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William Hughes

Given NameWilliam
Born25 Sep 1862
Died28 Oct 1952


ww2dbaseWilliam Morris Hughes is a controversial, albeit important, figure in Australian federal politics, but by 1941 he was 79, very frail, yet enjoyed bipartisan political support. Even though he was not considered a potential national leader at his age through the Second World War, Hughes had been involved in many of the watershed events for Australia in the 20th Century already: he had been amongst the first elected colonial parliament in 1901, prime minister during the First World War, and holding various ministry positions in Australia during the lead up to the outbreak of the Second World War. In his early political career Hughes had been involved in the Australian Labor Party (ALP), having a significant impact on the party long after he had joined. His actions during the First World War created a split in the ALP that endured until the party was reforged into a credible opposition under John Curtin in 1935. When Arthur Fadden undermined Robert Menzies' position within his own minority government, accounting for its fall, the governor-general asked Curtin if he could form his own government to provide continuing wartime leadership for the Commonwealth. By this time Billy Hughes was involved in the UAP, being seen as a political figure able to easily gain the anti-Labor vote in his electorate.

ww2dbaseWilliam Morris Hughes was born in Pimlico, London, after the middle of the nineteenth century. His parents were Welsh, and he tried his hand as a pupil teacher in London when he was nineteen. In 1884 he migrated to Australia, arriving in Sydney in 1886. Upon arrival he began boarding in a house in Moore Park, establishing a common law marriage with his landlady's daughter, Elizabeth Cutts. He found employment as a labourer, bush worker, and cook. In 1890 the couple moved to Balmain, Hughes opened a small shop, which sold political pamphlets, did odd jobs, and mended umbrellas. He joined the Socialist League in 1892, also becoming a street corner speaker for the Single Tax League, and an organiser for the Australian Workers' Union. He may have already joined the newly formed ALP. He spent eight months in central New South Wales (NSW) organising for the Amalgamated Shearers' Union in 1894, then won the NSW Legislative Assembly seat of Sydney-Lang by 105 votes. While in parliament he became secretary of the Wharf Labourers' Union. He was the founder and first national president of the Waterside Workers' Union in 1900. During this period around the time when the Commonwealth of Australia was formed, Hughes studied law, with the intent of becoming a barrister. He was elected as ALP MP for West Sydney to the first federal parliament, where he opposed proposals by the Barton government for a small professional army. After eleven years of part time study, Hughes was admitted to the bar in 1903. His wife died in 1906, leaving their seventeen year old daughter to raise their other five children in Sydney. Hughes married Mary Campbell in 1911. He became Minister for External Affairs in Chris Watson's first ALP government, and Andrew Fisher's three ALP governments in 1910-1911 and 1914-1915. It soon became clear that he desired to be leader of the ALP and prime minister with it, but his abrasive manner, which was believed to be caused by chronic dyspepsia, made his colleagues reluctant to back him in a leadership challenge. His ongoing feud with fellow Labor minister, King O'Malley, is a prominent example of his combative style. After the 1914 election Andrew Fisher found the pressure of the national leadership taxing, and was facing increasing pressure from the ambitious Hughes, who wanted Australia to gain more recognition on the world stage. Fisher's health was declining with the stress of wartime leadership, so in October 1915 he resigned, only to be succeeded by Hughes. After heavy Australian losses on the Western Front, most particularly in the Somme, in July and August 1916, during which about 28,000 men were lost, Generals Birdwood and White convinced Hughes that conscription was necessary if the AIF was to continue its involvement in the First World War. Hughes desperately wanted the Australian military contribution to continue, as it ensured that his voice would be heard in the peace conference after the war was finally over. This presented a problem, however, as a two-thirds majority was against conscription. That majority consisted of Roman Catholics; union representatives, who feared that conscription would reduce the amount of workers in the country, which would reduce their bargaining power; socialists; and Australians of Irish descent, who disliked Britain's excessive response to the Easter Rising of 1916. To achieve a mandate to overpower the power arrayed against him Hughes decided to hold a referendum on the issue, which was held on 28 October 1916. A secretary of the Timberworkers' Union and young member of the ALP, John Curtin, led the anti-conscription campaign to the Australian electorate. When the results of the plebiscite were counted, it was found that the no case had prevailed by a margin of 72, 476 popular votes, conscription for overseas service was not considered acceptable. The executive of the Political Labor League, Frank Tudor, expelled Hughes from the ALP, to which Hughes cried "Let those who think like me, follow me". 24 others left the party room as his call for division reached their ears. Years later Hughes said "I did not leave the Labor Party. The party left me". Hughes and his followers called themselves the National Labor Party, and began laying the groundwork for a party that they hoped would be unashamedly nationalist and socially radical. In order to make a viable government a supply and confidence agreement was signed with the Commonwealth Liberal Party, which was led by former Labor man, Joseph Cook. Cook and Hughes decided to turn their wartime coalition into the Nationalist Party of Australia. Hughes resigned from his working class seat and ran for Bendigo in Victoria. The Nationalists won a huge electoral victory at the 1917 federal election, Hughes was prime minister once again. Hughes had vowed to resign if he once again failed to implement conscription. A second referendum on conscription was held on 20 December 1917, which was defeated by an even bigger margin than the 1916 referendum, this time 94,152 votes for the no case. Although Hughes had just received a vote of confidence in Parliament he resigned as Prime Minister he resigned, as he had promised if the conscription referenda failed. Lacking alternative candidates the governor-general, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, recommissioned Hughes, thus allowing him to fulfill his promise to resign while he retained the position of prime minister. The Nationalist government replaced the prevailing first-past-the-post system that applied to both houses of parliament to a preferential system for the House of Representatives in 1918. A multiple majority preferential system was tested at the 1919 federal election, and this remained in force until it was changed to a preferential system of proportional representation in 1948. The electoral changes that the Nationals implemented were considered a response to the emergence of the Country Party, so the conservative vote would not be split. Hughes and Cook travelled to Paris, to participate in the peace conference that decided the terms of the Versailles Treaty, in 1919. They were away from Australia for sixteen months. At the Versailles peace conference Hughes was strident, pressing Australia's territorial claims by saying "I speak for 60,000 [Australian] dead", and asking Woodrow Wilson "How many do you speak for?" when the US President failed to acknowledge his demands. He frequently clashed with Wilson, who described him as a "pestiferous varmint". Hughes demanded heavy reparations from Germany, suggesting 24 million pounds, of which Australia would be able to claim millions to offset its own war debt. In the actual Treaty negotiations he was a prominent opponent of the inclusion of the Japanese racial equality proposal, which largely as a result of his lobbying was not included in the final treaty. Japan was offended by Hughes' vocal position on the issue. He had been wary of the increasing Japanese aggression in the early 20th century, and had been alarmed when the League of Nations awarded mandates of islands north of the equator. However, his criticism of the League of Nations as "the flawed concept of collective security" did not change when the League awarded C class mandates in German West Africa, German New Guinea, and German Samoa to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand respectively. The Hughes was not trusted by his own party, as he was interested in retaining government ownership of the Commonwealth Shipping Line and the Australian Wireless company, but they retained him while they were in government to keep the ALP in opposition. In the 1922 federal election Hughes' position went from bad to worse. Hughes succeeded in switching from the rural seat of Bendigo to North Sydney, but the Nationalists lost their majority. The Country Party now held the balance of power, giving its leadership the ability to empower individual parties to implement policies that the Country Party favoured. This meant that the party that could gain the Country Party's attention could stand a chance of gaining government, through coalition with the Country Party. The leader of the Country Party, Earle Page, let it be known that he and his party could not serve under Hughes, who favoured protection for Australian industries. Under pressure from the Nationalists' right wing, Hughes resigned in February 1923 in favour of his treasurer, Stanley Bruce. Hughes felt betrayed by the party and went to the backbenches, where he nursed a grievance until he led a group of backbench rebels to cross the floor in 1929 to bring down the Bruce government. For this Hughes was expelled from the Nationalist Party. In 1931 he joined the United Australia Party (UAP).

ww2dbaseIn 1934 he became the Minister of Health and Repatriation in the Lyons government, and held many different portfolios at various times in the governments of Lyon's successor, Robert Menzies, between 1934 and 1941, fulfilling the roles of Minister of the Navy, or Attourney-General at various times during that government. Prior to the outbreak of the war the elderly Hughes released a book which criticized Commonwealth support for the British policy of appeasement and overlooking Japanese military action in China. Just before Menzies was ousted Hughes, in his role as navy minister scribbled a note "If it became known that Australia was in possession of no naval mines - for Port Stephens or elsewhere - after 18 months of war there will be trouble". An end to this governmental paralysis came in October 1941 when John Curtin was made prime minister, and the UAP elected Hughes leader of the party. Across parliament, two men who had campaigned against each other in 1916 found themselves exchanging political blows over the issue during wartime again. By September 1942 Australia had seen three years of war with little tangible success, and in August Japanese forces had landed on the north coast of New Guinea. With criticism of Australia's conscription policy in the United States, which acquired most of its soldiers for overseas service - including Australia - through conscription. Hughes criticised the ALP's policy on conscription as unfair to Australia's allies. Prompted by this Curtin united the factions of his party in favour of limited conscription. Unlike the unlimited conscription Hughes had favoured during the First World War, limited conscription could only acquire troops for territories adjacent to Australia deemed vital for Australia's defence. Billy Hughes died after the guns of the war died down. In 1943 Hughes was in the position of UAP leadership, but he often found co-operation with Curtin easier than with his own party. In 1944 the party expelled him after he rejoined the Advisory War Council. He joined the newly formed Liberal Party at the end of the war, transferring his seat from North Sydney to the newly formed seat of Bradfield in 1949.

ww2dbaseHughes caught a severe chill, contracted pneumonia, and passed away at age 90 on 28 October 1952. He was survived by six children from his first marriage and his second wife. He was given a state funeral in Sydney. 450,000 spectators lined the streets, one of the largest funerals seen in Australia. His widow, Mary Hughes, died in 1958.

Australian Dictionary of Biography
D. Day, The Politics of War: Australia at War 1939-45: From Churchill to MacArthur

Last Major Revision: Oct 2010


Portrait of Billy Hughes, circa 1900Australian soldiers carrying Billy Hughes along George Street, Sydney, Australia after his return from the Paris Peace Conference, 1919
See all 5 photographs of William Hughes

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1. Anonymous says:
2 Sep 2012 03:24:12 AM

yeah buddy

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William Hughes Photo Gallery
Portrait of Billy Hughes, circa 1900Australian soldiers carrying Billy Hughes along George Street, Sydney, Australia after his return from the Paris Peace Conference, 1919
See all 5 photographs of William Hughes

Famous WW2 Quote
"All that silly talk about the advance of science and such leaves me cold. Give me peace and a retarded science."

Thomas Dodd, late 1945