Rising through the union ranks 1898-1911

In 1898 when he was in the final stages of his apprenticeship with the firm Wigg and Son, McCallum transferred to Perth to work in the company’s fledgling West Australian branch office. 'Mac’ settled quickly into the Perth scene, playing football with South Fremantle and West Perth Clubs and joining the Masonic Lodge. As a footballer he was 'a Sheffield winner [1] of note when he played with South Fremantle. Alec was, if anything, too fast for the ball'. [2]

Alex McCallum was a committed unionist and when barely 21 he was elected as a delegate to the Perth Trades and Labor Council (TLC). In these early days the TLC was short of funds and accommodation:

When he [McCallum] entered the old Trades and Labor Council only one union could afford to rent an office. That was the old typographical union and it had to accommodate the part-time secretary of the Council for a time. They met at various places, among them various 'pubs' until the proprietors tired of their presence.
'Labor’s duty to mankind. Mr McCallum on ideals', clipping from unidentified newspaper, c 1935 [3]

In 1899 he attended the Union Congress held in Coolgardie at which the WA Labor Party was established and its first platform agreed upon.


Alex, Hugh and Duncan McCallum, 1997Alex McCallum, c 1907Delegates to the First WA Union and Labor Congress, Coolgardie, 1899

Left: Alex McCallum with his father Hugh and brother Duncan on the morning Alex left South Australia for Perth in October 1897.
John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of Alex McCallum. Alex, Duncan and Hugh McCallum. Adelaide, October 1897. JCPML00830/16.

Centre: Studio portrait of Alex McCallum, Perth, c 1907.
John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of Alex McCallum. Alex McCallum, Perth ca 1907. JCPML00830/6

Right: Portrait of the delegates to the First Western Australian Union and Labor Congress, Coolgardie, 11-15 April 1899. Twenty eight delegates attended and twenty five, not including Alex McCallum, are pictured.
John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of Bobbie Oliver. Delegates to 1st Labor Congress, 1899. JCPML00568/1. Original held by J S Battye Library of West Australian History: BA305B.

Alex McCallum left Wigg and Son in 1900 to join the Government Printing Office. He now represented the Paper Rulers’ Industrial Union as a delegate on the TLC, where he was soon elected to the State Executive, holding executive position continuously from that time until his election to State Parliament in 1921. As a union representative he spoke for printing industry employees in general, sometimes so vehemently that his own job was put at risk.

On 1 January 1902 McCallum married Elizabeth (Bessie) Ferres, the daughter of a well-to-do Fremantle butcher; he was 25 years old and she a year older. He later managed his father-in-law’s estate, learning skills and making contacts in the banking industry that proved very useful to his work in the labour movement. [4]

Alex McCallum’s union work saw him actively involved in the WA Labor Party, which in 1903 became a state branch of the Australian Labour Federation (ALF). In state elections the following year, Labor won 22 Legislative Assembly seats and formed a minority government under Henry Daglish, first Labor Premier of WA.

By 1905, McCallum was President of the Coastal TLC and Secretary of the Metropolitan Division and the South Fremantle Branch of the Political Labor Party. He made his first bid to enter Parliament in the seat of South Fremantle that year, but was unsuccessful. Undaunted, he continued to work tirelessly for the union movement, gaining a reputation as a tough negotiator and a tireless and forceful labour organiser. In 1906 he also became secretary of his own union, the Paper Rulers’ Industrial Union. When the TLC merged with the WA Branch of the ALF in 1907, McCallum was elected the first president of the combined organisation. [5]

On the home front, Alex and Bessie McCallum’s son, Donald Ferres, was born in 1909 after seven years of marriage.


Wedding of Alex and Bessie McCallum, 1902Alex and Bessie McCallum with son Don, c 1914

Left: Wedding of Alex and Bessie at the Feres family home at 13 Stevens Street, Fremantle (Now Skye Hospital), 1902.
John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of Alex McCallum. Wedding of Alexander McCallum and Elizabeth (Bessie) Ferres, Fremantle 1902. JCPML00830/24. Original held by Fremantle City Library Local History Collection: 2174.

Right: Alex and Bessie McCallum with son Don, c 1914.
John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of Alex McCallum. Alex, Don and Bessie McCallum. Perth ca 1914. JCPML00830/12

Alex McCallum home page
Growing up in South Australia 1887-1897 Rising through the union ranks 1898-1911 General Secretary of the WA labour movement 1911-1921 Member for South Fremantle 1921-1924 Cabinet Minister 1st Collier Government 1924-1930
On the Opposition benches 1930-1933 Deputy Premier 2nd Collier Government 1933-1935 Chairman of the Agricultural Bank 1933-1935