HUGHES William Morris

Years active
13 November 1908 ‒ 2 June 1909; 29 April 1910 ‒ 24 June 1913; 17 September 1914 ‒ 21 December 1921; 20 March 1939 ‒ 7 October 1941.
Portrait of William Morris Hughes - From Wikipedia commons.


William Morris (Billy) Hughes was born on 25 September 1862 at Pimlico, London, the only child of Welsh parents, William Hughes and Jane, née Morris. His father was a carpenter and joiner employed at the Houses of Parliament, and a deacon of the Particular Baptist Church. His mother died when Hughes was six and for the next five years he lived with his father's sister and attended the local school at Llandudno, Wales. In 1874 he returned to London as a pupil-teacher at St Stephen's School in Westminster, getting a sound education in English history and literature during his apprenticeship. Made an assistant teacher in 1879 he continued to teach for another five years. While still a teenager Hughes joined a volunteer battalion of the Royal Fusiliers.

Deciding to emigrate at age 22, Hughes embarked for Queensland on the SS Duke of Westminster in October 1884, arriving in Brisbane on 8 December. After two itinerant years doing various jobs in the outback, he was working as a galley-hand on a coastal steamer before he settled in Sydney. Desperately poor for a period, he finally found a steady job as assistant to an oven-maker, and accommodation in a boarding-house near Moore Park. He established a common law marriage with his landlady's daughter, Elizabeth Cutts. The first of the couple's six children was born in 1889, and the family moved to a weatherboard cottage in the wharf-side suburb of Balmain the following year. They opened a small mixed shop in their home – Hughes did odd jobs and mended umbrellas, and Elizabeth took in washing. She remained in Sydney raising the children and running the family business while Hughes pursued his political interests.

Becoming involved in the burgeoning labour movement, Hughes sold political pamphlets from the shop and held meetings of young reformers on the premises. Joining various radical groups and debating societies, his first appearance as a street-corner speaker was on behalf of the Balmain Single Tax League. As an organiser for the Amalgamated Shearers' Union, he spent eight months campaigning for the Labor cause in western New South Wales in 1894, before winning pre-selection for the New South Wales Legislative Assembly seat of Lang. His friends helped him produce a weekly newspaper, The New Order, as part of the election campaign and, when he won the seat, bought him a decent suit and dragged him through the city in a dog-cart. Hughes proved to be an eloquent speaker, an astute tactician and a tough negotiator both in parliament and as a union organiser. In 1899 he began a long-term connection with wharf labourers' unions, later organising the Waterside Workers' Federation. He served on the executive, often as president, of these and other labour associations.

Initially opposed to the proposed terms for the federation of Australian colonies, Hughes became a keen supporter when he realised that defence, industrial relations and immigration would be more effectively dealt with on a federal basis. In the first federal election on 29 March 1901 he won the seat of West Sydney, which incorporated most of the area he had represented in the colonial parliament. A founding member of the federal parliamentary Labor Party, which was formed the day before the opening of the first Commonwealth parliament, Hughes was on the Opposition benches for the first years after Federation. Living mostly in Melbourne – the site of federal Parliament – after 1901, he left his family in Sydney, and held the seat of West Sydney easily in the December 1903 election, in which Labor made substantial gains. With the House of Representatives almost evenly divided between the Protectionists, the Free Traders and Labor, Protectionist Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, who referred to this parliament as 'the three elevens', negotiated an alliance with Labor to stay in office.

Heavily engaged in union affairs during this period, Hughes was also studying part-time. Qualifying as a lawyer in 1903, he was admitted to the New South Wales Bar in November that year. He moved his family to Gore Hill and, after Elizabeth Cutts died in September 1906, left his younger children there in the care of his eldest daughter, Ethel.

Losing the Labor support he needed to govern, Deakin resigned in April 1904 over an amendment to a contentious Conciliation and Arbitration Bill. Labor leader John Christian (Chris) Watson then formed the first federal Labor government. Hughes was appointed Minister for External Affairs and served in the role until 18 August 1904 when that government also fell victim to the Bill. For the first time, Labor became the federal Opposition, to a government led by Free Trader George Reid, with the backing of conservative Protectionist Allan McLean. This arrangement was also short-lived. In the recess after the Bill was finally passed late in 1904, an alliance which defeated Reid in the House of Representatives was negotiated between the Labor party and Protectionist groups. Reinstated as Prime Minister from 5 July 1905, Deakin again governed with Labor's support, even after the December 1906 election which made Labor the largest single party in the lower House. Many of the policies common to both parties were implemented during this period.

Hughes, who served as chairman of the royal commission on navigation from 1904 to 1907, was appointed by Deakin to represent Australia as a shipping conference in London in 1907. Gaining some renown for both his knowledge of the industry and his lucid reasoning, Hughes was also inspired to reach for a wider audience. For four years from October 1907 he contributed a weekly column to the Daily Telegraph. Some of his articles were published separately in 1910 as The Case for Labor. Witty, humorous and informative about Labor policies, his popular column contributed to growing support for the party.

Andrew Fisher replaced Watson as Labor leader in 1907, and ended the agreement with Deakin towards the end of the following year, forming a Labor government instead. Attorney-General in the first Fisher ministry, from 13 November 1908 to 2 June 1909, Hughes was also made King's Counsel (KC) in 1909. When the non-Labor elements in the parliament regrouped in a 'Fusion' alliance and reclaimed government, under a somewhat reluctant Deakin, Hughes delivered a memorably acerbic speech in the House, castigating Deakin for his variable allegiances.

Increasingly confident of governing in its own right, Labor won large majorities in both Houses at the election on 13 April 1910. Retaining West Sydney, Hughes again became Attorney-General from 29 April 1910 and was Fisher's deputy in the parliamentary party. Consolidating the reforms of previous years, the government established the Commonwealth Bank, introduced a national land tax, took over the administration of the Northern Territory and began construction of the new national capital, officially named Canberra on 12 March 1913. As Attorney-General, Hughes ultimately contributed hundreds of pieces to the Opinion Book – covering an extensive range of subjects, those from his first two terms were indicative of the far-reaching concerns of the embryonic Commonwealth government.

Avoiding the attention of his colleagues and the press, on 26 June 1911 Hughes and 37-year-old trained nurse Mary Ethel Campbell, from Burrandong, New South Wales, were married with Anglican rites at Christ Church in South Yarra, Melbourne. Holding his seat at the May 1913 election, Hughes finished his second term as Attorney-General on 24 June that year when the Liberals came into power.2 Governing with a majority of only one seat in the House of Representatives and a minority in the Senate, on 5 June 1914 Liberal Prime Minister Joseph Cook advised the Governor-General of the need for a double dissolution under section 57 of the Constitution. For the first time in the history of the federal parliament the Senate and the House of Representatives were dissolved simultaneously and an election was called for 5 September 1914. When the First World War broke out in August, Hughes initially tried to stop the election but was overruled, with both Labor and Liberal leaders immediately declaring their support for Britain. Clearly victorious at the polls, the Labor Party again formed a government. Appointed Attorney-General from 17 September 1914 in Fisher's third ministry, Hughes kept the portfolio after he became Prime Minister, following Fisher's resignation from parliament on 27 October 1915.

Exceedingly active during the war years, Hughes supervised the passage of war precautions and trading with the enemy legislation, and that providing for the Commonwealth's first direct taxation – needed to cope with wartime expenditure. The responsibilities and workload of the Attorney-General's Department grew enormously. Opinions given during this period reflected the government's preoccupation with all aspects of the war and its ramifications. In 1916 the Secretary to the Department, Robert Garran, was appointed Solicitor-General and given many of the powers of the Attorney-General to enable Hughes to concentrate on his Prime Ministerial role. Visiting Ottawa, Canada, that year, en route to England for talks with allies directing the war in Europe, Hughes was made a member of the Canadian Privy Council (PC), a unique honour at the time. In intensive meetings in England, Hughes negotiated hard for Australia to have a say in how the war was fought, and to protect his nation's trading interests. He won the right to speak independently at an allied conference in Paris, visited Australian troops at the front and managed to purchase – and retain in the face of threatened requisition – 15 cargo vessels which became the basis of the Commonwealth Shipping Line. Popular for such strong leadership throughout the war and subsequent peace talks, Hughes was nicknamed 'the little digger'.3

Despite such successes, Hughes polarised opinion on many issues in the course of his career. Often irascible and impatient, he was relentless in pursuing his goals and even used his deafness to advantage – when he wished not to hear something he would turn off his 'accousticon' hearing machine. Prolonged attempts to expand Commonwealth powers over commerce, monopolies and industrial relations, resulted in disagreements with other members of his party and with the States. His inconsistent intervention in arbitration issues caused some discontent among trade unions, and ultimately the resignation of the President of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and ArbitrationHenry Higgins. Most contentious of all was the issue of conscription for military service, which fragmented the Labor Party and impacted on political alliances for decades afterwards. Determined to introduce conscription to reinforce the troops overseas, Hughes misjudged the degree of opposition from the unions and groups within his own party. Without a majority in the Senate he was unable to legislate for conscription so – seeking public sanction for the policy – decided to hold a plebiscite in October 1916. At the end of a heated campaign Hughes lost at the polls. He was expelled from the Labor Party and dismissed from his long-term position as union secretary for the Sydney wharf labourers.

Followed out of the Party by many of his older colleagues, Hughes remained Prime Minister, merging his supporters with some from the Opposition to form the National,4 or 'Win the War', Party. At the next general election on 5 May 1917 he left the working-class electorate of West Sydney, instead successfully contesting the seat of Bendigo in Victoria against the Labor member. Convincingly returned to government, Hughes continued as both Prime Minister and Attorney‑General. Although he had promised not to reopen the conscription issue unless the tide of battle turned, by November 1917 Hughes felt that the threat against the Allies warranted another attempt to obtain the support of voters. Even more passionate debate was followed by a greater loss than before in the second plebiscite, held on 20 December. Another outcome of the campaign was the creation of a Commonwealth police force, established by Hughes who found the Queensland police unresponsive after he was struck by an egg thrown at him on the railway station at Warwick.

Having declared that he would not govern without conscription, Hughes resigned as Prime Minister, but in the absence of any other leader who could command a majority, was recommissioned by the Governor-General. In April 1918 Hughes left Australia on a trip that was to last 16 months. Travelling via America to England for meetings of the Imperial War Cabinet, and for trade negotiations, he was still in London when the Armistice came into effect on 11 November 1918. He lobbied hard to ensure Australia's representation in its own right at the Versailles Peace Conference, and subsequently its membership of the League of Nations. At the peace talks during 1919, and later at the 1921 Imperial Conference in London, Hughes won several points crucial to his country's interests and security. In a major ministerial reshuffle on 21 December 1921 he relinquished the position of Attorney-General to Littleton Groom.

Less secure in government, Hughes was alienated from his former political base but too socialist in his policies to be fully trusted by some Nationalist supporters, or by the business sector. In 1922 he changed electorates again, from Bendigo to North Sydney, and moved back to live in Sydney. He was returned to parliament, but the election on 16 December 1922 gave the balance of power to the recently formed Country Party, led by Earle Page. When Page refused to work with him, Hughes was obliged to stand down as Prime Minister, giving way to a Nationalist-Country Party coalition under SM Bruce from February 1923. Becoming outspoken in his criticism of the Coalition leadership later in the decade, Hughes felt so strongly about the government's attempt to transfer responsibility for industrial arbitration to the States that he was instrumental in organising defeat of the enabling bill5 by one vote, triggering the dissolution of the House of Representatives. In the ensuing election on 12 October 1929 Bruce lost his seat and Labor, led by James Scullin, won government in a landslide victory. Expelled from the Nationalist parliamentary party, Hughes retained his seat as an 'Independent Nationalist'.

His attempts to form a viable new 'Australian Party' unsuccessful, Hughes supported the Scullin government for a time. Dissatisfied with its performance in the face of the Great Depression, he then joined the new United Australia Party (UAP) under Joseph Lyons. Winning a majority at the general election in December 1931 the UAP formed a government at the beginning of 1932. That year Hughes was sent as a delegate to the General Assembly of the League of Nations. Returning convinced of the likelihood of further armed conflict, he persistently spoke out on the need to prepare for war. Given ministerial responsibility for health and repatriation and made Vice-President of the Executive Council in 1934, Hughes was appointed Minster for External Affairs in 1937. In August that year, his 21 year-old only daughter from his marriage to Dame Mary6 died in London – her huge funeral in Sydney was attended by associates from across the political spectrum.

On 20 March 1939, at the age of 76, Hughes began his fourth term as Attorney-General. Initially replacing Robert Menzies, who had resigned from the ministry, Hughes retained that appointment (and responsibility for industry) after Lyons died suddenly on 7 April and Menzies succeeded him as Prime Minister. Hughes was also elected deputy leader of the UAP. Continuing to contribute to the Opinion Book during his final term as Attorney-General, Hughes also had the distinction of having advices included in all three published volumes.7 In recognition of his service as Prime Minister, he was made a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) in January 1941.

Hughes became leader of the UAP in August 1941 – when Menzies resigned as Prime Minister and was replaced by Country Party leader Arthur Fadden. Without an election, the Coalition lost government to Labor, under John Curtin, in October that year. Then deputy leader of the Opposition, Hughes maintained his membership of the Advisory War Council, a bipartisan body established by Menzies in 1940 and retained by Curtin. On the third occasion in his career that he was ousted from a political party he had helped found, Hughes (who had relinquished leadership to Menzies in 1943) was expelled from the UAP in 1944, for re-joining the Advisory War Council after his party had officially left it. In 1945 he joined the newly-formed Liberal Party. At the age of 87, in 1949 he successfully contested the new electoral division of Bradfield, New South Wales, becoming a member of the Coalition government formed between the Liberals and the Country Party.

All political parties combined to give Hughes a testimonial dinner on his ninetieth birthday, on 25 September 1952.8 Still hard at work, he fell ill shortly afterwards and died at his Lindfield home on 28 October. In the House of Representatives the next day, Prime Minister Menzies noted it was the first day in the history of the federal Parliament that Hughes had not sat as a member. Contesting 20 elections in four different electorates, he had held a seat for a record 51 years and seven months. His term of over seven years and three months made him the longest-serving Prime Minister to that date.

Survived by Dame Mary, and his children with Elizabeth Cutts, Hughes was given a state funeral at St Andrew's Anglican Cathedral in Sydney on 31 October 1952, and was buried in the Northern Suburbs General Cemetery. He had been given fifteen 'Freedom of the City' awards during his lifetime, more than any other Prime Minister. After his death, the electoral division of Hughes in New South Wales and the suburb of Hughes in Canberra were named in his honour. His portrait featured on a postage stamp issued by Australia Post in 1972. The Billy Hughes Bridge near Albury, New South Wales, commemorated the place where he overturned his car during a long drive, taken in the absence of time for a honeymoon, after his wedding in 1911.

  1. Biography written by Carmel Meiklejohn with reference to
    • National Archives of Australia, 'Australia's Prime Ministers: William Morris Hughes'.
    • LF Fitzhardinge, 'Hughes, William Morris (Billy) (1862–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 7 May 2012.
    • Geoffrey Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 1929-1949, Melbourne University Press, 1974.
    • Parliamentary Library, Department of Parliamentary Services, 43rd Parliament: Parliamentary Handbook of the Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2011.
  2. Hughes was succeeded as Attorney-General by William Irvine.
  3. Slightly built, Hughes was 168 cm tall.
  4. Not the same as the National Party of Australia, which evolved from the Country Party (founded nationally in 1920).
  5. The sections which would have effected the change were contained in the Maritime Industries Bill 1929.
  6. Active in welfare work in Australia and overseas, Mary Hughes was the second Australian woman made Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE), the highest British award for women, in 1922.
  7. Hughes and Sir Littleton Groom were the only two Attorneys-General to have opinions included in all three published volumes.
  8. The dinner was thought to be celebrating his 88th birthday, but was actually on his 90th.

Opinions by this author

Opinion Number Subject Opinion Date
Opinion Number. 323


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Opinion Number. 336