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Bennett, William James (Billy) (1858–1934)

by Martin Sullivan

Qld shearers strike leaders, 1893 [Bennett is second from right, front row]

Qld shearers strike leaders, 1893 [Bennett is second from right, front row]

State Library of Qld, 64845

William James ('Billy') Bennett (1858-1934) labourer, shearer and gaoled trade union leader

Birth: 1858 in Belfast, Ireland, son of James Bennett, farmer. Marriage: 15 November 1897 in Psychological Society Rooms, Adelaide, South Australia, to Fanny Rosanna Ricks (1876-1946), born in Wiltshire, England. Death: 23 August 1934 at Ruby Vale, near Emerald, Queensland. Religion: “freethinker”.

  • Arrived in Queensland aboard the Durham in 1878. Became a labourer and shearer in Western Queensland. 5 feet 10 ½ inches (179 cm) tall, of medium build, with fair hair and blue eyes. Right arm tattooed with 'WLJGB' & Maltese cross. Could read and write and was deeply interested in logic, philosophy & mathematics. Widely respected.
  • In January 1890 elected delegate of Queensland Shearers' Union at annual general meeting, Blackall Town Hall. Re-elected 1891. Attended 1890 meeting in Blackall addressed by William Lane, who proposed scheme for better organisation of unionists. Attended annual general meeting of recently formed Queensland Labourers' Union at Barcaldine in December 1890 & was defeated by one vote (after an earlier tied vote) by Hugh Blackwell for secretary's position.
  • Delegate to Central District Council of Australian Labour Federation, being elected vice-president. Late in January 1891 was elected chairman of the first strike committee at Barcaldine.
  • In February 1891 went to Adelaide, with George Taylor, as QLU delegate to inaugural meeting of General Labourers' Union, also attended Fifth Annual Conference of Australian Shearers' Union, participating in inconclusive discussions with William Guthrie Spence on proposal for ASU-QLU federation.
  • Arrested, with other strike committee members, on 25 March 1891, charged with conspiracy & remanded on four occasions before police magistrate. In April was committed for trial at criminal sittings of Supreme Court, Rockhampton. In was May convicted by Justice George Harding and sentenced to three years hard labour. While imprisoned on St Helena Island was unwell and spent some time in prison hospital. Released from prison on 17 November 1893.
  • On release worked around Brisbane and then went opal mining at White Cliffs, New South Wales. Accompanied by his wife, he arrived at Cosme, Paraguay, in January 1898, becoming schoolmaster and succeeding John Lane as chairman of the settlement. Later moved to Buenos Aires then returned to Australia for his health.
  • Worked in Brisbane at the Railway labour depot, then was a teacher at Myora school for Aborigines. About 1920 moved to Ruby Vale where he worked as a miner.

Sources
Gavin Souter, A Peculiar People: the Australians in Paraguay (Sydney, 1968); Stuart Svensen, The Shearers' War: the story of the 1891 shearers' strike (Brisbane, 1989); DR 16574, p.307 and DR92277, p 256 prison records, Queensland State Archives https://www.archivessearch.qld.gov.au/items/ITM341532

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Martin Sullivan, 'Bennett, William James (Billy) (1858–1934)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/bennett-william-james-billy-32295/text39967, accessed 4 July 2022.

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