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Jacob Johnson (c. 1887–1961)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published:

Jacob Johnson, Fairfax Corporation, c.1925

Jacob Johnson, Fairfax Corporation, c.1925

National Library of Australia, 52031248

Jacob Johnson (c. 1887-1961) seaman and gaoled trade union leader 

Birth: about 1887 in Sappeneer, Groningen, Holland, son of Roelof Johnson (Johanson), farmer, and Stientje, née Kroon. Marriage: 20 January 1922 in St Jude’s Anglican Church, Randwick, Sydney, New South Wales, to native-born Amy Nelson Olsen (1898-1978). They had one son and one daughter. Death: 25 January 1961 in hospital at Bondi Junction, Sydney. 

  • Arrived in Australia in 1910, and naturalised in Melbourne in 1913 when he claimed to have been born in Groningen, Holland, which is given as his birthplace on his marriage and death certificates. He was generally believed to have been born of Danish or Swedish stock.
  • In February 1921 elected assistant secretary of the Sydney branch of the Federated Seamen’s Union of Australasia — from 1925 the Seamen’s Union of Australasia [SUA]. A radical, he was, in Les Louis’s words an adherent “of the tiny Socialist Party of Great Britain and hostile to both the ALP [Australian Labor Party] and the Communist party, and critical of the ACTU [Australian Council of Trade Unions]”.
  • Johnson was one of the seven men charged — in the “Port Lyttelton” or “Coffin ship” case — accused of having conspired to pervert the course of justice by declaring the steamer Port Lytellton “black”. Judge Edwards refused to grant bail on remand so the defendants were imprisoned for two nights in Long Bay gaol before they were acquitted on 23 July 1924.
  • Between September and November 1925 proceedings taken by the federal government of S. M. Bruce against Johnson and Tom Walsh under the Immigration Act continued before the Deportation Tribunal.
  • The two men were arrested at dawn on 20 November 1925 and imprisoned without bail on Garden Island, preparatory to being deported by the Bruce Government. Defended by H.V. Evatt and others, Johnson appealed to the High Court which ruled that the deportation could not proceed as he had been naturalised in 1913. He was freed on 11 December.
  • As shipping trouble continued, the more militant Johnson quarrelled with Walsh and in December 1926 became general secretary of the SUA replacing Bill Raeburn. Walsh remained general president, however, and the feud continued.
  • In August 1928 Johnson was convicted of intimidation and sentenced to six months gaol. After his District Court appeal was dismissed, he was imprisoned on 19 October spending his sentence in Goulburn gaol then briefly at the prison Afforestation camp at Tuncurry (sometimes known as the Prisoners’ Paradise).
  • Released on 25 February 1929 Johnson resumed his position as SUA general secretary. Eight years of infighting over control of the union followed, during which Walsh was expelled from the union. In December 1935 Johnson was assaulted, robbed and thrown out of a meeting. He was finally ousted from the union in December 1937.
  • Cause of death: hepatic coma, adeno cancer of gall bladder.

Seamen’s Journal
, July 1972 pp 214-215; L. Louis, ‘Recovery from the Depression and the Seamen’s Strike 1935-6’, in Labour History, November 1981, No. 1, p 74-86; Donald Sinclair Fraser, Articles of agreement: The Seamen’s Union of Australia, 1904-1943 a study of antagonised labour, PhD thesis (University of Wollongong, 1998).

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Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Johnson, Jacob (c. 1887–1961)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 May 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Jacob Johnson, Fairfax Corporation, c.1925

Jacob Johnson, Fairfax Corporation, c.1925

National Library of Australia, 52031248

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Johanson, Jacob

c. 1887
Sappeneer, Groningen, Netherlands


25 January, 1961 (aged ~ 74)
Bondi, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (gallbladder)

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