Former Granville MP John Thomas Lang was one of the most controversial figures in NSW politics. Married to Hilda Bredt — whose sister Bertha was married to the poet Henry Lawson — he stirred up a hornet’s nest in Macquarie Street when he indicated he wanted to contest Granville.
John Thomas Lang, or the Big Fella as he was affectionately known, received his first taste of political campaigning when he was appointed campaign director for the Labor candidate James Catts in the 1904 election for the Granville seat. But the task was a daunting one.
Catts, the secretary of the NSW Railway and Tramway Service Union, was an outsider and not a local candidate, and even he believed he had no chance of winning.
It was no surprise when John Nobbs was returned with a greatly increased majority of more than 2000 votes.
But Lang emerged from the backroom of politics to win a seat on Auburn Council in April 1907 as an alderman for Newington Ward.
He was successful in standing for mayor in 1909 and held the post until 1911.
He then made it known he had his eyes on a seat in the Legislative Assembly.
The problem was the Labor leader William Holman had promised it to former federal MP George Cann, the brother of the Treasurer in Holman’s government, Jack Cann.
Party leaders asked Lang’s sister-in-law, Bertha – Henry Lawson’s wife – to approach him and promise him anything he wanted, within reason, to withdraw his nomination.
Lang declared he would not be bribed and said it was up to the Granville Labor League to select a candidate and that he would abide by its decision.
Lang duly won pre-selection and, in the election on December 6, 1913, defeated the sitting member John Nobbs by 427 votes.
When Lang walked into Parliament House for the first time after the election, the Premier Mr Holman — one of the most influential Labor leaders in the era — summoned him and congratulated him on his victory.
Lang replied: “No thanks to you. You did not want me here, and did everything to stop me, but now I am here, I intend to stay. So good day and good bye.”
And stay he did, for more than 33 years.
Lang’s early years
Lang was born in George Street Brickfield Hill in Sydney on December 21, 1876.
However his parents’ financial difficulties in the mid-1880s forced them to send him to stay with an uncle at Bairnsdale in Victoria when he was nine years of age, where he attended the local convent school for four years.
On his return he completed his schooling at St Francis Marist Brothers School in Haymarket and later studied book-keeping while working as a junior clerk at an accountant’s office in the city.
He married Hilda when he was 20. She was 17 and the step-daughter of William McNamara, a socialist bookstore owner in Castlereagh Street.
Her brother-in-law Henry Lawson was a frequent visitor to the McNamara’s bookstore, along with other writers.
And Hilda’s mother was a close friend of Henry’s mother, Louisa, who in 1888 had established the Dawn Club to discuss social issues of interest to women of the late 19th century, including the right to vote and equality with men.
The club was absorbed into the Womanhood Suffrage League when that body was formed in 1891.
John Lang and his wife lived with the McNamaras after their marriage, and his inherent interest in politics would have been stimulated by his contact with radicals and literary figures at the bookstore.
In his early years Lang’s non-business interests took a similar path to that of John Nobbs, the man he would oust from the Legislative Assembly seat of Granville over a decade later.
He became involved in local affairs, joining the Newington Progress Association, and working as its honorary secretary from 1903 to 1907.
The association’s president at one stage was local political identity William Harcourt Windsor, a former Granville alderman and mayor, and unsuccessful challenger to John Nobbs in 1898 and 1901.
Lang also became secretary of the Granville Electorate Political Labor League and the League’s Auburn branch in about 1903, and secretary of the Nepean Federal Electorate Council.
Look for more stories from our local historical societies at parramattasun.com.au on the first Friday of every month.
These stories will be compiled by the Granville Historical Society, Holroyd Local History Research and the Friends of Mays Hill Cemetery.
PS Magazine also has a regular historical section, called back in the day.
Pick up a copy of the monthly magazine in the Parramatta CBD.