Chris Watson – Australia’s Youngest Prime Minister

Day 337 of Colourisation Project – April 9

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Having grown up in New Zealand, he started work on the railways at the age of ten. A tradesman with only a few years formal schooling, he moved to Sydney in 1887 at the age of 20 and found work as a stable-hand at Government House. Within eighteen years he would rise to become Prime Minister of Australia. Chris Watson, at 37, was and still is Australia’s youngest prime minister.

He was in fact Australia’s third Prime Minister. A founder and one of the principal architects of the Australian Labor Party, he held the mantle of being the first Labour prime minister not just in Australia but in the world. (It was renamed Labor in 1912 following American usage of the word but that’s another story.)

Chris Watson Bef & Aft

Photographer Unknown  ~  Chris Watson c 1904 – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

Despite his special place in history, Watson seems to have slipped into obscurity and is little heard of these days. Chris Watson was born Johan Christian Tanck in Valparaiso, Chile, on this day, 9 April 1867, to an Irish woman who had migrated to New Zealand, and a Chilean father of German descent. Following the death of Watson’s father, his mother returned to New Zealand and re-married. Watson who was only an infant at the time took on his step-father’s name.

At the time, his origins were kept quiet as Watson was technically not eligible to sit in the Australian parliament. He never became a British subject, a legal pre-requisite for entry into the Australian Parliament. But that didn’t stop him and his mercurial rise to the top was nothing short of remarkable.

An active trade unionist, Watson was a founding member of the New South Wales Labor Party in 1891 and Vice President of the Sydney Trades and Labour Council in 1892. He was only 27 when he was elected to Parliament having won the seat of Young in NSW. In 1901 he was elected the first leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labour Party (the Caucus).

In 1904, the Prime Ministership fell into his hands when Alfred Deakin resigned over an Industrial Relations law dispute.  However Watson’s tenure as Prime Minister was short-lived (less than four months) as he was unable to command a majority in the House of Representatives. He did manage to pass six bills in that time. Watson remained the federal leader of the Australian Labor Party until 1907.

In 1910 he retired from the Parliament to take care of his sick wife, exiting Australian politics quite early at the age of 42.

Life after politics saw him setting up the National Roads and Motorists’ Association (NRMA) in 1923, and becoming first chairman of Australian Motorists Petrol Co. Ltd (Ampol) in 1936.

John Christian Watson died on 18 November 1941 at the age of 74 at his home in Double Bay, Sydney.


“Mr Watson, the new Prime Minister entered the room, and seated himself at the head of the table. All eyes were riveted on him; he was worth going miles to see. He had dressed for the part; his Vandyke beard was exquisitely groomed, his abundant brown hair smoothly brushed. His morning coat and vest, set off by dark striped trousers, beautifully creased and shyly revealing the kind of socks that young men dream about; and shoes to match. He was the perfect picture of the statesman, the leader.”  –William ‘Billy’ Hughes (seventh Prime Minister of Australia, from 1915 to 1923)

This entry was posted in Australia, Australian Politics, Colorization, Colourisation, History, Photography and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Chris Watson – Australia’s Youngest Prime Minister

  1. sounds like a cool guy.


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