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John Storey (1869–1921)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published:

John Storey (1869-1921), by unknown photographer, 1920

John Storey (1869-1921), by unknown photographer, 1920

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 13581

John Storey (1869-1921), boilermaker and premier, was born on 15 May 1869 at Currambene Creek, Shoalhaven, New South Wales, son of William Storey, shipbuilder, and his wife Elizabeth, née Graham, both English born. At the age of 6 he moved with his family to Balmain, Sydney. Educated at St Mary's Church of England School, Adolphus Street, he later attended night-school. Apprenticed at 14 as a boilermaker to Perdriau & West, he worked as a journeyman at Mort's Dock & Engineering Co. Ltd where his political instinct was aroused by dangerous working conditions. On 14 May 1891 in Christ Church St Laurence, Sydney, he married Elizabeth Merton Turnbull.

He played minor grade Rugby and, with his brothers, was active in the foundation of Balmain Cricket Club in 1897. Left-handed, stocky and strong, he was a leading all-rounder in the top grade team. Later, he was a trustee of the Birchgrove Reserve which had become the club's headquarters. Prominent in the United Society of Boilermakers and Iron Ship Builders of New South Wales, he joined the Labor Party in 1891.

Genial and gregarious, though a teetotaller, Storey was a Balmain identity when—with some reluctance—he sought and gained Labor's nomination for the seat of Balmain North which he won in 1901. In parliament he mastered his public shyness and became an entertaining speaker, popular with all members. Appointed a justice of the peace in 1902, he studied politics closely and was on the executive of the party in 1903 and 1907. But he was neither thrustful nor sectarian and, following a redistribution, was beaten in 1904 for the new seat of Balmain by Walter Anderson who was backed in an unsavoury campaign by the Loyal Orange Institution and the Australian Protestant Defence Association. Although Storey faced some employers' discrimination, he found work at his trade until he defeated Anderson in 1907. He held the seat until his death.

Labor won the 1910 general elections. Storey did not nominate for the party's first cabinet, but became chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works. He was a confidant of the premier J. S. T. McGowen, another ex-boilermaker, but the deputy premier W. A. Holman thought that Storey talked too much and overdid the common touch. When Holman replaced McGowen in 1913, Storey lost his public works post and failed to make the new cabinet, although he was elected deputy chairman of committees.

Holman's conflicts with Labor's non-parliamentary section came to a head when his government was censured on 26 April at the 1916 party conference. Storey was caught up in the tactical manoeuvrings and next day told the conference that the ministry had resigned to caucus. The censure was confirmed and a new cabinet elected, headed by Storey. But the status quo ante was restored, and on 4 May Storey resigned with relief. The incident reflected a deep fissure in the party, and in August-November it was widened by a great debate over conscription which culminated in the expulsion of Holman, Prime Minister W. M. Hughes and many others. Holman formed a National (pro-conscription) government on 15 November. With Storey again reluctant, Ernest Durack became the leader of the truncated Labor Party; when he resigned on 21 February 1917, Storey had no choice but to take over. Although opposed to conscription, Storey supported voluntary war service. Two of his three sons, Eric (at 16) and (Sir) John enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force; his eldest son Tasman served as an engineer with the United States of America's submarine construction project.

Storey's close links to the trade unions had buoyed him during the 1916 troubles, and they assisted him in keeping Labor's structures intact in the turbulent years from 1917 to 1920 when overlapping industrial (union) and socialist groups threatened to alter the nature of the party. Leadership stimulated him to disclose qualities of political skill and determination previously hidden by the style that had attracted many friends at cricket and football matches, on the racecourse and at sailing races on Sydney Harbour. His genial oratory now proved an asset and helped to ensure that Labor's defeat at the 1917 elections was not a rout.

Rejecting the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World as 'the bitterest opponents that the party had got', he nonetheless insisted during the election campaign in February 1917 that, if the twelve I.W.W. members gaoled in 1916 had been unfairly convicted, there was a democratic duty to obtain justice for them. In June at the annual conference he declared himself opposed to all secret factions in the party. He astutely encouraged the Australian Workers' Union and other unions to combat extremist groups, headed by J. S. Garden and A. C. Willis, which were trying to absorb the Labor Party into the 'One Big Union'. The success of the moderates at the 1919 conference confirmed Storey's policy. Labor, he said, was not associated with the Bolsheviks of Russia, or the Spartacists of Germany, or the I.W.W. of the U.S.A.: he might have added the Sinn Feiners of Ireland.

By the 1920 elections Storey had achieved wide popularity as an honest and down-to-earth political leader. He faithfully reflected Labor's pragmatism. 'What was the use', he had asked in 1919, 'of putting on the [party] platform planks which are shibboleths?' As an 'evolutionary socialist', he invited 'imported agitators' to leave Australia: Holman compared him with the vicar of Bray. Storey's 1920 policy speech included promises for child endowment, the electrification of suburban railways and the completion of the city underground railway. Electors warmed to his buttonholes which displayed his fondness for flowers. Beneath his unfeigned amiability now lay an experienced politician's finesse, illustrated by his formation of a government after the March elections had given him an uncertain majority of one, with a non-Labor Speaker, (Sir) Daniel Levy. Storey called it 'half a mandate'.

On 15 June, after negotiating from April, Storey had Justice N. K. Ewing appointed a royal commissioner into the gaoling of the 'I.W.W. twelve'; his report was accepted on 2 August; on the 4th ten were released. Storey soon found that his reforming legislative programme was crippled by his insecure control of the Legislative Assembly, coupled with Labor's small representation in the Legislative Council: after he had sixteen nominees appointed in 1921 the party was outnumbered there by forty-four to twenty-nine. Trade unions and electoral branches impatiently demanded implementation of industrial and social policy. In January, in the Town Hall, a large meeting of women called for motherhood endowment, but Storey pointed to financial stringency as well as parliamentary problems and looked to a state lottery to fund family allowances. The pressures on him were exacerbating a painful kidney disease (nephritis) which had caused his periodic physical collapses since 1919.

Storey found agreeable diversion in the visit of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) in mid-1920. His enjoyment of the prince's company reflected majority Labor and national opinion, though Garden and other minority radicals objected. At a grand function in the Town Hall the prince confided to Storey that he had no notes for his speech; the premier replied that he had lost his at Randwick racecourse that afternoon.

At a special meeting of the Labor Party executive on 13 January 1921 Storey was rebuked for what was considered inadequate performance by the parliamentarians. The executive also complained about his plan to prorogue parliament for six months during his forthcoming trip to England. Storey explained that the Opposition would not provide a pair and that financial imperatives demanded his presence in London. Of equal, personal, importance was the need to consult a Harley Street specialist about his illness. He left Sydney on 22 January. The doctor's prognosis was alarming, but Storey undertook a heavy official programme and renewed his acquaintance with the Prince of Wales. On his return on 20 July Storey was welcomed by a large crowd and by the band of the Professional Musicians' Association, but he looked gaunt and tired. On 9 September he was admitted to Clermont Private Hospital, Darlinghurst. He died there on 5 October 1921, survived by his wife, three sons and two of his three daughters. He was buried in the Anglican section of the Field of Mars cemetery.

Storey's leadership after the conscription split was a vital reason for the survival and rehabilitation of the Labor Party. His integrity, fortitude, friendliness and democratic instinct complemented his political skills to maintain the accepted pragmatism of the party at a time when it might have been loosened from its traditional base by foreign ideologies. His brother Thomas (1871-1953) was a Labor member of the Legislative Council in 1921-34. His nephew Sydney Albert Dawson Storey (1890-1966) was a non-Labor member for Hornsby in the Legislative Assembly in 1941-62.

Select Bibliography

  • H. V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader (Syd, 1940)
  • T. Stephens and A. O'Neill, Larrikin Days (Syd, 1983)
  • B. Nairn, The ‘Big Fella’ (Melb, 1986)
  • Town and Country Journal, 4 Dec 1907
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 17 Jan 1914
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Apr, 5 May 1916, 23 Feb 1917, 7, 23 Mar, 12 June 1919, 18 Feb, 9 Apr, 12 May, 27 Aug 1920, 3, 14, 21 Jan, 8 Apr, 15, 21 July, 6 Oct 1921
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 7 Aug 1919, 15 Apr 1920, 13 Oct 1921
  • Sun (Sydney), 5 Oct 1921
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Storey, John (1869–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Storey (1869-1921), by unknown photographer, 1920

John Storey (1869-1921), by unknown photographer, 1920

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 13581

Life Summary [details]


15 May, 1869
Currambene Creek, New South Wales, Australia


5 October, 1921 (aged 52)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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.