John Wheatley, the eldest child of Thomas Wheatley, a labourer, and his wife, Johanna Ryan, was born in Bonmahon, Ireland, on 19th May 1869. John had nine brothers and sisters and in 1876 the family moved to Braehead in Lanarkshire. At fourteen, John became a miner like his father.
Wheatley attended St Bridget's Catholic Parish School in Baillieston, where the local church and its priests, were a powerful influence upon him. According to Ian S. Wood: "All his life Catholic beliefs would be a point of reference for his political thinking and activism".
In 1893 Wheatley left the mine and became a publican and later he joined his brother to run a grocery shop in Shettleston, a mining village on the outskirts of Glasgow. The business failed in 1901 but Wheatley, who had been attended evening classes for many years, found work as a reporter for the Glasgow Catholic Observer, a newspaper with an impressive circulation among Catholics of Irish descent in west and central Scotland.
Wheatley was greatly influenced by the teaching and support of his parish priest, Peter Terken. Wheatley read widely including Catholic Socialism, a book written by Francesco Saverio Nitti. In 1906 Wheatley was converted to socialism and formed the Catholic Socialist Society in Glasgow. The following year he joined the Independent Labour Party.
In 1907 Wheatley start a printing business, Hoxton and Walsh. It handled regular Catholic church and Labour Party contracts. He also began publishing political pamphlets. Wheatley wrote a large number of these including How the Miners are Robbed? (1907), The Catholic Workingman (1909) and Miners, Mines and Misery (1909). Wheatley was elected to the Lanarkshire County Council and the Glasgow Corporation. Wheatley's great interest was working class housing and he proposed a scheme for the building municipal cottages instead of tenements in Glasgow.
Wheatley began working closely with other socialists in Glasgow including David Kirkwood, Emanuel Shinwell, James Maxton, William Gallacher, John Muir, Tom Johnston, Jimmie Stewart, Neil Maclean, George Hardie, George Buchanan and James Welsh.
Like many socialists Wheatley was opposed to Britain's involvement in the First World War and in August 1914 Wheatley was one of just two of Labour's nineteen Glasgow councillors to oppose Britain's declaration of war on Germany. He helped to create the Glasgow branch of the Union of Democratic Control, which campaigned for a negotiated peace. In 1915 he took a major role in the Glasgow Rent Strike. The following year he played an important role in the fight against conscription.
David Kirkwood argued in his autobiography, My Life of Revolt (1935): "I had never heard a speaker state the case for Socialism with such simplicity and power. I recognized in him a true leader of men. We became friendly, and began the habit, which we maintained for years, of walking together in the country on Saturday afternoons."
In 1920 Labour Party representation on Glasgow Corporation increased to forty-four. Wheatley was now the leading political figure in Glasgow and in the 1922 General Election was one of the ten Labour candidates elected to represent the city in the House of Commons. Others elected included David Kirkwood, Emanuel Shinwell, James Maxton, John Muir, Tom Johnston, Jimmie Stewart, Neil Maclean, George Hardie, George Buchanan and James Welsh.
Wheatley was a passionate politician and in June 1923 he was suspended from the House of Commons for calling the Conservative government's proposed cut in grants to child-welfare centres as murder. Ramsay MacDonald disapproved of Wheatley's style, but respected his administrative ability. When MacDonald became Prime Minister in January 1924, he appointed Wheatley as his Minister of Health.
C. F. G. Masterman later recalled: "The house has found a new favourite in Mr. Wheatley, the former revolutionary member for Glasgow, now Minister of Health. He has been the one conspicuous success in the new Parliament. A short, squat, middle-aged man, with a chubby face beaming behind large spectacles. He possesses a perfect Parliamentary manner; a pleasant voice, confidence without arrogance, a quick power of repartee, a capacity of convincing statement, and above all a saving grace of humour."
After one debate in February, Ramsay MacDonald told George V that "Mr. Wheatley's speech was a masterpiece. Quiet and fluent in its delivery, clear in its exposition of facts, logical and precise in its marshalling of arguments, vigorous in defence, humorous and decisive in attack." Wheatley's Housing Act which became law in August 1924, was one of the few achievements of the first Labour Government. The legislation involved developing a partnership between political parties, local authorities and specially appointed committees of building employees and employers. The plan was to build 190,000 new council houses at modest rents in 1925, and that this figure would gradually increase until it reached 450,000 in 1934.
As Ian S. Wood has pointed out: "Wheatley's Housing (Financial Provisions) Act was the only major legislative achievement of the 1924 Labour government. Until its subsidy provisions were repealed by the National Government in 1934, a substantial proportion of all rented local authority housing in Britain was built under its terms and sixty years later there were still people in Scotland who spoke of Wheatley houses. The act was a complex one, bringing together trade unions, building firms, and local authorities in a scheme to tackle a housing shortage which was guaranteed central government funding provided that building standards set by the act were adhered to. The act did little for actual slum clearance but it hugely enhanced Wheatley's reputation despite the loss of a companion measure, the Building Materials Bill, which would have given central government a wide range of controls over supplies of building materials to local councils operating the Housing Act."
On 9th May 1924 H. G. Wells led a delegation to ask for birth control reforms. The delegation asked for two things: that institutions under Ministry of Health control should give contraceptive advice to those who asked for it; and that doctors at welfare centres should be allowed to offer advice in certain medical cases. As a Roman Catholic Wheatley held strong views on birth control and refused to support this campaign.
Wheatley retained his seat in the 1924 General Election but the Labour Party did badly and the Conservatives formed the next government. Wheatley criticised MacDonald's move to the right and as a result was not appointed to the Labour Government formed after the 1929 General Election.
As Philip Snowden pointed out why Ramsay MacDonald did not ask him to join the government: "During the time we had been in Opposition (1925-29), Wheatley had dissociated himself from his former Cabinet colleagues, and had gone to the back benches into the company of the Clydesiders. In the country, too, he had made speeches attacking his late colleagues. MacDonald was strongly opposed to offering him a post in the new Government. Wheatley had deserted us and insulted us, and MacDonald thought the country would be shocked if he were included in the Cabinet, and it would be taken as evidence of rebel influence." However, Arthur Henderson, disagreed with MacDonald. So did Snowden, who argued: "Arthur Henderson took the view, and I was inclined to agree with him, that it might be better to have him inside than outside. I took this view from my experience of him as a Minister. he was a man who, when free from the responsibility of office, would make extreme speeches; but as a Minister I had always found him to be reasonable and practical."
Wheatley refused to support all the measures proposed by MacDonald's government and led the fight against the National Insurance Act that Margaret Bondfield tried to persuade Parliament to pass. However, Wheatley had lost his influence in the Independent Labour Party and at its conference in January 1930 he was strongly criticized for his attacks on the government.
John Wheatley, who had suffered from high blood-pressure since 1924, died from a cerebral hemorrhage on 12th May 1930. His burial at Glasgow's Dalbeth cemetery was the biggest political funeral the city had seen since that of John Maclean.