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John McDonald (1877–1933)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published:

John McDonald (1877-1933) seaman, ship painter and docker, gaoled trade union leader

Birth: in 1877 in Glasgow, Scotland, son of Roderick McDonald, joiner, and Ann, née Kerr Marriage: 25 July 1900 in St Augustine’s Church, Balmain North, NSW, to native-born Marcelles Rebecca Rose Madigan (1874-1948). They had four daughters and two sons. Death: 9 March 1933 in Balmain North. Religion: Catholic. 

  • Member of the Seamen’s Union in Britain. Arrived in Australia in 1897 aboard the RMS Moama on its first voyage.
  • Member of the Balmain Laborers’ Union in 1900, of the Amalgamated Railway and Tramway Association (ARTA) in 1901 and of its committee of management. On the council executive of the ARTA 1917.
  • President of the NSW branch of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union (FSPDU) from 1919, succeeded Robert Mahony (‘Old bob’) as secretary in 1923 and held that position until 1933.
  • Was one of the seven men charged in the “Port Lyttelton conspiracy’ or “Coffin ship” case. The trade unionists were charged with 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.
  • First joined the Australian Labor Party in 1900 and was long-term president of the Annandale and later Stanmore labor leagues. Financial trustee of the Trades Hall Association, executive member of the Labour Council and in 1932 president of the eight-hour committee.
  • Appointed government nominee on board of directors of Sydney Hospital in 1927.
  • Had been appointed federal secretary of the FSPDU only a few weeks before he died of heart disease in Darling street, Balmain. After his death a wrestling, boxing and vaudeville testimonial performance at Leichhardt stadium was staged to help his widow.

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Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'McDonald, John (1877–1933)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 July 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland


9 March, 1933 (aged ~ 56)
Balmain, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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