Billy Demaine.
Billy Demaine.

Billy Demaine showed way for M'boro during Depression

WHENEVER I enter the council administration building at Maryborough, officially known as Demaine House, I look to the right at a very distinctive framed testimonial hanging on the wall.

This finely crafted work of art is in fact a birthday card, given to Billy Demaine on his 80th birthday: Saturday, February 25, 1939.

Billy Demaine played a very significant role in Maryborough and Queensland public affairs for many decades.

But this 80th birthday card was not presented to him in the still and quiet years of retirement.

Remarkably, when Demaine celebrated his 80th birthday, he was the Mayor of Maryborough, right in the thick of political debate.

In his 70s he had actively shepherded the city through the Great Depression. On the morning of his birthday he was recognised in the council chambers and presented with this illuminated address.

One of my predecessors as deputy mayor, Otto Nothling, presided at this meeting, saying "It is a unique occasion to have in the mayoral chair a man who has today attained his 80th birthday, for anyone to attain 80 years is in itself a fine performance, but to be a mayor of a city the size of Maryborough and in full and complete possession of his faculties is something out of the ordinary."

Nothling himself was a rather remarkable man.

Maryborough City Hall 1935.
Maryborough City Hall 1935. Jenni

By this time he was a prominent medical practitioner but he had earlier represented Australia in both rugby union and cricket.

He was actually selected for Australia when Don Bradman was dropped to be the twelfth man for the only time in his career.

Demaine was certainly out of the ordinary but he was also a great example of what was possible for immigrants in their new home.

A native of Bradford, England, he and his wife, Polly, arrived in Maryborough on May 18, 1880 aboard the Silver Eagle, which landed 270 passengers from London. In the many decades to come he would be active in all aspects of Maryborough life.

In 1882, he formed the Eight Hour Union and campaigned to have the working day reduced to eight hours.

This concept of filling a day with eight hours work, eight hours of leisure and eight hours of sleep was an important social change and helped ensure that Australia became a prosperous and healthy country for everyone. By 1885 he had become the first Maryborough secretary of the General Labourer's Union, which later amalgamated into the Australian Workers Union.

Demaine was known for his reliability and he held firm to his beliefs.

For over half a century he was continuously the secretary of the Maryborough Branch of the Australian Labor Party and its predecessor, the Australian Labour Federation, surely a feat that will never be repeated.

For 40 years he was the owner, editor and manager of the Maryborough paper, The Alert. He would often advocate positions in his paper which would cause the ire of potential advertisers.

The Alert offices were at 126 Adelaide St. This building still stands very much in the state that it was when Demaine worked in it, but it is now home to Leslie G Ross Funeral Directors.

Demaine accomplished many things while mayor but is particularly remembered for bringing sanitation to Maryborough, against the apparent wishes of the population. He had always been very vocal in calling for sanitation infrastructure, including prior to the pneumonic plague that broke out in Maryborough in 1905.

The referendum on sanitation was held on Saturday, July 28, 1934. Only 41% of voters were in favour.

Both sides of the debate were surprised by the result, as the general feeling was that the referendum would succeed. Maryborough had thus become the first local authority to turn down a 50-50 loan from the Government.

However, using the council's existing labour force, Demaine proceeded and carried out the necessary works anyway.

While he went against the wishes of the voters at the time, it was soon recognised that sanitation was quite important for the health of the population in a sub-tropical city.

Whenever I see his testimonial on the wall or when I am sitting in the council chambers where it was presented to him, I think of Billy Demaine.

He came here as an immigrant and through his passion, intellect and lifelong commitment he uplifted the community, shaped Maryborough and contributed to a nation-wide movement for improvements in working and social conditions.

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