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John Barnes (1868–1938)

Mr. John Barnes, who was to have assumed office once more as a senator in July, died early yesterday morning at the Mercy Hospital, East Melbourne, after a long illness. He was aged 69 years.

A State funeral will leave the northern chapel of A. A. Sleight Pty. Ltd., St. Kilda Road, Melbourne, for the Melbourne General Cemetery, at 2.30 p.m. tomorrow.

Mr. Barnes's home was in Drummond Street, Ballarat. He leaves a widow and six children - Mr. John Barnes, Miss Doris Barnes, Miss Alice Barnes, Mrs. J. Wiphell, Mrs. C. James, and Mrs. Norman Matthews.

Trade unionism in Australia has lost a bluff, rugged, and lovable personality with the death of Mr. Barnes. He had no enemy and thousands of friends.

Within and without the Labour movement there were many who differed from him on questions of policy, tactics, and even questions of fact, but John Barnes always put his view with such blunt good nature and freedom from malice that he received some measure of reasonableness in return.

Hardened bushman, two-fisted fighter in his young manhood, union boss, and shrewd politician as he was, there was always something of the boy about him, a sense of fair play, and more than a fair share of mischief.

For more than 20 years he was the most notorious practical joker and leg-puller in Federal politics. Hundreds of stories are told of the pranks he played on his adversaries and friends, and of his grim retorts. It was all done with a poker face, with an air of solemnity.

Behind all this were earnestness, sound common sense, moderation, and loyalty that kept him so many years in the presidency of the Australian Workers' Union. Led by Barnes and men like him, the A.W.U. has been a bulwark of stability in Australia, against communism and the wilder elements. It has always been staunchly Australian, and about 40,000 of its members fought in the A.I.F.

John Barnes was born at Hamilton, South Australia, in 1868, had the elements of a primary education, but went out as a boy into the hard school of bush work, and the shearing-sheds as tar boy, rouse-about, picker-up, shed hand, shearer, timber splitter, and handy man. He carried his swag from job to job and shed to shed, and, rolled in the swag, were copies of the works of Adam Smith, Henry George, Robert Blatchford, and other recognised economists of his youth, as well as his copies of the poems by Henry Lawson in the Bulletin when it was much more irreverent and radical than it is now.

In the earliest days of the Shearers' Union, upon which the A.W.U. was founded, he was a "union rep.," and in 1908 he was elected secretary of the Victoria-Riverina branch, which office he filled until elected to the Senate in 1913 with the rise of Labour to power under Andrew Fisher.

He was a member of the Parliamentary Public Works committee, the tedium of whose journeyings in North and Central Australia he relieved with many a story while the committee inquired into the route for the north-south railway. He was also a member of the wartime Prices Regulation Board.

When his party was defeated in 1919 he went down also, but was re-elected in 1922. With the return to office of the Scullin Government he was elected by Caucus to the Vice-Presidency of the Executive Council and the portfolio of Assistant Minister for Works and Railways.

After his defeat for the Senate at the general election in 1934, Mr. Barnes resumed his official duties for the A.W.U. He headed the list in a Labour selection ballot for three candidates to contest the three Victorian vacancies. In the Senate at the election on October 23, 1937, and was again elected to that Chamber, with Messrs. D. Cameron and R. V. Keane.

Speaking in Sydney the Prime Minister (Mr. Lyons) said:-"I have learned with the deepest regret of the death of Mr. John Barnes, and I know that I voice the feelings of my colleagues when I say that Australia loses a great political leader. Mr. Barnes, whom I was privileged to regard as a personal friend, typified all that was best in Australian politics. His high ideals, his unassailable integrity, and his sterling personal qualities made him beloved by all his fellow-men."

Mr. Scullin, M.H.R., and a former Prime Minister of Australia, said that the death of his old friend, John Barnes, was a personal and a national loss. It would bring sorrow to thousands throughout Australia.

The kindly personality and rugged honesty of John Barnes won the affection and esteem of those privileged to know him. In a most difficult period of Australian history he had proved a reliable Minister. John Barnes was a true friend and a staunch colleague.

Speaking in Perth the leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labour party (Mr. Curtin) said: - "I deeply regret the death of Senator-elect John Barnes. For more than 40 years he contributed all that loyalty, ability, and sincerity could give to unionism and Labour. His personality was strong and striking.

"By his passing the Australian Workers' Union has lost an historic figure and a vitalising president. The Commonwealth Parliament loses a notable figure, and a true Australian. John Barnes had a big mind and a big heart. His influence on unionism and Labour will remain with us for years to come."

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Citation details

'Barnes, John (1868–1938)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

John Barnes, 193?

John Barnes, 193?

National Library of Australia,nla.pic-an23125473

Life Summary [details]


17 July, 1868
Hamilton, South Australia, Australia


31 January, 1938 (aged 69)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (not specified)

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.

Key Organisations
Political Activism