GLASSEY, Thomas (1844–1936)
Senator for Queensland, 1901–03 (Protectionist)

Thomas Glassey, miner and auctioneer, and widely regarded as Australia’s first Labor MP, was also a founder of the National Party in Queensland. Glassey was born at Markethill, County Armagh, Ireland, on 26 February 1844, son of Wilhelm Glassey, a mill hand who supported his large family on ten pence a day, and his wife Susannah, who died when Glassey was an infant. From the age of six, Glassey worked a sixteen-hour day as a loom boy in linen mills for a daily wage of one penny. As a youth, he earned his living as a letter carrier and later as a colliery worker in Scotland, where he had moved at the age of thirteen to live with a married sister. Largely self-educated, Glassey acknowledged the importance of Sunday school in his development.

Shocked by the working conditions of his fellow miners, Glassey became a militant trade union organiser, and was consequently sacked by a succession of mine owners. Glassey’s situation in Scotland became untenable and in 1867, he moved to Bedlington, near Newcastle upon Tyne, where he worked in a cooperative store and as an auctioneer. As a member of the Bedlington Local Board (1881–83), he was involved in campaigns for better housing and improved sanitation. At Airdrie, Scotland, on 3 August 1864, Glassey, a Presbyterian, had married Margaret, née White. In 1874, he was an election worker for Thomas Burt, one of the first working men elected to the House of Commons. With a large family and limited prospects, Glassey sailed with his wife and children for Queensland on the Merkara, arriving in Brisbane on 18 November 1884.

Settling at Bundaberg, he unsuccessfully sought work as a commercial traveller. A year later, the family returned to Brisbane, where Glassey was employed in the Post Office until he was dismissed for sending a list of employee grievances to his superiors. Glassey then established himself as an auctioneer in Fortitude Valley. But reform and public affairs remained in his blood. In 1886, he co-founded the Ipswich Coal Miners’ Mutual Protective Association, serving as its secretary (1886-94).

In 1888, Glassey was elected to the Queensland Parliament as MLA for the seat of Bundamba to represent the interests of the labour movement in Parliament.He later described himself as being at this time an ‘Independent Laborite’ beholden to no sectional interest within the movement. Glassey was parliamentary leader of the Labor Party in Queensland (1894-99) and president of its central political executive (1892-94, 1895-96 and 1898-99). In his first parliamentary speech, he proposed an eight-hour day, advocated a White Australia, and supported education programs. He was an influential member of the 1891 royal commission inquiring into shops, factories and workshops in Queensland.[1]

Early in 1893, Glassey engaged in an ill-fated attempt to unseat Sir Thomas McIlwraith in the electorate of Brisbane North. He was trounced again later that year when he stood for Bundamba. Unwell, and dispirited by these political reverses, Glassey embarked on a holiday-cum-study tour of New Zealand and the United States of America, financed by public subscription. He re-entered Parliament for the seat of Burke at a by-election in 1894, and was elected for Bundaberg in 1896. Glassey opposed the Government’s restrictive Peace Preservation Bill—‘I would not entrust such power to the Apostle Paul or the Apostle Peter’—and favoured progressive measures such as the Married Women’s Property Bill. Interested in land reform and rural industries, he was associated with the establishment, in 1897, of the Queensland Agricultural College at Gatton near Brisbane. Glassey, a supporter of Federation, was one of Queensland’s five representatives at the meeting of the Federal Council of Australasia in Melbourne in January 1899.

Glassey’s strengths were those of a trade union and political organiser. As an MP—notably in negotiations with seasoned conservatives like J. G. Drake over the leadership of a Labor Party–Independent Opposition alliance in 1898—and in his dealings with more politically adroit fellow Laborites such as Anderson Dawson Glassey’s relatively poor political judgement handicapped him. Increasingly disillusioned with the rigidity of party discipline, he resigned his Bundaberg seat in 1900 to test his support, re-contested it as an Independent, and was re-elected, only to resign again in 1901 to stand for the Senate.[2]

Elected to the Senate as a Protectionist, Glassey thought it was ‘moonshine to speak of a low Tariff as protection to industries’. Glassey supported the old-age pension scheme, advocating housing for the aged. He argued strongly ‘that this continent shall be the home preserved for a white Australian people for all time’, but urged the ‘gradual abolition’ of Kanaka labour. Glassey recommended the appointment of a commission to investigate Kanakas’ living and working conditions, wanting to prevent their deportation ‘to islands where they will be friendless, homeless, and tribeless’. He advocated the exclusion of coloured seamen from the crews of ships carrying the Commonwealth mail. He also called for ‘the holding in check of the land speculator and the land jobber, whose operations are seldom in the interests of the people as a whole’. Glassey remained an ‘ardent federalist’. In March 1902, he stated: ‘We want uniformity of franchise, uniformity in the method of conducting elections; in legislation reserving this Commonwealth for people of the white race; in defence; in banking; and in the establishment of an Inter-State Commission for directing the trade and commerce of the Commonwealth’.

Glassey took a keen interest in parliamentary procedure. He opposed the appointment of the Senate committee of disputed returns and qualifications, on which he was to serve, on the grounds that a Court of Disputed Returns was a more appropriate forum for dealing with electoral issues. As in the Queensland Parliament, Glassey was against the insertion of closure provisions in the Senate Standing Orders, arguing that they would provide unwarranted opportunities to stifle debate. He also lamented the fact that the Senate had only one paid minister, whereas the House of Representatives could boast six.[3]

Defeated at the 1903 election, Glassey’s interest in public life remained strong. He stood unsuccessfully for the Queensland Parliament as an Independent Labor candidate for Bundamba in 1904 and as an Independent for Fortitude Valley in 1907. In 1910, Glassey tried in vain to re-enter the Senate as a Liberal. He was a founder of the Queensland National Party in 1917. For years, official Labor regarded Glassey as a traitor to his class for leaving its ranks. T. A. Coghlan considers that Glassey’s ‘complaint against his fellow Labour members was that they were losing sight of the ultima ratio of Socialism in their struggle for small present benefits’.

In 1911–12, Glassey served as an immigration officer in England. He was appointed a foundation director of the New Aberdare Colliery in 1913. Glassey was a voracious reader and a keen correspondent, notably with Alfred Deakin and Sir Josiah Symon. He was also an enthusiastic walker; in 1935 the Queensland Minister for Mines presented him with an elegant walking stick for his services to Queensland’s coal miners. Senator Collings remembered Glassey’s ‘remarkable vitality . . . cheerful personality and his snow white hair’.[4]

Glassey died at his home in the Brisbane suburb of New Farm on 28 September 1936, and was buried in Toowong Cemetery. His three sons, Samuel, William and Thomas, and three daughters, Margaret, Susannah and Agnes, survived him. His wife had predeceased him in 1899. In 1938, a memorial celebrating Glassey’s life and achievements was erected on Limestone Hill in the city of Ipswich, the scene of many of his early campaigns on behalf of working people.

Derek Drinkwater



[1] D. J. Murphy (ed.), Labor in Politics: The State Labor Parties in Australia 18801920, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1975, p. 135; Letter, Glassey to Sir Josiah Symon, 18 September 1930, Symon Papers, MS 1736, NLA; QPD, 21 August 1888, p. 81, 22 May 1889, p. 34, 9 August 1889, pp. 1080–1081; QPP, Report of the royal commission on shops, factories, and workshops in the colony, 1891.

[2] QPD, 6 September 1894, p. 478, 21 July 1897, p. 377, 29 September 1896, p. 987; Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 27 February 1934, p. 10; QPD, 1 July 1897, pp. 180–182; D. J. Murphy, R. B. Joyce and Colin A. Hughes (eds), Prelude to Power: The Rise of the Labour Party in Queensland 18851915, Jacaranda Press, Milton, Qld, 1970, pp. 196-197; Murphy, Labor in Politics, pp. 163–4; D. J. Murphy, ‘The Dawson Government in Queensland, the First Labour Government in the World’, Labour History, no. 20, May 1971, pp. 2–3; Telegraph (Brisbane), 26 February 1926, pp. 8, 9.

[3] CPD, 30 May 1901, pp. 462–474, 7 May 1902, p. 12351, 2 September 1903, pp. 4459–4460, 14 November 1901, p. 7276, 22 November 1901, p. 7674, 5 March 1902, pp. 10593–10594, 3 October 1901, pp. 5551–5555, 3 September 1903, pp. 4542–4544, 21 June 1901, p. 1440, 7 March 1902, p. 10753, 10 June 1903, p. 680, 17 June 1903, pp. 975–976, 26 June 1903, p. 1461.

[4] T. A. Coghlan, Labour and Industry in Australia, Macmillan, South Melbourne, Vic., 1969, vol. 4, p. 2267; Letters, Glassey to Alfred Deakin, 14 July 1909 and 24 October 1912, Deakin Papers, MS 1540, NLA; Letters, Glassey to Sir Josiah Symon, 24 November 1929 and 20 March 1931, Symon Papers, MS 1736, NLA; CPD, 30 September 1936, p. 642; Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 29 September 1936, p. 12; Ian Lipke, ‘Glassey, Thomas’, ADB, vol. 9.


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. 92-95.

GLASSEY, Thomas (1844–1936)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Qld, 1901–03

Queensland Parliament

Member of the Legislative Assembly, Bundamba, 1888–93; Burke, 1894–96; Bundaberg, 1896–1901

Senate Committee Service

Committee of Elections and Qualifications, 1901–03

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1903

House Committee, 1903