T. J. Ryan

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T. J. Ryan
T. J. Ryan 1916.jpg
Ryan in 1916
19th Premier of Queensland
Elections: 1915, 1918
In office
1 June 1915 – 22 October 1919
MonarchGeorge V
GovernorHamilton Goold-Adams
DeputyTed Theodore
Preceded byDigby Denham
Succeeded byTed Theodore
Leader of the Opposition in Queensland
In office
6 September 1912 – 1 June 1915
PremierDigby Denham
DeputyTed Theodore
Preceded byDavid Bowman
Succeeded byEdward Macartney
Leader of the Labor Party in Queensland
In office
6 September 1912 – 22 October 1919
DeputyTed Theodore
Preceded byDavid Bowman
Succeeded byTed Theodore
Member of the Queensland Legislative Assembly for Barcoo
In office
2 October 1909 – 14 October 1919
Preceded byGeorge Kerr
Succeeded byFrank Bulcock
Member of the Australian Parliament for West Sydney
In office
13 December 1919 – 1 August 1921
Preceded byCon Wallace
Succeeded byWilliam Lambert
Personal details
Thomas Joseph Ryan

(1876-07-01)1 July 1876
Port Fairy, Victoria Colony, British Empire
Died1 August 1921(1921-08-01) (aged 45)
Barcaldine, Queensland, Australia
Cause of deathPneumonia
Resting placeToowong Cemetery
Political partyLabor
Lily Virginia Cook
(m. 1910)
EducationSouth Melbourne College
Xavier College, Melbourne
Alma materUniversity of Melbourne (BA, LLB)
OccupationBarrister, teacher

Thomas Joseph Ryan KC (1 July 1876 – 1 August 1921) was an Australian politician who served as Premier of Queensland from 1915 to 1919, as leader of the state Labor Party. He resigned to enter federal politics, sitting in the House of Representatives for the federal Labor Party from 1919 until his premature death less than two years later.

Ryan was born in Port Fairy, Victoria, to Irish immigrant parents. He studied arts and law at the University of Melbourne, and worked for several years as a teacher at various private schools around Australia. He eventually settled in Queensland and entered the legal profession, working as a barrister in Brisbane. Ryan was elected to the Queensland Legislative Assembly in 1909, and became leader of the Labor Party in 1912. He led the party to victory at the 1915 state election, the first time it had secured majority government in Queensland.

As premier, Ryan led a reforming government that implemented many of the planks in the Labor platform, including the expansion of workers' rights, the implementation of price controls, and the establishment of new state-owned enterprises. After the Labor Party split of 1916, Queensland had the only remaining Labor government in Australia, giving Ryan a national profile. His government was re-elected at the 1918 state election but, in the following year, Ryan resigned to enter federal politics, winning the Division of West Sydney in New South Wales at the 1919 federal election. He was widely seen as the heir apparent to the Labor Party's federal leader, Frank Tudor, who was in poor health. Ryan's sudden death from pneumonia, at the age of 45, was seen as a major blow for the labour movement.

Early life[edit]

Thomas Joseph Ryan was born at Port Fairy, Victoria, Australia, the fifth of six children of Timothy Joseph Ryan, an illiterate Irish labourer who had migrated to Victoria in 1860 and become a small farmer, and his Irish wife Jane, née Cullen (died 1883). Thomas's father shared his keen interest in politics with his family, but was himself never politically active.

Ryan was educated at South Melbourne College, Xavier College, Kew, and the University of Melbourne, where he graduated B.A. and LL.B.

He was appointed an assistant classics master at the University High School, Melbourne, and subsequently held teaching positions at the Launceston Church Grammar School, at the Maryborough Grammar School, and the Rockhampton Grammar School, where he became second master. He resigned that position on being admitted to the Queensland bar in December 1901. He practised as a solicitor at Rockhampton, and subsequently as a barrister at Brisbane. While at Rockhampton in 1900, he joined the Australian Natives' Association and became its local president.

Queensland politician[edit]

Ryan in 1920

At the 1903 federal election, Ryan stood unsuccessfully as an Independent Protectionist candidate in the seat of Capricornia. He joined the Labor Party in 1904, and was the party's candidate in state seat of Rockhampton North at the 1907 state election, but was again unsuccessful. At the state election in October 1909, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Queensland as Labor member for Barcoo. He retained the seat for 10 years and, after the 1912 election, he was chosen as leader of the Labor Party, following the resignation of David Bowman.

After the party's success in the 1915 election, the Ryan government became the first majority Labor government in Queensland. Some of the eight members of his Cabinet had connections with the early ALP of the 1880s and the Shearers' Strike. His government provided the example which would see Labor in power in Queensland almost continuously until 1957.

Major reform of labour laws and agricultural policy was part of the Ryan legacy. His government came to power with a large majority, with Ryan as premier, chief secretary, and attorney-general. An era of progressive industrial legislation and the expansion of state enterprise began. Among the measures passed were the Industrial Arbitration Act, Labour Exchanges Act, Workers' Compensation Act, Inspection of Machinery and Scaffolding Act, and Factories and Shops Amendment Act.

However, where the Ryan government particularly broke fresh ground was the entry of the state into trading activities. Pastoral stations were purchased and run as going concerns, and many retail butchers' shops were opened in Brisbane and other parts of Queensland, which sold meat cheaper than elsewhere and proved to be very popular. Railway refreshment rooms were taken over, state hotels were built or purchased, a producing agency was established, coal mines were acquired, iron and steel works were opened, and a state insurance department was established. In addition, sugarcane price boards were set up, providing fair returns for growers and fair wages for sugar workers. Women were given the right to stand for parliament, industrial reforms were carried out which gave workers a "new deal".[1]

Ryan showed good generalship at the 1918 election and, despite a split in the Labor Party over conscription for overseas service, Ryan's government was returned with a large majority. The defection of Prime Minister Billy Hughes and a significant number of other Labor politicians to the non-Labor side, including New South Wales Premier William Holman, left Ryan as the head of the only Labor government at any level in Australia. As such, he was instrumental in leading the fight against conscription in the plebiscites launched by Hughes in 1916 and 1917.

Friction between Hughes and Ryan almost led to violence in November 1917, when the Australian federal government conducted a raid on the Government Printing Office in Brisbane, to confiscate copies of Hansard that covered debates in the Queensland Parliament during which anti-conscription sentiments had been aired. On 29 November 1917, Billy Hughes travelled to Warwick, southern Queensland, to campaign in support of the 1917 Australian conscription referendum. An egg was thrown at Hughes, resulting in his decision to form the Australian Federal Police.

The State Library of Queensland holds several collections providing insight into the complexity and divisiveness of the conscription debate at the time, but the Stable Collection 1917-1991 containing a surviving copy of Hansard No. 37 is considered a treasure among them.[2]

Statue of Thomas J. Ryan in Queens Gardens, Brisbane

Federal politician[edit]

Ryan was asked by a resolution of a special federal Labor conference to enter federal politics, the only occasion that such a motion has been passed. He was campaign director for the Labor Party during the 1919 Federal election, and was elected to the House of Representatives in the Federal Parliament as the member for West Sydney. In 1920, he was appointed King's Counsel. He had been widely touted as a likely Labor leader before his premature death.[3]

Although a big man physically, Ryan was not strong in health. Weakened by influenza while he was in England at the time of the 1918 flu pandemic, he suffered repeatedly thereafter from bronchial and nasal infections. Furthermore, he seldom took a holiday and was tired from overwork. In July 1921, he set out to campaign for the Labor candidate William Dunstan in the by-election for the federal seat of Maranoa. He was sick at the start and his condition worsened during the long trip. On 1 August 1921, he died in Glenco Hospital, Barcaldine, Queensland, of pneumonia. His body was taken by train to Brisbane, past crowds gathered at each station. Archbishops Duhig and Mannix presided over his funeral in St Stephen's Cathedral and his burial in Toowong Cemetery.

Personal life[edit]

Ryan married Lily Virginia Cook in 1910. She survived him with a son and a daughter and, in 1944, was appointed the Queensland government representative in Melbourne.


T. J. Ryan's headstone[4] at Brisbane's Toowong Cemetery

The early death of such a capable leader was a great blow to the Labor movement. Ryan was described as urbane, amiable and approachable, and his personality had allowed him to win the confidence and trust of people in all ranks, from the governor of the Bank of England to militant unionists. He could hit hard with sarcasm when challenged by foes such as Hughes, yet he remained friendly with numerous fellow parliamentarians, including some of his firmest conservative opponents. The Queensland parliamentary officer and historian, Charles Bernays, regarded Ryan as the greatest parliamentary leader he had observed: "an earnest exponent of the faith that was in him, and a generous big-hearted fighter". Many other historians believe that Ryan, a much bolder figure than federal Labor leader Frank Tudor, would have been Australia's fourth ALP Prime Minister, had he lived just a few years more.[5] A memorial fund collected money to erect a ten-foot (3 m) bronze statue which stands in Queen's Park, Brisbane, near the Old Executive Building. The wording on the metal plaque on the pedestal of the statue describes him as: "Scholar - Jurist - Statesman".

The Federal electoral division of Ryan is named after him, and a Ryan medal was struck for candidates obtaining the highest pass in the annual state scholarship examination.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ross McMullin, The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party 1891-1991
  2. ^ CC BY icon.svg This Wikipedia article incorporates text from Stable collection 1917 – 1991: treasure collection of the John Oxley Library (14 October 2021) published by the State Library of Queensland under CC-BY licence, accessed on 31 May 2022.
  3. ^ Featured Chambers Issue 32 Archived 26 February 2011 at the Wayback Machine — Hearsay – The Journal of the Bar Association of Queensland
  4. ^ Ryan, Thomas Joseph Archived 13 June 2012 at the Wayback Machine — Brisbane City Council Grave Location Search
  5. ^ Johnston, W. Ross; D. J. Murphy. "Ryan, Thomas Joseph (1876 - 1921)"


  • Queensland Political Portraits 1859-1952, University of Queensland Press, 1978
  • Johnston, W. Ross; D. J. Murphy. Ryan, Thomas Joseph (1876 - 1921). Australian Dictionary of Biography. Australian National University. Retrieved 31 May 2007.
  • Serle, Percival (1949). "Ryan, Thomas Joseph". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by Premier of Queensland
Succeeded by
Preceded by Leader of the Opposition of Queensland
Succeeded by
Preceded by Leader of the Labor Party in Queensland
Succeeded by
Parliament of Queensland
Preceded by Member for Barcoo
Succeeded by
Parliament of Australia
Preceded by Member for West Sydney
Succeeded by