TURLEY, Joseph Henry Lewis (1859–1929)
Senator for Queensland, 1904–17 (Labor Party)

Joseph Henry Lewis (Harry) Turley, wharf labourer, trade unionist and first Labor President of the Senate, was born on 24 April 1859 at Burton St Michael, Gloucester, England, the son of Charles Turley, master shoemaker, and his wife, Agnes (Susan), née Oliver. Harry was educated at Brixham, Devonshire. He went to sea, arriving in Brisbane in 1879, and worked there as a wharf labourer. Before standing for Parliament in 1893, he said that he ‘had never done anything but heavy work’, adding ‘I was strong and could tackle any job. Because of my physique I was fairly successful in getting employment’. On 15 May 1886, he married Mary Smith; there were four children of the marriage—a son, Henry, and three daughters, Agnes, Olive and Jessie.

Turley became an official of the Wharf Labourers’ Union. As he later described it: ‘I could not afford bus fares at the time, and I had to walk from my home to the hall and back again after doing a hard day’s work that not many men cared to tackle’. Turley rose high in union ranks. Secretary and then president of the Wharf Labourers’ Union, he was a member of the intercolonial defence committee, which met in Sydney in 1890 to take over the conduct of the maritime strike. He also attended negotiating conferences in Sydney on behalf of the Queensland Shearers’ Union before and during the 1891 shearers’ strikes.[1]

In May 1893, Turley won the Legislative Assembly seat of Brisbane South in the Labor interest. (Years later, he was proud to point out that he had defeated a candidate who ‘never in the whole course of his life had lifted anything heavier than his own portmanteau’, but who traduced Turley’s own working record.) In the following year, Turley, together with E. H. Lane and John Bond, re-formed the Socialist League. Defeated in March 1899, Turley won back Brisbane South in a dramatic by-election four months later. The Brisbane vote was tied, and the final figures from a Rockhampton polling booth gave Turley an unexpected three-vote victory. An excited crowd sought to carry him in triumph down Stanley Street. Turley ‘fiercely fought against this mob worship, his clothes being torn in the struggle. When at last he was able to address the crowd he told them that he strongly resented this hero worship . . . He pointed out that if he ever did anything that those same people disagreed with they would just as enthusiastically hound him down to the gutter’.[2]

Turley was Home Secretary in the brief Dawson Ministry from 1 to 7 December 1899, the world’s first Labor Government. Defeated for both Carnarvon and Maryborough in 1902, he contested the federal seat of Oxley in 1901, and eventually returned to political life through election to the Senate in December 1903.

Harry Turley’s political beliefs were grounded in his battles for the labour cause during the 1890s. Personally modest, he saw himself as owing a good deal to Australia and to the movements to which he belonged. He was ‘perfectly satisfied’ that he could not have attained a position in public life had he remained in England: ‘My experience is that a little while ago most men were pushed into the business [of politics] because it was very hard then to get men who were prepared to take on the responsibility of a seat in Parliament’. Regarded as one of Labor’s ‘strongest and most hard-headed men’, Turley had served on the Queensland central political executive of the Party from 1895to 1896 and again from 1901 to 1905.[3]

He had learnt bitter lessons. In 1909, explaining his comment that he was a member of ‘the despised Labour party,’ he declared: ‘A Labour man who has been in politics for any time can never forget the manner in which he has been treated oftentimes. In the State Parliament there is not a Labour man who did not feel, at some time or other, that he was not supposed to be on the same level as the gentlemen whom he generally found himself opposing’.

Turley was highly sceptical of liberalism. He reflected on the maritime strike of 1890, and recalled how ‘we fought, we starved, we slaved in this country to burst up that old principle of Liberalism known as freedom of contract’, a policy, whose object, he considered, was the ‘robbing and fleecing’ of maritime employees. He told the Senate: ‘There are friends of mine who have scarcely yet recovered from the shock which they suffered at that time’. From this he concluded: ‘Experience teaches us that the worker can rely only on his own efforts, and the efforts of those who belong to his own party, to drag him out of his poverty-stricken conditions’. Turley’s own efforts in the Senate were directed towards industrial legislation, especially the details of conciliation and arbitration, maritime matters, and immigration restriction.[4]

The maintenance of the White Australia policy was central to Turley’s thinking. He had taken ‘a fairly active part in the work of upholding that policy. I supported it at a time when the preaching of such a doctrine was not very popular’. To him, it meant the protection of hard-won industrial conditions from employers seeking to introduce ‘cheap coloured labour’ under the hated banner of freedom of contract. Hence his emphatic opinion that ‘I would have no contract immigration at all if I had my way’. In 1901, when Turley had contested Oxley, the Brisbane Worker reported that ‘he may be trusted to go straight-out for the abolition of coloured aliens’.[5]

Turley took his parliamentary responsibilities seriously. In 1906, he was critical of the practice of rushing legislation through at the end of a session, and reminded Senators that the fact that he had spoken on less than a dozen occasions during the parliamentary session did not mean his silent assent was to be taken for granted. Turley had plenty to say on issues of concern to him. On more than one occasion, he made it clear that it was ‘not the duty of the Senate in arranging its business, to consider where senators live’. In 1916, he declined an invitation to join ten other Federal parliamentarians in visiting Britain, as he believed ‘there is work for Parliament to do’. Turley was indefatigable in attending to his electors. The Sydney Mail recorded in 1910 that he ‘probably has travelled more over his State than any other senator, for during each recess he fills in most of the time on a bicycle meeting electors in the back-blocks’. In 1905, for example, he had logged up ‘hundreds of miles,’ noting that everywhere he went there were ‘large numbers of unemployed’. It was through such direct contact that Turley acquired his ‘encyclopaedic knowledge’ of industrial conditions in his state.[6]

In April 1910, the Fisher Labor Government was elected with a majority in both Houses. In July of that year, Turley, who had served as a Temporary Chairman of Committees since 1909, was elected to the presidency of the Senate, the first Labor man to hold the post. Devoid of pretension, he heralded a new era by discarding the wearing of wig and gown. Turley was a strong-featured man of powerful physique. With his bald head and walrus moustache, he was an imposing figure; he maintained firm discipline, if sometimes erring on the side of pedantry.

In November 1912, he initiated the first suspensions in the Senate: Senator Rae was suspended after refusing to withdraw words complained of by Senator Edward Millen whilst Senator Needham was suspended on a motion of dissent against Turley’s ruling by fellow Queensland Labor senator, Thomas Givens. In 1911, in reversing a ruling by the Chairman of Committees, Turley offered a very broad interpretation of the Senate’s powers to amend the tariff. He was concerned that to do otherwise might give the House of Representatives ‘the impression that the Senate is not prepared to stand up for the powers it possesses under the Constitution’. If the Chairman’s ruling stood, Turley believed that ‘the powers of the Senate would be considerably limited’. Turley’s ruling was narrowly overturned, the first successful motion of dissent against a Senate President.

As President, Turley held joint responsibility with the Speaker for the administration of the parliamentary departments. Finding that departmental rivalries had distorted salary scales for parliamentary officers, he arranged with Speaker McDonald that a balance would be maintained between the salaries of the officers of the two Houses.[7]

Turley’s deposition as Senate President in July 1913 occasioned surprise. The Argus commented that he ‘had made an excellent President’, adding that while he ‘was not a brilliant man . . . he was tactful and perfectly just, and there was no obvious reason for making a change’. Despite Labor’s narrow defeat in May 1913, the Party still controlled the Senate. However, a majority of the Labor Caucus took the view that the office should not be held by one man for more than one term, resulting in the election of Thomas Givens to succeed Turley.

In his final term in the Senate, Turley participated more fully in debate than ever before. He had much to say regarding the ‘tragedy’ of the conscription issue, which split his party in 1916. Although active in encouraging voluntary enlistment, Turley remained resolutely opposed to conscription for overseas service, and stayed with the Labor Party. His stand on conscription brought about his defeat at the federal election of 1917. He was also unsuccessful in his attempts to regain his Senate seat in 1919 and 1925.

In 1919, Turley was appointed shipping master in the Queensland harbours and rivers department. When that post was abolished in 1921, he was employed as a storeman with the Commonwealth Mercantile Marine office, working there until his sudden death in a Brisbane street on 5 June 1929. In 1917, Turley had described a colleague as ‘unassuming, always at his post, and dependable’, commenting that ‘after doing his day’s work he devoted a considerable amount of time to the labour movement, because he realized the unfavourable conditions under which we worked, and was resolved to make those conditions better’.

He might have been describing himself.[8]

Geoffrey Browne


[1] Brian F. Stevenson, ‘Turley, Joseph Henry Lewis’, ADB, vol. 12; CPD, 14 March 1917, pp. 11421, 11427.

[2] CPD, 14 March 1917, p. 11421; E. H. Lane, Dawn to Dusk: Reminiscences of a Rebel, William Brooks, Brisbane, 1939, pp. 58–59.

[3] CPD, 14 March 1917, p. 11418; Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney), 22 March 1902, p. 35.

[4] CPD, 22 July 1909, pp. 1476–1477, 14 March 1917, p. 11423, 22 July 1909, p. 1475, 13 February 1917, p. 10427.

[5] CPD, 13 February 1917, p. 10428, 13 December 1905, p. 6797, 14 December 1905, p. 6935; Worker (Brisbane), 16 March 1901, p. 12.

[6] CPD, 21 September 1906, pp. 5073–5074, 22 June 1906, p. 652, 10 May 1916, p. 7726; Sydney Mail, 13 July 1910, p. 29; CPD, 14 December 1905, p. 6937; Worker (Brisbane), 15 January 1910, p. 9.

[7] Punch (Melbourne), 4 August 1910, p. 156; J. R. Odgers, Australian Senate Practice, 6th edn, Royal Australian Institute of Public Administration, Canberra, 1991, pp. 370–371; CPD, 9 November 1911, pp. 2395–2399, 1 November 1912, pp. 4997–5007, 6 November 1912, pp. 5038–5057, 19 December 1911, pp. 4678–4696, 17 December 1913, p. 4602.

[8] Argus (Melbourne), 10 July 1913, p. 10; Age (Melbourne), 10 July 1913, p. 11; CPD, 22 September 1916, p. 8864, 13 February 1917, p. 10430, 14 March 1917, p. 11420.


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. 108-111.

TURLEY, Joseph Henry Lewis (1859–1929)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Qld, 1904–17

President of the Senate, 1910–13

Queensland Parliament

Member of the Legislative Assembly, Brisbane South, 1893–99, 1899–1902

Senate Committee Service

House Committee, 1904–13

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1907–10, 1913–17

Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary Powers, Privileges, or Immunities, 1908

Standing Orders Committee, 1910–17

Library Committee, 1910–13