CRITCHLEY, John Owen (1892–1964)
Senator for South Australia, 1947–59 (Australian Labor Party)

John Owen (Jack) Critchley, carpenter and railwayman, was born at Callington, South Australia, on 18 April 1892, the first of three sons of Patrick Critchley, labourer, and Julia, née Burns. Moving to Gumbowie, where his father worked as a packer on the railways, Jack attended school at Sunnybrae, then Petersburg (later Peterborough), leaving at thirteen because he felt his parents were ‘going without to keep him there’. In 1906 he became an apprentice wheelwright with the Schubert family at Murray Bridge. He completed his four-year apprenticeship with the Schuberts, but they took a dim view of his forming a local branch of the Amalgamated Coach Rolling Stock Makers’ and Wheelwrights’ Society and gave him the sack. The society later became the Australian Coachmakers Employees’ Federation, then the Vehicle Builders Employees’ Federation of which Critchley was a foundation member, serving on its executive for twelve years.He moved to Maitland in search of work and in January 1916 enlisted in the AIF. Leaving Australia in March, he served with the 10th Battalion on the Western Front from August until November, when he was withdrawn to England due to illness. He returned to Australia in December 1917. His two brothers, Harry and Mick, were killed in action in France.[1]

After his discharge, Critchley worked as a carpenter with the South Australian Railways at Peterborough, where he married Alice Cave, on 6 August 1919. He joined the ALP, becoming president, then secretary of its local committee, and later assistant secretary of the party’s Grey electorate committee. He became prominent in civic affairs and served two terms (1923–24 and 1928–29) on the Peterborough Council, was a member of the board of management of the Peterborough Memorial Hospital, a Justice of the Peace, and an active official of the Peterborough sub-branch of the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia. In April 1930 Critchley was one of three Labor members returned to the House of Assembly seat of Burra Burra in an election that saw the Labor Party under Lionel Hill swept into office. Labor had promised to deal with unemployment, which Critchley described as ‘the biggest curse—second only to war’.[2]

Critchley’s first speech to the Assembly was brief and to the point. He urged the Government to extend the provision of rations to single unemployed men in all country towns. He welcomed the fact that railway employees giving evidence to the newly established royal commission on railways would be provided with government protection. Speaking on the controversial issue of modernising the railways (which contributed to the fall of two South Australian governments), he stated that changes to work practices made by the Chief Commissioner of the South Australian Railways, the American William Webb, had led to employees working ‘under conditions altogether foreign to the ideals of Australian citizenship’. He said that men who knew the system were being ‘thrown on the scrap heap’ by Webb’s ideas on decentralisation and replaced by others less experienced.[3]

Concerned with the plight of his fellow workers during the Depression, he responded to the Opposition’s ‘wretched principle’ of ‘work for rations’ by arguing for a tax on wages of 3d. for both employees and employers. He made further suggestions: settle the unemployed on compulsorily acquired land in the fertile south-east of the state; reduce the size of the House of Assembly; and abolish the Legislative Council. On a personal level he did what he could to help, on one occasion swapping his own shoes for the old sandshoes of a friend from Peterborough who was on the way to a job interview in Adelaide.[4]

Division within Labor ranks had hardened in 1931 with the Hill Government’s acceptance of the Premiers’ Plan. Critchley was one of those expelled by the ALP state council in August 1931, along with Hill and his supporters. In the Assembly he continued to support Hill’s minority government against the state ALP and the Lang Labor Party. In the April 1933 state election Labor forces suffered a massive defeat and Critchley, standing for the Premiers’ Plan Labor Party, lost his seat. He took work as a temporary clerk in motor vehicle registration and remained in Adelaide during World War II as manager of clothes rationing (industrial division), ‘a most unpleasant task’, he later observed. He was active in forming sub-branches of the ALP in suburban Adelaide.[5]

In September 1946 Critchley was elected to the Senate, his term of service commencing in July 1947. His first speech emphasised the need to expedite the settlement of returned soldiers on the land, but he also urged the implementation of water and soil conservation schemes, and the improvement of rail and road transport systems, including the standardisation of the railways. As a former member of the South Australian parliamentary committee assessing the value of land offered for settlement, he despaired of the long delays stemming from differences between the state (Liberal Country League) and Commonwealth (Labor) governments.

Critchley, who was appointed to the Joint Committee on War Gratuity in 1951, was concerned about the needs of returned soldiers, especially the care and treatment of those suffering from neurosis. Pleading for special psychiatric wards in military hospitals, he argued that in order to gain entry to such wards patients should not have to prove that their condition was due to the war. Despite the establishment of the first repatriation out-patient psychiatric clinic in Melbourne in 1950, and separate wards for most men with war neurosis by 1953, South Australia lagged behind. By 1956, when the Minister for Repatriation spoke of plans for a psychiatric block at the Springbank Repatriation Hospital, Critchley bitterly commented that ‘if it takes as long to complete the building as it has taken for me to get this assurance . . . everybody interested in the new block will be dead’. Between 1953 and 1956 he successfully pursued, with Senator Ryan, the case of Private F. S. Luxton, a young national serviceman who, hospitalised for three months after the expiry of his training, had not received due compensation.[6]

Critchley was a passionate defender of the Labor Party’s banking policies, believing that the bankers were ‘grasping in their hands the very soul of production, so that no one dare breathe against their will’. In 1951 he was a member of the Select Committee on the Commonwealth Bank Bill 1950 (No. 2) on which Government senators refused to serve. The bill triggered the simultaneous dissolution of March 1951 at which Labor lost its majority in the Senate. In November and December 1957, when the numbers between the Government and those opposing the legislation were evenly matched, Critchley was one of the three senators in poor health who attended in the chamber to ensure defeat of the Government’s fourteen banking bills. This was ironic for Labor, for, as the historian of the Parliament, Gavin Souter, points out, the legislation, in some respects, would have strengthened the role of the Commonwealth Bank.[7]

Re-elected to the Senate in April 1951, and again in May 1953, Critchley was Opposition Whip from July 1950 to September 1957. The Adelaide News in 1956 rejoiced that he had ‘set a record by being elected three times without opposition to the post’. According to his family, Critchley had refused to join the Democratic Labor Party, even when asked to lead the party in the Senate, but maintained his loyalty to his conscience and to the Labor Party in this bitter period. A practising Catholic, he had opposed the Communist Party Dissolution Bill as presented by the Menzies Government in 1950.[8]

Throughout his parliamentary career Critchley argued for an Australian perspective on a variety of issues, from the use of the Australian flag (instead of the Union Jack) to the conservation of the natural environment and the national coordination of transport systems. In urging a larger role for the Commonwealth he deplored state parochialism. In 1949 he was a delegate to the Empire Parliamentary Association conference in Ottawa, and in 1952 welcomed the proposal for a joint foreign affairs committee.[9]

Critchley’s long absences from the Senate due to illness led to his resignation as Opposition Whip in September 1957. He did not stand for re-election in 1958. He died at his home in Glengowrie, Adelaide, on 27 April 1964 and was buried according to the rites of the Roman Catholic Church in Centennial Park Cemetery. He was survived by his wife and three daughters, Mary Kathleen, Eileen Patricia and Joyce Julia. Reputedly a friend of Ben Chifley, Critchley was described by Senator McKenna as ‘a true Labour man and a true Australian . . . saturated with the principles and the traditions of the party . . . always ready to fight injustice and to resist it’. He was, wrote Joyce, ‘a voracious reader who loved literature, politics, poetry and song, was an amateur actor and dearly loved a day at the races’.[10]

Colleen Haskett

[1] Colleen Haskett, ‘Senator Jack Critchley: “A True Labor Man”’, Herald (Adel.), Spring 1991, pp. 16–17; John Wanna, ‘The History of Organisational Development in the South Australian Coachmakers’ (Vehicle Builders) Union’, Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, no. 15, 1987, pp. 143–57; Critchley, J. O.―War Service Record, B2455, NAA; SAPD, 11 June 1930, p. 240.

[2] Times and Northern Advertiser (Peterborough), 21 Mar. 1930, p. 3; P. Hosking (comp.), The Official Civic Record of South Australia: Centenary Year, 1936, (facsimile), Austaprint, Hampstead Gardens, SA, c. 1979, pp. 343-4; Ray Broomhill, Unemployed Workers: A Social History of the Great Depression in Adelaide, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1978, p. 12; Times and Northern Advertiser (Peterborough), 28 Mar. 1930, p. 2.

[3] SAPD, 11 June 1930, pp. 240-2; Reece Jennings, ‘Webb, William Alfred’, ADB, vol. 12.

[4] Broomhill, Unemployed Workers, p. 80; SAPD, 24 Sept. 1930, p. 1051, 11 June 1930, p. 240, 16 July 1931, p. 772; Haskett, ‘Senator Jack Critchley’.

[5] Don Hopgood, ‘Lang Labor in South Australia’, Labour History, Nov. 1969, pp. 161–73; Dean Jaensch (ed.), The Flinders History of South Australia: Political History, Wakefield Press, Netley, SA, 1986, pp. 237-8, 384-5; Jim Moss, Sound of Trumpets: History of the Labour Movement in South Australia, Wakefield Press, Netley, SA, 1985, pp. 313-16; Haskett, ‘Senator Jack Critchley’; Australian Worker (Syd.), 21 June 1950, p. 2.

[6] CPD, 17 Oct. 1947, pp. 924-8, 13 Oct. 1948, p. 1503, 28 Oct. 1948, pp. 2284-5, 28 Oct. 1954, pp. 1101-2, 28 Feb. 1956, p. 137, 8 Oct. 1953, pp. 441-2, 6 Sept. 1956, p. 149, 20 Sept. 1956, p. 400.

[7] CPD, 24 Nov. 1947, pp. 2498-504, 14 Mar. 1951, p. 440, 27 Nov. 1957, pp. 1534, 1551-3, 3 Dec. 1957, pp. 1639-40; Scott Prasser, J. R. Nethercote and John Warhurst (eds), The Menzies Era: A Reappraisal of Government, Politics and Policy, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1995, p. 99; Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1988, pp. 438–9.

[8] News (Adel.), 15 Feb. 1956, p. 8; Haskett, ‘Senator Jack Critchley’; CPD, 16 Sept. 1948, p. 470, 22 Mar. 1950, p. 1022, 13 June 1950, pp. 4098–9, 15 June 1950, p. 4328.

[9] Elizabeth Kwan, Which Flag? Which Country? An Australian Dilemma, 1901–1951, PhD thesis, ANU, 1995, p. 322; CPD, 25 Oct. 1955, pp. 684-5, 16 Sept. 1948, pp. 463-4, 17 June 1948, p. 2136, 27 Feb. 1952, p. 398.

[10] Advertiser (Adel.), 28 Apr. 1964, pp. 8, 34; CPD, 4 Sept. 1957, p. 117, 5 May 1964, pp. 943-4; Haskett, ‘Senator Jack Critchley’; The author of this entry is Critchley’s granddaughter.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 313-316.

CRITCHLEY, John Owen (1892–1964)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, SA, 1947–59

South Australian Parliament

Member of the House of Assembly, Burra Burra, 1930–33

Senate Committee Service

Standing Orders Committee, 1947–49

Select Committee on the Commonwealth Bank Bill 1950 (No. 2), 1951

Joint Committee on War Gratuity, 1951

House Committee, 1951–55