Angus McDonell was a long serving Northcote Councillor and the first Labor Mayor in Northcote (1921-1922).
Born into a family of thirteen in Richmond in 1867, McDonell went to work as a bootmaker aged 10, and continued in this profession throughout his life. He was a member of both the Australian Labor Party (ALP) – where he held the positions such as secretary, committee member and President – and The Socialist Party.
McDonell was a politically persistent individual. A few weeks after moving to Northcote in 1903, he decided to stand for a seat on the Northcote council but was defeated. McDonell persevered with his ambitions and ran for another seven elections - three times before the Labor party withdrew their endorsement - before finally winning a seat on the council as the Socialist Party’s representative in 1909. McDonell complained that his earlier defeats where due to the fact that ratepayers - the only members of the community allowed to vote at the time - didn’t want their properties represented by a Labor member, and there where few ratepayers living in Northcote at the time.
When he was finally elected to council he proclaimed himself to be the first Socialist to be elected onto a municipal council in Australia. In his acceptance speech he proclaimed:
During the election I have been slandered by people saying I would destroy home life. Some of the horrible dens men and women a living in Northcote should be destroyed and decent housing put up in there stead.
As a councillor McDonell continued to be a controversial figure. He was staunchly anti-military and anti-nationalist. In 1915 he opposed the Northcote Council grant of ₤10 to schools to celebrate Empire Day. His colleague Cr. Fredrick Plant was enraged by this, and proclaimed that McDonell should be expelled for his unpatriotic remarks.
That same year McDonell was beaten in an election by a retired blacksmith named Rueben Roberts. The Northcote leader claimed that McDonell’s “expression of sentiments in connection with the war had not improved his chances” (Lemon, 183 p. 174.). His anti-imperial attitude could not have caused the constituents of Northcote much concern because the following year he was re-elected to council.
After WW1 the population of Northcote increased dramatically and there was severe unemployment in the area. Consequentially the political landscape changed and many Northcote residents made the decision to vote Labor. For the first time, in 1921, Northcote Labor councillors found themselves one short of a majority on the Northcote council. After a tied vote at toss-up was held and, at the age of fifty-four, McDonell was elected the first Labor Mayor of Northcote.
Whilst running for Mayor he was asked if the council should have a “wet cupboard” (alcohol) or a “dry”:
If I am elected mayor of Northcote I will have no cupboard at all. Whatever allowance granted will be used in feeding little children who are in want, and not in feeding councillors. The new robes will have a 12 months leave of absence, as I am opposed to wearing women’s clothes.
McDonell carried out his term as Mayor confidently even though, as a member of the Labor party, he was shunned by non-Labor members of the council and community. At the end of his term he complained that none of the non-Labor councillors appeared at any of the concert or balls that he had hosted. He also appeared at the opening of the R.S.L’s Memorial Hall in High Street along with Lord Stradbroke, the serving Governor of Victoria - an appointment that must have made him feel uncomfortable considering his fervent anti-military views.
In 1922 the Council bought some swampy land – intended for a park - on Victoria Street and, after much deliberation, decided to name the park after the then Councillor. Mcdonell Park still stands behind the Northcote swimming pool and Clifton Street Child care centre.
McDonell as a keen football supporter and was heavily involved in local and state football associations. He was president of the Victorian Junior Football Association and was also president of the Northcote Football Club for the season of 1914, before being ousted by the Victorian Football Association over his unwillingness to allow Northcote club games to be played at the newly refurbished Northcote Park (on Westgarth street, next to the Oldis Gardens). He was adamant that games should remain at Croxton Park (behind the Croxton Park hotel on High St), but the VFA won out and McDonell and his committee bitterly threatened “to sever themselves from the Northcote club or any other association club for the future.”
Northcote Leader (Melbourne), September 3, 1921, Northcote 1882 –
Lemon, Andrew. Northcote Side of the River. North Melbourne (Vic): Hargreen, 1983