James O’Grady 1866 – 1934

Chairman of the General Federation of Trade Unions 1912 – 1918

James O’Grady, MP and trade union leader, was born on the 6th May 1866 in Bristol to Irish immigrant parents. He entered the workforce at the age of ten, with only a few years at a local Catholic school behind him. After working at several different jobs, and almost joining the army, he began an apprenticeship with a cabinetmaker. After marrying Louisa James in 1887, O’Grady travelled up and down the country in search of work whilst maintaining a close connection with his hometown. Once O’Grady became involved with industrial politics, he soon earned a reputation as a sincere and convincing speaker, and he was popular with the Bristol dockers during their 1892 strike. He moved quickly up the local ladder, becoming president of the Bristol Trades Council and then two years later a local Labour councillor. One of his most notable achievements during this time was his foundation of a scholarship programme for promising school children.

O’Grady as GFTU Chairman 1912-1918

In 1898, the TUC held their annual gathering at Bristol, with O’Grady as their President. His solidly socialist speech rocked Colston Hall, and earned him an approving appraisal by Keir Hardie in the Labour Leader. It was the first time that the TUC had platformed such an overtly socialist presidential address. Unfortunately, that TUC meeting saw a fire break out in the middle of the night. Thankfully there were no casualties, but the vote to create the General Federation of Trade Unions was subsequently delayed until the following year. Perhaps an inauspicious start for the GFTU, but it is notable that O’Grady was the TUC president that year. He would be a founding member of the GFTU, and its Chairman from 1912 – 1918. In the meantime, however, O’Grady left Bristol for London to take up a post as a national organiser for the National Amalgamated Furnishing Trades’ Association, before entering parliament in 1906 representing East Leeds. Belonging to both the Fabian Society and the Social Democratic Federation, he was not afraid to take a minority view on certain contentious subjects, and could be relied upon to speak plainly but eruditely. He maintained his trade union connections throughout most of his political career, both within his own union and as part of the management committee of the GFTU.

L to R: Arthur Henderson, G. N. Barnes, Ramsay Macdonald, Phillip Snowden, Will Crooks, Keir Hardie, John Hodge, James O’Grady and David Shackleton. Photo: The Labour Party, 1906.

At the outbreak of war, O’Grady fell in with the left’s patriotic response with particular fervour. He joined the British Workers’ League in 1916, casting off his socialist principles (at least temporarily) in favour of nationalistic imperialism, but left after two years. His war work centred on lively and well-received recruitment campaigns, and he also used his good humour and friendly nature to successfully negotiate for prisoner exchanges. His speeches at the GFTU were peppered with appreciation for the spirit of solidarity, quick humoured quips and the occasional sharp barb. After accepting a position as general secretary of the National Federation of General Workers, O’Grady stepped down from the GFTU’s chairmanship in 1918. He maintained close friendships with several members of the GFTU, but particularly with its general secretary William Appleton, with whom he felt ‘had been very close… and very loyal to him’. He often spoke of playing billiards with his friends, and had a love of boxing.

James O’Grady as Governor of Tasmania

The National Federation of General Workers eventually folded in the face of larger general unions, and ceased to exist in the 1920’s. O’Grady was by this point well and truly ensconced in politics though, and spent a great deal of time dedicated to international concerns towards the end of his career. Having also travelled abroad extensively during his time as a trade unionist, he gained a reputation for cordial diplomacy and warmth. Although his close connections and repeated visit to Russia put him in line for a diplomatic position there, O’Grady was instead made Governor of Tasmania and a KCMG in 1924 under Macdonald’s government. It was a successful posting that he held for six years, although he had to leave his ailing wife behind in England. She died three years after he left, but he did not return to England until 1931. His next post, as Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Falkland Islands, was short-lived: his health, which had been problematic for many years, began a terminal decline. In 1933, he came back to England to receive treatment for blood poisoning, and died in a nursing home the following year at the age of 68. He was survived by his children: Norah, Mary, Ellen Louisa, James Gerald, Eileen, Margaret, Terence and Johannah.

For more information, please see the Dictionary of Labour Biography Vol 2.

Published by Edda Nicolson

I am a PhD Researcher in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Wolverhampton. My thesis is on the early history of the General Federation of Trade Unions 1899-1926, and I’m focusing on the emotions used to construct their organisational culture.

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