First name/s: Albert Charles
Last name: Willis
Known names / nicknames:
Date of birth: 24/05/1876
Year of birth: 1876
Life before Ruskin
Date and place of birth
24 May 1876 Tonyrefail, Glamorganshire, Wales
Son of James Willis, sinker, and Louisa Morse
Worked in a mine from aged 10
Politics/Trade union activity
Trade Union membership (at time of entry to Ruskin)
Life at Ruskin
Dates at Ruskin Unknown Attended Brynmaur Board School and then ‘ won a bursary ‘ to Ruskin. Date unknown.
Source of funding ‘ a bursary’
Subjects studied at Ruskin
Life after Ruskin
Education: Willis was first secretary of the Cardiff Workers Educational Association. In addition to Ruskin he had attended London Labour College.
Politics/trade union activity: He became a leader of the Miners’ Federation, holding several executive positions (president of Western District, South Wales Miners’ Federation; member of Abertillery Urban District Council and Monmouthshire County Council.
In 1911 he migrated to New South Wales where he worked in successive mines, becoming president then secretary of the Illawarra Colliery Employees’ Association (1913-1915). Willis became foundation general secretary of the Australasian Coal and Shale Employees’ Federation, serving from 1916 to 1925. During the First World War Willis was a leading opponent of conscription and a member the organizing committee during the General Strike in 1917 for which he was arrested but not charged.
Following the collapse of the Strike Willis found new inspiration in the ideas of the American Industrial Workers of the World and became a leading member of the Workers’ Industrial Union of Australia, later promoting the ‘One Big Union’.
In addition to his industrial activities Willis was active in Labor politics, being elected vice-president of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party in 1916. His support for the One Big Union however led to his expulsion from the party in 1919. This precipitated a move to the Left and, for a short time, he became a leader of the Socialist Labour Party. During these years he also promoted G.D.H. Cole’s guild socialist ideas. In 1922 he re-joined the Labor Party and was State Branch President for more than a decade (1922-1935).
Willis was an opponent of communists in the ranks of the Party and in an increasing air of sectarianism in the labour movement more generally he also opposed the influence of Catholics. He had continued religious activities following his emigration and, as a staunch Methodist, he had been a foundation member of the Christian Foundation Fellowship in 1923.
Willis retained his close association with the Miners’ Association in 1924 he moved into the media becoming chairman and managing director of a leading newspaper (sponsored by the union), the Labour Daily. Control of this influential newspaper gave him a significant platform during the 1930s, earning him the sobriquet ‘King Coal of Australia’.
In 1925 Willis had entered the New South Wales Legislative Council as a nominated member, serving two terms as President, 1925-7 and 1930-1. Willis’ tumultuous relationship with the Labor Party continued and following a further period of expulsion in 1933 he rejoined, going on to be a member of the Federal Executive between 1934 and 1936.
Willis also served several lengthy periods in government service, becoming Agent General in London (1931-1932) and an industrial conciliation commissioner and chairman of the Commonwealth Central Coal Authority (1943-1947).
He married Alice Parker in London in October 1901. (Albert and Maude had three children. Willis became a Lay Preacher (Church of God) in 1899)
Place & date of death
He died in April 1954 at Cronulla in New South Wales.
Date of death:
Year of death: 1954
Achievements / Publications
Material in archives or already published articles
A.C. Willis, The Labor Daily: the Labor movement’s official organ, Sydney, 192[6?]
A.C. Willis, Social Insurance, Sydney, 1926.
A.C. Willis (Chairman of Committee), The Ballot Box Inquiry: 1930 Annual Conference Decision and History of Case: Defence Fund Appeal, Sydney, 1930.
Notes on Image/s
Comment of contributor/s and sources
Frank Farrell, ‘Willis, Albert Charles (1876-1954)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 22, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1990.
There were brief profiles of Willis published in the Australian press in 1917, 1923 and 1931, which are probably, at least in part, based on interviews with him. However, these offer only sketchy information in relation to his time at Ruskin (other than that he attended as a result of winning a ‘bursary’). They do not indicate when he attended. Any information in relation to his association with Ruskin would be welcome.
Research School of Humanities and the Arts
Australian National University