Of Welsh descent, William Morris Hughes (1862-1952) was born in London. He attended a school in Llandudno in Wales and was a pupil teacher at St Stephen’s School, Westminster. In 1884 he sailed to Queensland as an assisted migrant and for two years he led a roving life in the outback. He moved to Sydney and in 1890 opened a shop in Balmain. In the next two years he became acquainted with young reformers, was active in debating societies, and joined the Balmain Single Tax League, the Socialist League and the Balmain Labor Electoral League. He was also active in trade union affairs, working as an organizer for the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union and later as secretary of the Sydney Wharf Labourers Union. From 1901 to 1916 he was President of the Waterside Workers Federation.
In 1894 Hughes won the seat of Lang in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. He retained it until 1901, when he was elected to the first House of Representatives. He soon emerged as one of the leaders of the Labor Party and in the brief ministry of J.C. Watson he held the post of Minister of External Affairs. He had qualified for the Bar in 1903 and in the three governments of Andrew Fisher (1908-9, 1910-13 and 1914-15) he served as Attorney-General. For some years he was involved in journalism, writing a weekly column in the Daily Telegraph, and by 1915 he was recognised as the most dynamic and vocal member of the Government. With the onset of War, he played a crucial role in reorganising the wool, wheat, meat, sugar and base metals industries.
In October 1915 Fisher resigned and Hughes became Prime Minister. In 1916 he visited Britain and was a member of the British delegation at an allied conference in Paris. He returned to Australia convinced that conscription was essential and, faced with a hostile Senate, he held a referendum in October 1916. The referendum was lost and he was expelled from the Labor Party. He formed a new government, comprising some of his older colleagues, such as George Pearce, and Opposition leaders, such as Joseph Cook and Sir John Forrest. The Nationalist Party won the 1917 election convincingly, but another conscription referendum was defeated. In 1918 Hughes and Cook sailed to England to attend the Imperial War Conference and they were still there when the War ended. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 Hughes played a conspicuous part, particularly on the questions of reparations, the former German colonies in the Pacific, and the convenant of the League of Nations. He returned to Australia in triumph, hailed as ‘the little digger’, but his position in the Nationalist Government gradually weakened. Conservative colleagues were wary of his support of government enterprises, his involvement in industrial relations, and his attempts to increase the powers of the Commonwealth. In 1923 the Country Party refused to work with him and he was forced to resign.
Hughes remained a Member of Parliament until his death in 1952, a record unparalleled in Australian history. He played a leading role in the downfall of the Bruce-Page Government in 1929. He was Minister for Health and Repatriation (1934-35) and Minister for External Affairs (1937-39) in the Lyons Government and Attorney-General (1939-41) and Minister for the Navy (1940-41) in the Menzies and Fadden Governments. After Menzies resigned, Hughes was for a time Leader of the United Australia Party. His last years were spent as a Liberal Party backbencher.
The Hughes papers were presented to the National Library by Dame Mary Hughes in 1953. Many of them were in the possession of L.F. Fitzhardinge while he was writing his biography of Hughes and were only received in the Library in 1972-73. Fitzhardinge donated his own papers relating to the life of Hughes between 1975 and 1988.
Most of the David Low cartoons depicting Hughes were presented by Low in 1952.
Manuscripts and Personal Papers
(i) The Hughes Papers
The Hughes Papers form one of the largest collections of personal papers held in the Library. They contain many types of papers: personal correspondence, electorate correspondence, official papers and reports, financial papers, subject files, diaries, notebooks, the drafts of Hughes’s books, newspaper cuttings, cutting books, speeches, broadcasts, programs, invitations, menus, photographs, books, pamphlets, election leaflets and photographs.
Despite its size, the archives really only documents the second half of Hughes’s life. Very few papers date from before 1914, by which time he had been in politics for twenty years. The early papers comprise a few letters, financial papers and newspaper cuttings, legal notebooks, the draft of The Case for Labor (1910), and papers relating to his overseas trip in 1907, the 1909 coal strike and the prosecution of the Coal Vend (1913). After Hughes became Prime Minister in 1915 the papers are more extensive and in particular there is a considerable body of material on the 1918 Imperial War Conference and War Cabinet, the 1919 Peace Conference and the 1921 Imperial Conference. Other papers relate to defence, internal security, the 1917 conscription referendum, overseas trade, shipping, industrial relations and immigration. The post-1923 papers include extensive correspondence from constituents and interest groups, election material, papers concerning Amalgamated Wireless of Australia and his ministerial portfolios, especially in 1939-41. The subject files kept in 1941-52 form one of the largest groups in the whole collection.
There are 28 illuminated addresses received by Hughes between 1900 and 1944. Among the bodies that presented them were the Sydney Wharf Labourers Union (1900), the electors of Lang (1900), the Welsh community in Melbourne (1916), his friends and supporters in West Sydney (1916), the Council of the City of Sheffield (1916), the loyal and patriotic citizens of Sydney (1921) and the New Guinea Mining Association (1939).
(ii) Letters of Hughes held in other manuscript collections
The following collections in the National Library contain letters by Hughes, while many more contain references to him:
MS 51 Papers of Sir Edmund Barton, politician and former Prime Minister
MS 52 Papers of A. Atlee Hunt, public servant
MS 213 Papers of Sir George Pearce, politician
MS 236 Papers of Sir Littleton Groom, politician
MS 277 Papers of Sir John Kirwan, politician
MS 451 Papers of J.C. Watson, politician and Prime minister
MS 460 Papers of King O’Malley, politician
MS 479 Papers of Lord Tennyson, Governor General
MS 560 Papers of Sir Thomas Bavin, lawyer and politician
MS 601 Papers of James Hume Cook, politician
MS 658 Papers of J.H. Catts, politician
MS 696 Papers of Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, Governor General
MS 813 Papers of Richard Jebb, journalist and author
MS 882 Papers of E.L. Piesse, lawyer and public servant
MS 937 Papers of Hugh Mahon, politician
MS 970 Papers of W. Farmer Whyte, journalist and author
MS 1009 Papers of Sir John Latham, politician and judge
MS 1057 Papers of H.B. Higgins, politician and judge
MS 1095 Papers of A.B. Piddington, lawyer
MS 1540 Papers of Alfred Deakin, politician and Prime Minister
MS 1633 Papers of Sir Earle Page, politician and Prime Minister
MS 1736 Papers of Sir Josiah Symon, politician
MS 1924 Papers of Herbert Brookes, businessman and political activist
MS 2001 Papers of Sir Robert Garran, public servant
MS 2004 Papers of Bessie Rischbieth, feminist
MS 2304 Papers of Sir John Longstaff, artist
MS 2628 Papers of Sir Keith Officer, public servant and diplomat
MS 2809 Papers of Fritz Hart, composer
MS 2823 Papers of Sir Keith Murdoch, journalist
MS 2852 Papers of Lord Gowrie, Governor General
MS 2887 Papers of E.E. Longfield Lloyd, public servant
MS 2919 Papers of Andrew Fisher, politician and Prime Minister
MS 3078 Papers of Sir Henry Gullett, journalist and politician
MS 3338 Papers of George Robertson, publisher
MS 4653 Papers of Patrick McMahon Glynn, politician
MS 4851 Papers of J.A. Lyons, politician and Prime Minister
MS 4936 Papers of Sir Robert Menzies, politician and Prime Minister
MS 6335 Papers of Sir Timothy Coghlan, public servant
MS 7695 Papers of Sir Irving Benson, Methodist clergyman
MS 8130 Papers of Tom Inglis Moore, journalist and academic
MS 8161 Papers of Thomas Haynes, company director
(iii) Letters of Hughes held on microfilm
A number of British manuscript collections containing letters of Hughes have been microfilmed by the Australian Joint Copying Project and are held in the Library:
mfm M 1114-19 Papers of Walter Long, politician (Wiltshire County Record Office)
mfm M 1123 Papers of Andrew Bonar Law, politician and Prime Minister (House of Lords Record Office)
mfm M 1124-25 Papers of David Lloyd George, politician and Prime Minister (House of Lords Record Office)
mfm M 1954 Papers of L.J. Maxse, editor (West Sussex Record Office)
mfm M 1977-78 Papers of Douglas Sladen, author (Richmond-upon-Thames Central Library)
(iv) Papers of the biographer of Hughes
The Library holds the papers of L.F. Fitzhardinge relating to his two-volume William Morris Hughes: a political biography (1964, 1979). They contain a large body of photocopied material obtained from libraries and archives in Australia, Britain and Canada. In addition, there are letters received by Fitzhardinge, newspaper cuttings, publications, notebooks and various drafts of the biography.
A great many objects, both conventional and bizarre, came to the Library with the Hughes Papers. They included medals, a brief case, a wallet, a fountain pen, a golf club, a tea caddy, a hearing aid, a set of false teeth, and a battery-operated hearing aid called an acousticon.
The Library holds three sound recordings of W.M. Hughes made in the last two years of his life:
ORAL TRC 22/3 Interview with W.M. Hughes, 25 April 1951
ORAL TRC 71/53-54 Speeches at a luncheon in honour of W.M. Hughes at Parliament House, Sydney, 17 December 1950.
ORAL TRC 498 Address by W.M. Hughes for the ABC Jubilee Celebrations, 31 December 1950
A very large number of photographs of Hughes, his second wife Mary and his daughter Helen, political colleagues, and public events and functions that he attended are held in the collection. Many of them were received with the Hughes Papers, while others were received from newspapers, government agencies and other sources. While the great majority date from the last decades of his life, there are a few taken in the nineteenth century. They include a photograph of Hughes at the age of four (1866) and a group photograph of the students at Llandudno Grammar School in about 1870.
The distinctive physical features of Hughes, together with his volatile temperament, made him a favourite subject for cartoonists. The Library holds many original cartoons and caricatures of Hughes by such artists as Stan Cross, Will Donald, John Firth, Tom Glover, Alex Gurney, Norman Lindsay, Claude Marquet, G.A. Taylor and S.G. Wells. Of particular importance, are a number of the original drawings by David Low of Hughes in London in 1916-18, including the cover design for The Billy Book: Hughes abroad (1918).
The Library holds an oil portrait of Hughes by Sir James Guthrie. It is a study made for his large group portrait, ‘Statesmen of World War I’ (1924-30), which is held in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
(i) Writings of W.M. Hughes
The case for labor, 1910
Policies and potentates, 1950
The price of peace, 1934
(ii) Biographical and historical studies
Booker, Malcolm, The great professional: a study of W.M. Hughes, 1980
Browne, Frank C., They called him Billy: a biography of the Rt. Hon. W.M. Hughes, P.C., M.P. [1946?]
Edwards, P.G., Prime ministers and diplomats: the making of Australian foreign policy, 1901-1949, 1983
Fitzhardinge, L.F., That fiery particle, 1862-1914: a political biography, William Morris Hughes, 1964
Fitzhardinge, L.F. The little digger, 1914-1952: William Morris Hughes, a political biography, 1979
Horne, Donald, In search of Billy Hughes, 1979 [later editions with variant titles]
Hudson, W.J., Billy Hughes in Paris: the birth of Australian diplomacy, 1978
Hughes, Aneurin, Billy Hughes: Prime Minister and controversial founding father of the Australian Labor Party, 2005
Jauncey, Leslie C., The story of conscription in Australia, 1935
McMullin, Ross, The light on the hill: the Australian Labor Party, 1891-1991, 1992
Nairn, Bede, Civilising capitalism: the Labor movement in New South Wales, 1870-1900, 1973
Scott, Ernest, Australia during the war, 1936
Sladen, Douglas, From boundary-rider to Prime Minister: Hughes of Australia, the man of the hour, 1916
Souter, Gavin, Lion and kangaroo: the initiation of Australia 1901-1919, 1976
Spartalis, P.J., The diplomatic battles of Billy Hughes, 1983
Whyte, W. Farmer, William Morris Hughes: his life and times, 1957
The Hughes Papers are held in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 1538. They are arranged in 50 series. A finding-aid is available online at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-229721876/findingaid. There is also a card index to the correspondence in the Manuscripts Branch. The Fitzhardinge Papers (MS 5400) are also held in the Manuscripts Collection.
The illuminated addresses are divided between the Manuscripts and Pictures Collections. Many of the photographs are held in series 10 in the Hughes Papers, while others are in the Pictures Collection. The portrait by Sir James Guthrie, the cartoons and caricatures and most of the objects are also in the Pictures Collection at various locations. The three sound recordings are held in the Oral History Collection, while the publications are housed in the Australian Collection.
Bolton, Geoffrey, William Morris Hughes in Australian Prime Ministers, edited by Michelle Grattan, Sydney, New Holland Publishers, 2000, pp. 100-24
Fitzhardinge, L.F., Hughes, William Morris (Billy) (1862-1952), Australian Dictionary of Biography online
Powell, Graeme, Prime Ministers as record keepers: British models and Australian practice, in Sue McKemmish and Michael Piggott, eds., The records continuum: Ian Maclean and Australian Archives first fifty years, Melbourne, Ancora Press, 1994, pp. 93-109
First posted 2008 (revised 2019)