hallmarks of his administration. With the help of John Fihelly and Thomas McCawley, Ryan promoted and drafted the workers' compensation bill, creating the State Government Insurance Office which had a monopoly over such claims; despite Upper House obstruction the Act came into effect in 1915. Ryan also set up the Public Curator's Office. State enterprises to provide competition especially to monopolies were established—butcher shops, pastoral stations, sawmills, coal-mines, a fishery and a hotel. But Ryan was frustrated by financial considerations in implementing his dream of establishing a state iron and steel works, and likewise failed to establish a state shipping line. And most of the enterprises established to curb the power of Australian capitalism, proved difficult to operate in the interwar years and were later sold off or disbanded.

A 'fair deal for everyone' was evident in Ryan's concern for the welfare of primary industries. As the small farmer was the person most buffeted by processors and the international market, Ryan sought to provide security and an adequate return so as to keep people on the land. The State Produce Agency was a step in that direction. The greatest success came in moving towards a stable, rational structure for sugar-growers, but the groundwork was laid for other farming activities upon which later Labor administrations built. To facilitate the building of railways to country areas his government removed the guarantees that local communities were required to make for new lines.

Ryan's administration had become very much a new broom. He himself appeared 'a great leader of political cavalry charges to sweep the country'. Much of the work was carried out by his able lieutenants. Theodore, for example, established state-operated labour exchanges as the beginning of a scheme to tackle problems of unemployment. He also provided for the inspection of all shops and factories. The Golden Casket lottery was set up to raise funds during the war: its profits later became a source of hospital and welfare funding. The administration, however, was not one of unalloyed success. Achievements in education were very modest as Labor stressed equality of opportunity at a basic level and neglected advances at a higher level. Labor's concern for the Aboriginal situation was almost zero.

Although there were many groups such as the Six O'Clock Closing League who opposed Labor in the 1918 elections, Ryan conducted a very vigorous campaign pointing out his government's successes in the face of much obstruction. He was warmly endorsed by the electorate, achieving the highest percentage of the formal vote ever recorded by Labor in a State election. More country seats were won, demonstrating the success of his rural policies.

Yet the conservative opposition remained. Throughout, Ryan had to combat a truculent Legislative Council, especially in legislation over workers' compensation and the control of meatworks. From 1915 therefore he was formally proposing that the council be abolished. A referendum to decide the issue was held in 1917. The timing was bad as a Federal election, conscription and local-option polls clouded the issue, and the vote was lost. The Upper House continued to be obstructive, rejecting money bills, returning popular initiative and referendum bills (which would have facilitated abolition), throwing out amendments to the Land Act (which were intended to increase rentals). Ryan made thirteen Labor appointments to the council in 1917 but the governor refused to 'stack' it further. After his electoral success the following year, Ryan again tried to legislate for the Council's abolition, and again it was shelved in the Upper House. Success came only after his death.

The conscription issue attracted to Ryan considerable opprobrium from conservative quarters. From 1915 he threw his weight behind the effort to defeat Germany, through the recruiting drive and in the assured supply of meat to Britain. In 1916 he was negotiating for state purchase of the Chillagoe copper mines, smelters and railway, so that the mines could be opened to help the war effort. That year he also visited Australian troops at the front, where he began to see and hear reasons against compulsory enlistment. In 1916 the labour movement in Queensland came out firmly opposed to conscription and Billy Hughes's stand. Ryan supported the plea for reinforcements, but only on a voluntary basis. As the only premier in Australia opposing conscription he came under great pressure; elsewhere Labor parties split over the issue, but Ryan was able to hold together his organization despite numerous charges of disloyalty and treachery.

Although he tried not to play a leading part in the first conscription referendum (1916), Ryan's stand led to a serious breach with Hughes. This was intensified in the second referendum in 1917 when he came out as a leading opponent of conscription. It became partly a nasty personality-power brawl, exacerbated by generally strained relations between Queensland and the Commonwealth over issues such as the price of sugar, control of meat exports, power over coastal shipping and industrial disputes. There had already been many long fights with Hughes over stabilizing the sugar industry and fixing a fair price for growers. On the conscription issue Ryan spoke widely, being acknowledged as the de facto leader of its opponents. He sought to elude Hughes's censorship measures by the publication of a special issue of Hansard, but the printing office was raided by Commonwealth officers. Hughes accused Ryan of conspiracy and took him to trial; Ryan replied with contempt charges. Bitter dissension was raised throughout the whole community, but there was an even larger 'No' majority for conscription than in the previous year.

'Imperialist-conscriptionist' groups became determined opponents of Ryan and his Labor policies. They were joined by other conservative groups—large landholders and merchants, big companies, many judicial personnel—who sought to characterize the Ryan administration as being socialist, even 'bolshie', and accused it of making a radical attack upon capitalism. Other critics arose among temperance groups and many Protestant organizations, who pointed to strong Labor-Catholic links. More extreme allegations were also made: Ryan was called a stooge of the Industrial Workers of the World, a tool of Sinn Fein, a friend of Germany (and later of the Bolsheviks).

Mindful of the problem which frequently plagued Labor premiers, Ryan always strenuously sought to avoid splits between the politicians and trade unionists. Although he did not have a union background and his life-style was very middle class (such as employing a maid) he looked very much to trade union support and trust. He believed that the arbitration system—backed up with welfare proposals—would solve nearly all the problems that upset workers. So through his tact and understanding he was able to forge a tacit coalition of socialists and competent liberals. Yet he had to handle a number of difficult strike situations. The 1917 railway strike took all his skills of balancing, bargaining and threat-making to defuse. This issue was compounded by a seaman's strike in New South Wales which brought on a food shortage in the north and also affected sugar production. Ryan and his cabinet resisted strike-breaking tactics and settled the conflict by conciliation and arbitration unlike the southern leaders (Sir) George Fuller and Hughes who used coercive measures to break the strike.

Through 1917, 1918 and 1919 radical critics emerged in the labour movement. They condemned Ryan and his government for not moving fast enough, for not becoming a revolutionary socialist party. Ryan had to curb those pressing the I.W.W. cause; and in 1919, after tension had built up over the 'red flag riot' in Brisbane, he had to deal directly with the Townsville meatworkers' strike, sending extra police from Brisbane to handle the possibility of further confrontation, an action which precipitated a railway strike. Ryan's unsuccessful court defence that year of one of the red flag 'rioters', however, earned him the support of many hitherto radical critics.

Conscious of his Irish heritage, Ryan in 1916 stoutly defended the Home Rule movement in Ireland. Three years later he met de Valera, and became convinced that he was the person whom the Irish wanted as their leader. In 1919 he chaired an Irish Race Convention in Melbourne called by Archbishop Daniel Mannix. Loyal British Protestants came out in stern condemnation of the 'unholy trinity—Mannix, Ryan & Co'. Although supportive of the Irish cause, Ryan did not want the Irish problem to intrude into Australian politics.

He was a skilful, pragmatic politician whose ideas had remained liberal, radical and humanitarian in basis. Eschewing a doctrinaire approach, he sought power and its retention by the Labor Party. In the exercise of that power he was motivated by a practical humanitarianism and a sense of justice for urban and rural workers, including farmers. He supported equality of opportunity, a franchise based on equal electorates and voting rights for 18-year-olds; he gave women the right to stand for parliament. But he was not prepared to allow the ideals of socialist theory to blot out the reality of international and liberal-capitalist politics. Perhaps he might best be described as a radical liberal. He was a master at balancing—listening intently to all sides and adopting a stance of careful moderation. So at the 1918 Federal Labor conference he steered a compromise path in respect of peace initiatives that were being proposed. While such a position could leave him open to charges of being a 'twister', his concern was much more to attain consensus and co-operation, to smooth over differences that could lead to fatal splits. Although leader, Ryan tried not to be a domineering force in caucus or cabinet; rather he waited for a broad caucus view to emerge. He had the sense to recognize when the party wanted to be led and when it wanted the leader to merge with the mob. When the party in Queensland opposed conscription in 1916 Ryan, the patriot, who did not see conscription as a black and white issue, supported the party and set about implementing its decision. In his busy routine he was fortunate to have the support of John Hunter who attended to many of the ministerial details of the Premier's Department; this allowed Ryan to concentrate on supervising overall government legislation and political tactics.

His thinking was clear and straight-forward and in debate he could be stubborn and dogged as he locked horns with an adversary. These qualities had brought him to the forefront of the legal profession. In politics he quickly made his mark as a constitutional lawyer: in opposition he shone as the leading Labor lawyer and readily challenged defective legislation, and as premier he often skilfully defended his government's policies. His fluent oratory allowed him to win points in the House, in the court-room or at a public meeting. Conservative forces tried to use the legal system to defeat his reforms; Ryan would not back down. So in 1916, for example, he successfully appealed to the Privy Council in the Eastern case (Fowles v. Eastern and Australian Steamship Company) over the negligence of a pilot. The same year he fought C.S.R. in three cases in the State Full Court, winning two for the government. And he appeared in 1916 before the High Court of Australia in the Stock, Meat Embargo case (Duncan v. Queensland), to establish the validity of his government's war-time legislation, that the State could prevent stock crossing the border and could acquire meat for the British government. In 1917 the Mooraberrie case (Duncan v. Theodore) started in the State court; it was not finally resolved until it reached the Privy Council in 1919—three cases later—with Ryan (and the government) victorious. Ryan successfully appealed to the High Court in 1917 over the referendum to abolish the Legislative Council (Taylor and others v. the Attorney-General of Queensland and others). In defence of the sugar levy imposed under the Regulation of Sugar Cane Prices Board Act, Ryan appeared firstly in the High Court (1917) then won again before the Privy Council (1919). With Hugh Macrossan he appeared in McCawley v. the King before the Queensland Full Court (1917, 1918) and before the High Court in 1918; this was finally resolved in his favour in the Privy Council in 1920. T. W. McCawley who was appointed to preside over the Arbitration Court was his invaluable ally. The essence of Ryan's constitutional arguments was the assertion of the full sovereign power of the State legislature which the different tribunals (as high as the Privy Council) by and large were prepared to accept.

Some of his cases were of a more personal nature. In 1919 he won his case against the Argus which in 1917 made libellous editorial allegations of conspiracy and disloyalty against him. In 1921 he lost a libel case against the Hobart Mercury. His legal work not only illuminated his politics by his sure grasp of Constitutional law and parliamentary procedure, but it provided him with the experience of weighing alternatives judicially. In 1919 Ryan was paid the rare compliment of being elected an honorary bencher of Gray's Inn, London. He was appointed K.C. in 1920.

Through 1918 there was much speculation that Ryan would enter Federal politics; then in the first part of 1919, after a trip to Britain, he contemplated retirement. There was also the possibility that he might go onto the bench of the Queensland Supreme Court. Meanwhile in 1918 and 1919 he had attended Federal Labor conferences as a Queensland delegate and made his mark. Through various issues and public meetings, and in particular through conscription, he had received considerable exposure beyond Queensland. His capacities as a leader were widely acknowledged.

At the Federal conference in October 1919 Ryan was invited to enter the Federal arena. He has been the only person so selected. Some of his supporters wanted him to take over the leadership immediately. The same month he resigned as premier and was endorsed for the seat of West Sydney. Ryan helped to shape the election manifesto, condemning profiteering and high prices, urging support for primary producers, outlining the expansion of government power, especially in welfare matters—similar to the stands he had taken in State politics. He campaigned vigorously in all the major cities except Perth, despite Nationalist attempts to discredit his career, and easily won his seat; but the party, overall divided and low in morale, did poorly. In the 1920 session Ryan tried, unsuccessfully, to woo the Country Party away from supporting Hughes's Nationalist government. Although there was some ill-feeling in the Labor caucus that he was an interloper, in September he was elected assistant leader in the House of Representatives and became, in effect, deputy leader, likely to take over control. For some months in 1921 he was acting leader as well as serving on the royal commission on Cockatoo Island dockyard.

Although a big man physically, Ryan was not strong in health. Since weakened by influenza while he was in England at the time of the 1919 epidemic, he was stricken by bronchial and nasal infections. Furthermore he was tired from overwork; he seldom took a holiday and always worked long hours. In July 1921 he set out to campaign for the Labor candidate William Dunstan in the by-election for the Federal seat of Maranoa; he was sick at the start and during the long trip his condition worsened. On 1 August 1921 he died in Glenco Hospital, Barcaldine, of pneumonia. His body was taken by train to Brisbane past crowds gathered at each station. Archbishops Duhig and Mannix presided over his funeral in St Stephen's Cathedral and his burial in Toowong cemetery. Ryan was survived by his wife Lily Virginia Cook, whom he had married on 30 March 1910 at Rockhampton and by his son and daughter.

The early death of such a capable leader was a great blow to the labour movement. He was described as urbane, amiable and approachable; his personality had allowed him to converse with confidence and trust with people of all ranks, from the governor of the Bank of England to militant unionists. At the same time he could hit hard with sarcasm when challenged by foes such as Hughes; yet he remained friendly with many persons of conservative persuasion, including some of his political enemies. Charles Bernays regarded him as the greatest parliamentary leader he had observed, 'an earnest exponent of the faith that was in him, and a generous big-hearted fighter'. A memorial fund collected money to erect a ten-foot (3 m) bronze statue which stands in Queen's Park near the Old Executive Building. A Ryan medal was struck for candidates obtaining the highest pass in the annual State scholarship examination.

Select Bibliography

  • C. A. Bernays, Queensland Politics During Sixty (1859-1919) Years (Brisb, 1919?)
  • D. J. Murphy, T. J. Ryan (Brisb, 1975), and for bibliography
  • D. J. Murphy and R. B. Joyce (eds), Queensland Political Portraits 1859-1952 (Brisb, 1978)
  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Labor in Power (Brisb, 1979)
  • R. Johnston, History of the Queensland Bar (Brisb, 1979).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

W. Ross Johnston and D. J. Murphy, 'Ryan, Thomas Joseph (Tom) (1876–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 20 July 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

Thomas Joseph Ryan, c.1920

Thomas Joseph Ryan, c.1920

National Library of Australia, 24096100

Life Summary [details]


1 July, 1876
Boothapool, Victoria, Australia


1 August, 1921 (aged 45)
Barcaldine, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death


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