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William Francis Schey (1857–1913)

by R. M. Audley

This article was published:

William Francis Schey (1857-1913), union leader, politician and public servant, was born on 5 January 1857 at Hoxton Newtown, London, son of Gerard Marius James Schey, accountant's clerk, and his wife Ellen, née Puddick. He attended the City of London Middle Class School and from 1871 served his apprenticeship in ships of the White Star line. He visited Sydney in 1875 and gained a second mate's certificate that year. He later sailed with Shaw, Saville & Albion Co. Ltd and the New Zealand Shipping Co., and briefly taught at a naval training school near Auckland. In 1877 he was stranded in Sydney through illness, worked as a labourer and joined the railways branch of the Department of Public Works. He was a porter at Parramatta when he married Louisa Charlotte Dorothea Weygang, dressmaker from Hanover, Germany, on 22 May 1880. Later he became a shunter and parcels clerk.

Active in the formation in 1879 of the Railway and Tramway Employees Association, Schey became unpaid secretary. When the association was reorganized in 1886 as the New South Wales Amalgamated Railway and Tramway Service Association, he became paid secretary, resigning from the civil service, and managed to expand the 'friendly society' nature of its activities.

'An extremely able speaker with a remarkable ability to communicate with working men', Schey was elected as a free trader to the Legislative Assembly in 1887 for Redfern (on the vote of his fellow-railwaymen). He proved an unreliable supporter of Sir Henry Parkes, and was defeated in February 1889, but won a by-election in June and held the seat as a Protectionist in 1891. Between 1887 and 1897 he nine times unavailingly introduced an eight hours bill, and helped to bring about payment of members. He strongly supported the Government Railways Act of 1888, which he believed would remove many abuses, and welcomed as chief commissioner E. M. G. Eddy, who supported the union. However, they clashed in 1889 over the responsibility of an association member for the fatal Bathurst railway accident. Schey opposed Eddy's proposed sickness and pension fund and, defeated on the industrial front, bitterly attacked him in parliament; in 1892 a royal commission investigated his allegations against the chief commissioner. He was unable to substantiate any of his charges and Eddy emerged considerably strengthened in his authority over the unions.

In parliament Schey concentrated increasingly on railwaymen's issues but introduced legislation to amalgamate the legal profession. He won Darlington for Labor in 1894, held the seat as a Protectionist next year, was defeated as an Independent in 1898 and received only two votes when he contested the Northumberland by-election in 1899. In 1901 he retired as secretary of the National Protection Union.

Unsuccessful in private business, Schey was rescued from severe financial hardship by his appointment as chief labour commissioner by the Lyne government in May 1900. Although criticized for holding a sinecure, he soon proved himself a capable administrator and, when the State Labour Bureau was created in November 1905, became director of labour. He established the Government Agricultural Training Farm, Scheyville, and the Labour Depot at Randwick, and administered the Arbitration Act of 1902. An Orangeman, he was a prominent Freemason, past master of Lodge United Service, a member of Mark Master Lodge and of Robert Burns Royal Arch Chapter, and published two brief histories of Freemasonry. Round-faced, with neat, small beard, he had 'amazing energy'.

Suffering from chronic nephritis, Schey died of uraemia at his Woolwich home on 18 July 1913 and was buried in Gore Hill cemetery with Congregational forms. His wife, daughter and two sons survived him. 'Gregarious and ambitious, he aspired to be a leader of men', but he was regarded as a conservative in the union movement.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1891-92, 5, p 121, 1892-93, 8, p 1041
  • Town and Country Journal, 2 Apr 1887, 20 July 1889, 23 July 1913
  • Republican (Sydney), Jan 1888, p 1
  • Australasian, 14 Dec 1889
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 4 June, 6 July 1894
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 July 1913
  • J. C. Docherty, The Rise of Railway Unionism (M.A. thesis, Australian National University, 1973).

Citation details

R. M. Audley, 'Schey, William Francis (1857–1913)', 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]


5 January, 1857
London, Middlesex, England


18 July, 1913 (aged 56)
Woolwich, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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