DE LARGIE, Hugh (1859–1947)
Senator for Western Australia, 1901–23 (Labor Party; National Labour Party; Nationalist Party)

Hugh de Largie, miner and trade union leader, was born on 24 March 1859 in Airdrie, Scotland, the son of Archibald, a coal miner, and his wife Mary, née McLaren. Both parents died when he was young. Educated to primary level only, at St Margaret’s School in Airdrie, de Largie worked in the Lanarkshire mines from the age of ten and later became active in the miners’ union. On 30 October 1884, he married at St Francis Chapel, Glasgow, Mary McGregor, daughter of a shoemaker, and in 1887 theyoung couple migrated to Queensland. About a year later, they moved on to the Illawarra region of New South Wales, where de Largie worked as a miner and again became active in the trade union movement. During the great maritime strike, he acted as a delegate for the Mount Kembla miners and later performeda similar role at the West Wallsend mine as well as becoming secretary to the Wallsend LabourLeague and the local branch of the Australian Socialist League.[1]

In 1896, de Largie was among the many who were attracted by the lure of the Western Australian goldfields and saw in them a good opportunity to leave behind an increasingly difficult industrial scene in New South Wales. He left Sydney for the west on board the SS Konoowarra in July 1896. Thearrival of de Largie and others like him, with experience of the labour movement in other colonies, gave a shot in the arm to unionism in the west. In the mid-1890s, there were many small mining unions scattered around the goldfields and de Largie was instrumental in welding together a number of them in January 1897 to form the Amalgamated Workers’ Association (AWA), of which he became general president. For at least a decade, the AWA was the most important labour organisation in Western Australia, partly because of its ‘one big union’ philosophy of drawing together all manner of workers rather than the more common craft union approach, and partly because it explicitly embraced political as well as industrial aims.

In April 1899, the AWA convened the colony’s first Trades Union and Labor Congress, a gathering of representatives of twenty unions and organisations, six of them from the coast and the remainder from the goldfields, which elected de Largie to the chair. This proved a significant and successful meeting, which set policy guidelines for the whole labour movement on most issues of the day, including support for the highly topical federation movement. The congress made plans to seek labour representation in both state and federal parliaments, drew up a fighting platform, and made interim arrangements to manage elections. As an executive member of the Eastern Goldfields Reform League, de Largie campaigned for Federation. When this was achieved, the labour movement decided to run two candidates for the six Senate positions available, and George Pearce, from the coastal movement, and Hugh de Largie, from the goldfields, were the two chosen. It was a good moment for de Largie to move on as his leadership of the AWA was coming under fire from craft unionists and others who believed that the union was in the grip of a Roman Catholic cabal.[2]

Like other Labor candidates at the 1901 election, de Largie had no previous experience of politics and the necessity to campaign on a state-wide basis was daunting. However, he quickly established himself as an effective speaker in a straightforward way, though with no oratorical skills, no sense of humour, and a strong Scots accent. He spoke in support of a state bank and a citizen army, and was an advocate of gradual political and social change. At a major meeting in the Perth Town Hall on 4February 1901, de Largie referred to Western Australia as Australia’s ‘Cinderella’ and ‘somewhat backward in politics’. He added ‘it would not be the fault of the workers if, after the forthcoming elections, they were [no] longer backward’. He warned that if the Labor candidates were elected they could not be expected to ‘turn things round in 24 hours’; for complete success the representatives and their electors would have to be there for the long haul—as de Largie himself was indeed to be. When the votes were counted, de Largie was elected in fourth place, a little behind Pearce and well ahead of the fifth and sixth candidates.[3]

Similar success followed at later elections such that de Largie remained a senator until mid-1923, having finally been defeated in 1922. Despite this longevity he did not achieve cabinet rank, unlike his running mate George Pearce, but in February 1907 was elected assistant secretary of the Labor Caucus and Labor Whip in the Senate (1910–16). A supporter of conscription during the debates of 1916, de Largie followed Billy Hughes (who in the previous year he had nominated for the party leadership) when Hughes left the Caucus and the Labor Party in November 1916. Almost at once, de Largie became Senate Whip for the oncoming Nationalist Government which emerged from the crisis, holding the position until 1922.

The need for a transcontinental railway line was a topic de Largie pursued in each of the first three parliaments, stepping up the pressure in 1907 when he argued that sections of the Western Australian community were developing anti-Federation sentiments because the Federal Government would not commit itself to the line. ‘There is no denying the fact’, he told the Senate, ‘that in Western Australia Federation is on its trial’. When construction finally started, he took a keen interest in its progress; and after its completion was mindful of the welfare of railway workers. De Largie took an active role in the debates between 1907 and 1909 that led up to the introduction of old-age pensions, of which he was very supportive. He was opposed to pensions being paid at all to coloured persons, but inclined to think that white males should qualify at sixty rather than sixty-five, the earlier age being especially necessary for miners.[4]

His commitment to a White Australia also came out strongly in debates on shipping issues. In 1903, he remarked: ‘God help the country if the lascars are to be the men who are to take the place of the blue jackets of England!’ on British and Australian ships. In 1906, he was a member of a royal commission on the Navigation Bill and in subsequent years spoke regularly on navigation issues, often in defence of wages and conditions of crew members. Other royal commissions on which he served were related to postal services (1908–10) and the pearl shell industry (1916). Originally rather anti-militaristic, de Largie became concerned about defence as early as 1906, pushing for the establishment of an Australian navy and supporting the concept of a citizen, rather than a professional, army. Nothing short of the ‘complete arming of the manhood of Australia, and their conversion into an effective citizen army’ would meet with the approval of the Senate, he rather surprisingly stated. When the Defence Bill came before the Senate in 1909, he supported compulsory military service, arguing that ‘the Boers lost their independence . . . because they were unable to defend themselves’, so his later enthusiasm for conscription was not new.[5]

During debates on the tariff, de Largie consistently favoured protection, but even before the concept of ‘new protection’ was popularised he saw it as benefiting the workers rather than the manufacturers. This interest in the welfare of workers extended to the public sector, de Largie being a consistent contributor to debates on the public service and a champion of its members. In 1913, he chaired a select committee into the dismissal of Mr H. Chinn, the supervising engineer on the transcontinental railway, whom the committee found to have been wrongly dismissed. Towards the end of his career, de Largie took up the cudgels on behalf of the staff of the Senate itself, in 1920 instigating a select committee of which he was again chair. The parliamentary staff did not come under the authority of the public service, but were directly answerable to the presiding officers of the two Houses. Their relative isolation, combined with a fragmented structure within the parliamentary service itself, meant that promotional opportunities were limited and normal safeguards for staff did not necessarily apply. The majority report, signed by de Largie as chairman, recommended that the Senate should retain control of its own officers. However, a minority report supported by de Largie and Senator Senior argued that the President of the Senate should only act on staffing matters with the approval of the relevant parliamentary committee; others thought that parliamentary staff should be brought directly under the Public Service Act. But after several years of debate the status quo was substantially maintained.[6]

After losing his Senate seat at the 1922 election, de Largie lived in Melbourne, where his parliamentary duties had called him, rather than in Western Australia, and in 1940 moved to Sydney. He was instrumental in setting up an Association of Members of the First Federal Parliament, toured Europe in 1928 looking into the coal trade, and took a continuing interest in arbitration matters. Following the death of his first wife, he married the 72-year-old Elizabeth Jeannie Marie Renouard on 8 January 1946 in the Sacred Heart Church, Darlinghurst. He died a little over a year later, on 9 May 1947. His second wife and four children of his first marriage, Margaret, Marie, Paul and Isobel, survived him.[7]


Brian de Garis

[1] J. S. Battye (ed.), The Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol. 1, 1912, Hussey & Gillingham, Adelaide, p. 305; Howard J. Smith, ‘de Largie, Hugh’, ADB, vol. 8; Information received from LISWA, 19 November 1998; Westralian Worker (Kalgoorlie), 8 February 1901, p. 2; Morning Herald (Perth), 2 April 1901, p. 6; The Worker (Sydney), 2 September 1909, p.15; Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 9 June 1896, p. 5, 25 July 1896, p. 6, 30 April 1896, p. 5; Ross McMullin, The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party 1891–1991, OUP, South Melbourne, 1991, pp. 41–42; CPD, 14 March 1917, p.11396.

[2] West Australian (Perth), 12 April 1899, p. 6, 17 April 1899, p. 3; D. J. Murphy (ed.), Labor in Politics: The State Labor Parties in Australia 1880–1920, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1975, pp. 348–349; H. J. Gibbney, Working Class Organization in West Australia from 1880 to 1902, BA (Hons) thesis, University of Western Australia, 1949, pp. 46, 53, 55A, 56–61, 127; Information received from Mr Tony Laffan, Singleton, NSW, and Newcastle District Library; T. A. Coghlan, Labour and Industry in Australia, vol. 4, Macmillan, South Melbourne, 1969, pp. 2306–2307; McMullin, The Light on the Hill, p. 41; John Kirwan, ‘How Western Australia Joined the Commonwealth’, Western Australian Historical Society Journal and Proceedings,vol. 4, pt 2, 1950, pp. 4-25; Westralian Worker (Kalgoorlie), 4 January 1901, p. 2.

[3] ‘Truthful Thomas’, Through the Spy-glass, Praagh & Lloyd , Perth, 1905, p. 54; West Australian (Perth), 5 February 1901, p. 3; Westralian Worker (Kalgoorlie), 8 February 1901, p. 2.

[4] Pearce Papers, MS 213/2/143, NLA; CPD, 23 May 1901, p. 266, 27 May 1903, p. 111, 10 July 1907, p. 251, 27 May 1914, pp. 1449–1450, 4 August 1909, p. 1996, 5 August 1909, pp. 2074–2075, 6 August 1909, p. 2153, 4 August 1909, p. 1962.

[5] CPD, 27 May 1903, p. 114, 30 September 1908, pp. 520–527, 10 October 1906, p. 6354, 11 November 1909, p. 5681; CPP, Report of the royal commission on the Navigation Bill, 1907.

[6] CPP, Report of the select committee on Mr H. Chinn, 1913; CPP, Report of the select committee on Senate officials, 1921; G. S. Reid and Martyn Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament 1901–1988, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1989, pp. 423–425.

[7] Correspondence between Senator Josiah Symon and de Largie, 31 March 1931, Symon Papers, MS 1736, NLA; West Australian (Perth), 13 May 1947, p. 6.


This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 1, 1901-1929, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Vic., 2000, pp. 333-336.

DE LARGIE, Hugh (1859-1947)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1901–23

Senate Committee Service

Library Committee, 1901–03, 1914, 1920–22

Committee of Elections and Qualifications, 1901–03

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1903–14

House Committee, 1903–10, 1913

Select Committee on the Retrenchment of Major J. W. M. Carroll from the Defence Forces, 1904

Select Committee on the Case of Mr H. Chinn, 1913

Standing Orders Committee,1914–22

Select Committee on Post Office, Balfour, Tasmania, 1915

Select Committee on the Officials Engaged In and About the Senate, 1920–21