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Frederick William (Fred) Whitby (1924–1993)

by Brian F. Stevenson

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Frederick William Whitby (1924–1993), trade union leader and political party organiser, was born on 11 February 1924 in South Brisbane, son of Queensland-born parents Frederick William Whitby, storeman, and his wife Florence Virginia, née Humphries. At Wynnum Central State School, Fred passed the scholarship exam in 1937. The next year he started at Brisbane State High School but, in August, joined the hardware department of S. Hoffnung & Co. Ltd in the city. His supervisors ‘found him to be conscientious, punctual and a willing worker’ (NAA A9301).

When Whitby enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) on 14 April 1942 for service in World War II, he was recorded as being five feet seven and a half inches (171 cm) tall, weighing nine stone twelve pounds (63 kg), and having brown eyes and dark brown hair. After training as a telegraphist, he was posted successively to No. 8 Service Flying Training School, Bundaberg (1942–43); No. 32 Squadron, Camden, New South Wales (1943–44); and headquarters, North-Western Area, Darwin (1944–45). In 1945 he was promoted to acting sergeant. At the Methodist Church, Wynnum, on 10 July 1943, he had married Agnes Lillian Savage, a dry cleaner’s assistant.

Discharged from the RAAF on 25 January 1946, Whitby worked as a psychiatric nurse at the Brisbane Mental Hospital, Goodna, until 1954. The following year he was divorced. In a Presbyterian ceremony on 4 January 1956 at Norman Park, he married Irene Lillian Gustavson, a trained nurse. He was secretary of the Hospital Employees’ Union of Queensland (1954–65) and then of the Queensland branch of the Federated Miscellaneous Workers’ Union of Australia (1965–69). In 1969 he became general secretary of the Trades and Labour Council (TLC) of Queensland. During his term he was prominent in union-driven efforts to achieve social change in Queensland; ending discrimination against Aboriginal people was one of the causes he championed.

Divorced in 1970, Whitby married Annette Howells, an office manageress, on 24 December that year at the General Registry Office, Brisbane. Earlier in the year the premier, (Sir) Joh Bjelke-Petersen, had read out in parliament a list of alleged communists in Queensland unions, including Whitby, an inaugural director (1968) of the Australian Marxist Research Foundation. He and the TLC were frequently at loggerheads with Bjelke-Petersen’s government. Sources of conflict included the Springbok rugby tour of 1971; controversial proposed ‘right-to-work’ legislation (1978), which Whitby said did nothing for job creation, security, or conditions (Canberra Times 1978, 23); and, in particular, the Essential Services Act (1979), which was aimed at eliminating strikes in the power industry. Nevertheless, Whitby later described the premier as ‘the most gentlemanly bloke you could hope to meet’ (Sunday Mail 1993, 63).

On 1 September 1946 Whitby had joined the Australian Labor Party. He was a member of the party’s federal executive (1966–71) and the State branch’s inner executive (1966–80). The branch’s poor performance in Federal and State elections (from 1957) led in the 1970s to calls for reform. A group of mainly white-collar members sought to overhaul the branch’s administration and to reduce trade union influence. Whitby aligned himself with the president of the TLC, Harry Hauenschild, and others of the ‘Old Guard’ who opposed change (Yarrow 2014, ii). As chairman of the disputes tribunal, in 1979 Whitby wrote to his colleagues, urging resistance to the efforts of what he called ‘a bunch of political novices,’ and defending domination of the branch by the traditional unions, which, he later noted, provided nearly all its finances (Canberra Times 1980, 3). The letter was reported to have been a catalyst for federal ALP intervention in the branch in 1980, an action that averted a split and eventually strengthened the party, which gained power in Queensland in 1989. Whitby had lamented in 1982 that not enough ‘real workers’ were nominating for seats Labor could win (Stewart 1982, 2).

In 1984 Whitby was appointed AM. He left office that year, without regrets, saying that he would not be drawn into involvement with industrial relations in retirement. Suffering from cancer, he took his own life on 10 October 1993 at Southport and, after a Uniting Church funeral, was cremated. His wife survived him, as did the son and daughter of his first marriage and the two sons of his third. Described variously as ‘a real gentleman,’ a ‘true pragmatist,’ and a ‘totally honest man’ (Sunday Mail 1993, 63), he was one of the last of the old-school union leaders. He was said to be the only TLC secretary who never took an overseas trip.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times. ‘Controversial Queensland Legislation: Opposition to “Work” Bill Increases: Premier Pushes New Plan.’ 30 August 1978, 23
  • Canberra Times. ‘Queensland ALP Secession Discussed in Letter.’ 9 February 1980, 3
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane). ‘Fred Whitby—Trades Hall Statesman.’ 12 October 1993, 14
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane). ‘TLC Chief Goes without Regret.’ 29 August 1993, 9
  • National Archives of Australia. A9301, 75130
  • Queensland. Parliament. Record of Proceedings, 12 October 1993, 5092–93
  • Stewart, Andrew. ‘Mid-Term Malaise in the Government as the Boom Slows Down.’ Canberra Times, 2 May 1982, 2
  • Sunday Mail (Brisbane). ‘Fred, Friend Indeed to a Friend in Need.’ 17 October 1993, 63
  • Yarrow, Susan Terrencia. ‘Split, Intervention, Renewal: The ALP in Queensland 1957–1989.’ MPhil thesis, University of Queensland, 2014

Additional Resources

Citation details

Brian F. Stevenson, 'Whitby, Frederick William (Fred) (1924–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 13 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


11 February, 1924
South Brisbane, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


10 October, 1993 (aged 69)
Southport, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death


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.

Military Service
Key Events
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Political Activism