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Leslie Leonard (Les) Kirkwood (1891–1959)

by Peter Sheldon

This article was published:

Leslie Leonard (Les) Kirkwood (1891-1959) labourer, Water Board employee, trade union official and political activist

Birth: 9 August 1891 at Fingal, Tasmania, son of native-born parents David Kirkwood (c.1860-1925), a miner of Scottish ancestry, and Helena, née Schurrah (1865-1896). Marriage: 1925 at Krambach, near Forster, New South Wales, to native-born Jane Elizabeth Paff (1897-1984). They had two daughters and two sons. Death: 25 June 1959 in Sydney Hospital, NSW; usual residence Flood Street, Clovelly, Sydney. Religion: Anglican. 

  • His maternal grandfather Thomas Bowman Scurrah (c.1806-1885) arrived in Van Diemen’s Land as a convict in 1824.
  • Les worked at the Sydney Water Board as a casual labourer in 1915-1917 and 1918-1920. Was a permanent water supply maintenance worker from 1920 to 1956 and a temporary board employee from 1956 to 1959.
  • Vice-president of Surrey Hills Branch of Labor Council in 1919 and secretary in 1920. Delegate to South Sydney Federal Labor Council 1919.
  • President of the Water Board house union [Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage Employees’ Association] from 1929 to 1959.
  • Initially sporadically active in Water Board house union against W. A. Macpherson’s oligarchy in early 1920s. Involved in inner-city Australian Labor Party branch battles and controversies in the early 1920s. Active in uncovering 1923 ALP’s ‘sliding ballot box’ scandal. Opposed Australian Workers’ Union control of the party.
  • As president of large Surry Hills branch, defeated J. Beasley in West Sydney Federal Electorate Council elections in 1923. Later was active in Paddington branch.
  • From 1926 was active in Water Board union politics in opposition to Macpherson. Linked dissident maintenance workers and more left-wing construction workforce to topple ruling group in the Water Board house union in 1929.
  • In 1931 accommodated himself to restoration of new Macpherson ruling group. Opposed J. T. Lang during 1930s. Founded local branch of the Federal Labor Party and was its candidate for Paddington in the 1935 NSW election.
  • From late 1930s increasingly attuned to quietist house union politics.
  • Cause of death: myocardial infarction and prostatic hypertrophy.

Water Board staff records; Water and Sewerage Gazette, July-August 1959 p.1; Metropolitan Water Sewerage and Drainage Board, Annual Report 1959-60; Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage Employees’ Association Minutes; Labor News, 1 February 1919, 20 November 1920, 15 and 21 January 1921, 16 April 1921, 27 October 1923; Labor Daily, 27 May 1929; Peter Sheldon, Maintaining control: a history of unionism among employees of the Sydney Water Board, PhD thesis University of Wollongong, 1989; NSW ALP ‘Executive Report for 1923’.

Citation details

Peter Sheldon, 'Kirkwood, Leslie Leonard (Les) (1891–1959)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 April 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


9 August, 1891
Fingal, Tasmania, Australia


25 June, 1959 (aged 67)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Organisations
Political Activism