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Robert (Bob) Semple (1873–1955)

This article was published:

Bob Semple, 1929

Bob Semple, 1929

Robert (Bob) Semple (1873-1955) miner, gaoled trade union official and New Zealand politician

Birth: 21 October 1873 at Sofala, New South Wales, son of John Semple (1815-1893), shepherd, born at Paisley, Renfrewshire, Scotland, and Sydney-born Mary Ann, née Ryan.  Marriage: 27 June 1898 at Outtrim, Victoria, to Margaret McNair. They had two daughters and three sons. Death: 31 January 1955 at Wellington, New Zealand.

  • Briefly attended Crudine Creek public school, NSW. At an early age became a trapper in coalmines, Lithgow, NSW. Later worked in Newcastle mines, then went to Outtrim, Victoria, about 1897, becoming a union activist.
  • Briefly went to Western Australia about 1900, working on Collie coalfield and became president of Collie Miners' Union. Then went to WA goldfields, continuing his union involvement.
  • Left WA through ill health, returning to Victoria about 1901. Worked at Korumburra coal mine, South Gippsland, Victoria. Became president Coal Creek miners' lodge, Victorian Coal Miners' Association, six months before great Victorian coal strike of 1903.
  • Took prominent part in strike, serving as delegate for striking miners, touring South Australia and WA with Tom O'Carroll to raise funds for strikers and developing considerable skills as an orator. In late 1903, after the collapse of the strike, he was forced to leave Australia to obtain work. Emigrated to New Zealand (evidently under an assumed name). Secured work at a State mine, formed a union, became president and drafted first work agreement. Then spent two years working on railway tunnels on the Midland Railway.
  • 1907 was elected president of Runanga Miners' Union. With P. H. Hickey and another Australian, P. C. Webb, set about organising West Coast miners and unskilled workers in a syndicalist federation based on Industrial Workers of the World principles.
  • In 1908 was president of two conferences that led to the formation of the NZ Federation of Miners. In 1909 was instrumental in the formation of the NZ Federation of Labour ('Red Feds'), becoming its official organiser. Was actively involved in the Waihi gold miners' strike (1912) and waterfront strike (1913). Briefly imprisoned for sedition during the latter.
  • In 1916 was sentenced to three years' gaol as an anti-conscriptionist, serving 12 months of his sentence.
  • In 1918 was elected to seat of Wellington as candidate of newly-formed NZ Labour Party, but was defeated at 1919 general elections. Labour member Wellington City Council 1925-35.
  • 1928 elected Labour member for Wellington East, representing seat until 1946, then member for Miramar from 1946 to 1954.
  • Minister for Public Works in NZ Labour government elected in 1935, remaining minister until government's defeat in 1949. Did not contest 1954 election.
  • Renowned as orator, debater and arresting speaker. During his lifetime Semple transformed from a militant unionist, syndicalist and anti-conscriptionist to a conservative and fervent anti-communist parliamentarian.
  • Author of Why I Fight Communism, 1948 (pamphlet reputed to have sold 20,000 copies).

Merrifield Collection, State Library of Victoria; Great Southern Advocate; Outtrim News; Biographical Files, National Library of NZ; NZ Encyclopaedia; B. Gustafson: Labour's Path to Political Independence, 1980; E. Olsen: The Red Feds, 1988; Australian Biographical & Genealogical Record, series 2, vol.3, 1988; information from Peter D. Gardner, 1991, and Carina Hickey, 2005; International Socialist, 16 December 1911. 

Citation details

'Semple, Robert (Bob) (1873–1955)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 May 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Bob Semple, 1929

Bob Semple, 1929

Life Summary [details]


21 October, 1873
Sofala, New South Wales, Australia


31 January, 1955 (aged 81)
Wellington, New Zealand

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