BARRETT, John George (1858–1928)
Senator for Victoria, 1901–03 (Labor Party)

John George Barrett was born on 17 December 1858 at Carlton, Melbourne, the child of George Barrett, a carpenter, and Eliza Jane, née Elliot, both born in London. His father was active in party politics in Victoria. Barrett was educated at St Mary’s Church of England school at Hotham. On leaving school at the age of twelve he became an apprentice tinsmith, continuing to work in this trade for nineteen years.[1]

Barrett had a ‘rather delicate appearance’ with ‘a quiet, grave, pale face’, a black moustache and side-whiskers. He was not athletic, and his recreations were ‘mostly of the mental order’. He read history, political economy and trade union literature. Later, as a union leader, Barrett sought to promote the ethic of self-improvement among Victoria’s labouring classes through the promotion of technical education. He cooperated with the wealthy philanthropist, Francis Ormond, in founding the Working Men’s College in 1887 and was a member of the College council for eight years until 1895. The Turner Government later appointed Barrett to the royal commission on technical education, which reported in 1901.[2]

In 1883, Barrett was a founder of the Tinsmiths’, Ironworkers’ and Japanners’ Society. He succeeded F. H. Bromley (later leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party in Victoria) as secretary of the Society, held this office for eleven years, and represented his union on the Melbourne Trades Hall Council (THC). He was elected to the executive of the Council, and served as the Council’s vice-president for a time, and subsequently as president between 1888 and 1889; he also held the position of secretary of the THC between 1893 and 1901. He believed that it was possible for capital and labour to cooperate in the industrial sphere. After the bitter maritime strike of 1890, Barrett was active in the protracted and unsuccessful attempts by unions and employer organisations to establish conciliation and arbitration machinery for the resolution of industrial disputes.[3]

Barrett was among the minority of Victorian trade union leaders who advocated the direct representation of labour in Parliament in the 1880s. He served on the THC Parliamentary Committee, which aimed to influence Labor legislation and secure the election of parliamentarians in the labour interest. He stood as a Labor candidate on several occasions in the 1890s. In 1892, he ran unsuccessfully for the seat of Carlton South as a candidate of the Progressive Political League, which was the Victorian Labor Party’s name at that time. In 1895, on the death of the local member, he ran again for Carlton South, apparently under the political umbrella of the short-lived United Labor and Liberal Party. On this occasion, he also enjoyed the support of the THC, and the local Liberal Reform League, and was successful.

According to a contemporary account, Barrett had ‘the reputation of being a quiet, respectable artisan, who combines the art of working in tin, copper, and iron, with a modest stipend from the Trades Hall magnates for performing the duties of secretary’. According to another observer, Barrett was ‘superior to the class with which he identifies himself’, while Punch claimed that he was ‘a remarkable contrast to the accepted type of demagogue, being so easy and quiet in his bearing, a mere conversational speaker’.[4] In any event, the respectable Labor aristocrat lost his seat in the 1897 election and failed in a bid to regain it in 1900. Meanwhile, he returned to his trade, and as secretary of the THC was prominent in the campaign against the draft Federation Bill ultimately approved by the Victorian electors in 1898.

Barrett saw legislative action as a remedy for many of the problems faced by the union movement and the working class. During the depression of the 1890s, he argued that the state had a duty to find work for the unemployed. He supported the legislative enactment of an eight-hour day and a minimum wage in government contracts. He called for the creation of a state bank. Like the English Fabians, Barrett supported gradualism. He told a government inquiry on one occasion in the mid-1890s that it was better that 'we should gradually work up to the point aimed at, instead of asking for the whole of these things at present’. On a later occasion, he wrote to his friend and colleague, H. B. Higgins: ‘. . . I hope to assist in the Cause of elevating humanity—To Make the World better to give Men & Women a better chance in Life—to work out in their being what God intended they should be is a noble ideal—I would that politicians would forget party strife & Consider this’.[5]

In 1901, Barrett was one of three Victorian Labor candidates endorsed by the THC for the six Senate seats. He was the only successful Labor candidate, coming sixth in the poll, but Barrett had also received the support of the powerful Age newspaper, the National Liberal Organization and the Protectionist Association of Victoria. He was thus the recipient of a broad liberal vote rather than just Labor support. He served only one term in the new Federal Parliament, but from the first had high hopes for the Senate: ‘. . . I believe that the Senate in the future . . . will represent the fighting power of Australia. I should be loath to believe that this Senate will be on the same level as the Upper Chambers we have known in other parts of the continent’.

Barrett appears to have been a reasonably active backbencher. He was a member of the Federal Parliament’s first select committee appointed by the Senate to inquire into steamship communication with Tasmania. An ardent protectionist, he participated enthusiastically in the Senate debate on the tariff in 1902. He was a consistent advocate of the interests of manufacturers and their employees. Barrett was a staunch advocate of the White Australia policy, of a citizen soldiery, women’s suffrage, compulsory arbitration and uniform factory laws. He supported what he called ‘the fad of land nationalization’.

While he had no major policy disagreements with the Labor Party, Barrett drifted away from the Party during his career as a Senator. He missed Caucus meetings frequently. At the end of July 1901, the chairman and secretary of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party (FPLP) were deputed to inquire about his continued absence. Later in the year, he appeared on the platform of a meeting of protectionists in the Melbourne Town Hall, despite the FPLP’s resolution that it was not ‘in the best interests of the Labour party that members should take part in meetings dealing with protection or free trade’.[6]

In June 1902, the radical Tocsin accused him of having ignored Caucus meetings. There was, however, some validity in Barrett’s later claim that he ‘did not leave the Labor party; it left him’. In 1901, the Victorian Labor Party had not yet embraced strict party discipline. In the 1890s, when Barrett had been a Member of the Legislative Assembly, the Parliamentary Labor Party was little more than an informal grouping of radical parliamentarians with a special interest in union matters. Labor candidates were not required to sign a platform or pledge. Indeed, like his more illustrious colleague, W. A. Trenwith, Barrett was never comfortable with the Labor pledge. He believed that members should be allowed to exercise their private judgment on most questions. In 1903, Barrett claimed that he had run as a Labor candidate on five occasions without having signed a pledge. By this time, however, the extra-parliamentary wing of the Victorian Labor Party, the Political Labour Council, had resolved to increase its control over Labor candidates. It demanded that all prospective candidates sign the Labor platform and a pledge. Barrett refused to submit his candidature to a Party plebiscite and was therefore repudiated by the Labor Party. When the Age also abandoned him, his political fate was sealed, and this gentlest of radicals, shunned by his former friends and allies, was defeated at the 1903 election.

After his defeat, Barrett threw himself into the temperance movement. He became secretary of the Victorian Temperance Alliance in 1904. The impulse here was similar to that which had guided his labour activism: a desire to uplift humanity in general and the working classes in particular. By this time, however, many workers regarded temperance as a fad with anti-Labor and Protestant sectarian overtones, and Barrett could be easily dismissed as just another ‘wowser’.

In the midst of political controversy over the Labor Party’s alleged connections with the Roman Catholic Church, the liquor trade and the notorious gambling boss, John Wren, Barrett ran unsuccessfully as a Protestant and temperance candidate for the seat of Melbourne North against Labor leader, G. M. Prendergast, in the 1907 state election. He was easily defeated. Barrett, however, remained involved in temperance activities for the rest of his life. In 1917, he again ran unsuccessfully as a temperance candidate, this time for the state seat of East Melbourne. It appears that, at the time of his death, he was superintendent of the department of law and vigilance for the Victorian Prohibition League. His precise religious affiliation is uncertain, though he was probably a Methodist. When the question of daily prayer was debated in the Senate in 1901, Barrett had remarked that he was ‘brought up in rather a strict school’.

On 29 April 1882, Barrett married Mary Henderson Duncan on the day before her death. On 4 February 1885, he married her sister, Anne Isabel Claudina, at Geelong, by whom he had five daughters, Mary, Jeannette, Eva, Olive and Doreen, and a son, Harold. Barrett died on 19 May 1928 and was buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery. His wife had died some three years before. His six children survived him.[7]


Frank Bongiorno


[1] Punch (Melbourne), 19 July 1906, p. 76; Carlotta Kellaway, ‘Barrett, John George’, ADB, vol. 7; Barrett file, ADB, ANU; Table Talk (Melbourne), 29 March 1895, pp. 3–4; Punch (Melbourne), 19 July 1906, p. 76; Table Talk (Melbourne), 9 May 1901, p. 34; Australasian Hardware and Machinery (Melbourne), vol. 17, no. 7, 1 July 1902, p. 287.

[2] Table Talk (Melbourne), 29 March 1895, p. 4, 9 May 1901, p. 34; VPP. Report of the royal commission on technical education, 1901.

[3] Table Talk (Melbourne), 29 March 1895, p. 3, 9 May 1901, p. 34.

[4] Trades Hall Gazette (Melbourne), 3 November 1888, p. 10; F. R. Bongiorno, Labour and Politics in Victoria, 1885–1914, PhD thesis, ANU, 1994, p. 85; Age (Melbourne), 14 March 1895, p. 4 says he was ‘sound on all the main planks of the Liberal platform’, but ‘as a “labor” candidate . . . would abolish the Legislative Council altogether’; Carlton Gazette, 14 March 1895, p. [2]; Punch (Melbourne),18 April 1901, p. 432, 19 July 1906, p. 76.

[5] Table Talk (Melbourne), 29 March 1895, p. 4; VPP. Minutes of evidence of the Victorian Railway Inquiry Board, 1895; Letter, J. Barrett to H. B. Higgins, 19 October 1897, Higgins Papers, MS 1057, NLA.

[6] Bongiorno, PhD thesis, p. 139; CPD, 29 May 1901, p. 367, 7 May 1902, p. 12370, 8 May 1902, pp. 12384–12399, 29 May 1901, pp. 366–371, 9 April 1902, pp. 11481–11483, 18 July 1901, pp. 2717–2719; Patrick Weller (ed.), Caucus Minutes 1901–1949: Minutes of the Meetings of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1975, vol. 1,  pp. 58, 68.

[7] CPD, 14 June 1901, p. 1140; Toscin(Melbourne), 26 June 1902, p. 5; Age (Melbourne), 1 March 1907, p. 5; CPD, 11 April 1902, p. 11672; Argus (Melbourne), 3 December 1903, p. 7; Bongiorno, op. cit., p. 231; Argus (Melbourne), 21 May 1928, p. 14.


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. 269-272.

BARRETT, John George (1858–1928)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Vic., 1901–03

Victorian Parliament

Member of the Legislative Assembly, Carlton South, 1895–97

SenateCommittee Service

Select Committee on Steam-Ship Communication between Tasmania and Australia, 1901–02

Library Committee, 1903