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John Christian (Chris) Watson

Portrait of former Prime Minister John Watson by John Longstaff, 1915, 00/0018

John Campbell Longstaff (1862-1941), John Christian (Chris) Watson (detail), 1915, Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection. View full image

Prime Minister, 27 April 1904 to 18 August 1904
Australian Labor Party

Chris Watson (1867-1941) led the world’s first national Labor government,1 though his term lasted only four months. Taking office at 37, he remains Australia’s youngest Prime Minister and the only one not born in Australia or Britain.2

Born in Chile in 1867 to sea-farer Johan Tanck and his wife Martha Minchen, Watson took his stepfather’s surname following his mother’s remarriage in New Zealand. He left school at 10 and in 1880 became an apprentice print compositor at the North Otago Times newspaper. Migrating to Sydney in 1886, he worked as a stable hand at Government House before finding employment as a compositor. In 1889 he married Ada Jane Low.3

Watson became active in the printers’ union, and by 1892 was president of the NSW Trades and Labour Council and chairman of the NSW Labor Party. In 1894, then president of the Australian Labour Federation, he was elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly as the Member for Young.

At the first federal election, Watson was returned as the Member for Bland, and subsequently became the first leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party. It was a position of great influence as both main parliamentary groupings, the Protectionists and the Free Traders, needed Labor support to govern. Having withdrawn his support for the Deakin Government over the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill, Watson was invited to form government; the same Bill would bring about the fall of his own ministry only a few months later.

His elevation to Prime Minister represented a rapid rise for him personally and for Labor itself, which had been formed only 13 years earlier. While the progressive press was jubilant, the Watson Government was criticised in the conservative media, with the Daily Telegraph describing it as a ‘curious political freak’.4 Only six Bills were enacted during his term as Prime Minister, five of which were for supply; his true achievement was to demonstrate to the nation that the Labor Party could indeed hold office and govern responsibly.

Watson resigned as Labor’s parliamentary leader in October 1907, and retired from Parliament in 1910. He continued working for the ALP and attending its conferences. However, during World War I his support for conscription led to his expulsion in 1916, alongside then-Prime Minister Billy Hughes.

Watson married Antonia Dowlan in 1925, Ada having died in 1921; Watson and Antonia had one child. One of the early founders of the NRMA, he became its president in 1923. Watson was also a founder and first chairman of Ampol and a trustee of the Sydney Cricket Ground. Among the pallbearers at his state funeral at St Andrew’s Cathedral were Joseph Cook, John Curtin and William McKell.5

Sir John Campbell Longstaff
Born in Clunes, Victoria, John Longstaff (1862-1941) was an Australian portraitist, war artist and five-time winner of the Archibald Prize (1925–35). He studied at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School alongside Emanuel Phillips Fox, Tudor St George Tucker, Tom Humphrey, John Mather and Frederick McCubbin. Awarded the School’s first travelling scholarship in 1887, he travelled to Europe, settling in Paris and later in Spain. Throughout the early 1890s Longstaff exhibited successfully and in 1893 moved to London where he worked as a fashionable portrait painter, regularly exhibiting at the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. During 1918–20 Longstaff was an official war artist with the AIF. Returning to Australia in 1920, he later held several official positions, including president of the Victorian Artists’ Society, the Australian Art Association, the Australian Academy of Art, and a trustee of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria. In 1928 Longstaff became the first Australian artist to be knighted. His work is represented in major state and regional galleries across Australia.6

John Christian (Chris) Watson
by John Campbell Longstaff
Oil on canvas
232.2 x 144.2 cm
Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection

1. The British Labour Party first won government in 1924, and the New Zealand Labour Party in 1935.
2. Information in this biography has been taken from the following: M Grattan, ed., Australian Prime Ministers, revised edition, New Holland, Sydney, 2010, pp. 55–62; J Hawkins, ‘Chris Watson: Australia’s second Treasurer’, Economic Roundup, September 2007, pp. 119–27; R McMullin, So monstrous a travesty: Chris Watson and the world’s first national labour government, Scribe Publications, Carlton North, Victoria, 2004; ‘Prime Ministers of Australia: Chris Watson’, National Museum of Australia, accessed 11 May 2021.
3. ‘Chris Watson’s partner: Ada Watson’, National Archives of Australia, accessed 8 July 2021.
4. ‘The new Government’, The Daily Telegraph, 27 April 1904, p. 6, accessed 11 May 2021.
5. C Cunneen, ‘McKell, Sir William John (1891–1985)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed 7 December 2021.
6. Information in this biography has been taken from the following: L Astbury, ‘Longstaff, Sir John Campbell (1861–1941)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1986; K Robertson, ‘Sir John Longstaff b. 10 March 1861’, Design & Art Australia Online, 2011. ‘Longstaff, (Sir) John Campbell’, A McCulloch, S McCulloch and E McCulloch Childs, eds, The New McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art, Aus Art Editions in association with The Miegunyah Press, 2006, p. 625. Websites accessed 25 March 2021.

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