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Cameron, Angus (1847–1896)

by Bede Nairn

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Angus Cameron (1847-1896), by Freeman & Co

Angus Cameron (1847-1896), by Freeman & Co

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 09466

Angus Cameron (1847-1896), trade unionist and politician, was born in Edinburgh, son of Neil Cameron, railway porter, and his wife Mary, née Young. In 1854 he migrated with his parents to New South Wales. He was educated at Christ Church School, Sydney, was apprenticed as a carpenter, joined the Progressive Society of Carpenters and Joiners and by 21 had displayed 'unusual oratorical powers as a member of the School of Arts Debating Club'. He was secretary of his union and its delegate on the New South Wales Trades and Labor Council, becoming its secretary in 1873.

In June 1874 Cameron backed Francis Dixon's motion, 'That this … Council considers it expedient and highly desirable that Labor should be directly represented in Parliament'. As a member of the committee that examined the plan in detail, he stressed that it did not involve 'class legislation' but would require finance and the help of non-unionists. In September he was again secretary of the council and next month a member of its parliamentary committee set up to handle political organizing as elections loomed because of the Frank Gardiner crisis. As the council's candidate for the Legislative Assembly Cameron lost at East Sydney but won West Sydney on 16 December; the council paid him £3 a week, raised to £5 in January 1875. He was expected to follow a broad undefined Labor policy, to report regularly to the council and follow its wishes on specific issues, a novel type of political control opposed to accepted colonial notions of a parliamentarian's independence. Cameron himself subscribed to these general views and soon realized the ambiguity of his dual role as representative of West Sydney and of the Trades and Labor Council. Meanwhile the Sydney Morning Herald, 2 January, had reminded him that 'The Constitution, British or colonial, abhors classes … [and Cameron] legally and constitutionally represents not only the working classes, but all classes of both city and country'; his aspersions on the behaviour of members provoked the Evening News, 10 February, to comment that 'even a “son of toil” may behave like a gentleman without always talking about it'.

Cameron's backing of Sunday opening of the Art Gallery and Public Library roused opposition to the 'proposed desecration of the Sabbath'; his attempts to persuade the assembly to support an eight-hour day for government contractors invited the Herald, 22 April 1875, to assert that 'the community at large has not demanded any such State interference between capital and labour'. By October the Trades and Labor Council was in difficulty over paying Cameron's salary and expressions of hostility to some of his actions reached a climax when he supported the agreements' validating bill in February 1876. He agreed to conform but the conflict intensified and in April he renounced his connexion with the council at a public meeting attended by John Robertson, William Bede Dalley and other parliamentarians. The Herald commented that Cameron had adjusted to parliament and that his colleagues there 'do not seem to have acted as if he was a man that could not be got at'.

In parliament Cameron had at first supported Robertson but from 1877 gradually turned to Henry Parkes who helped him to remain chairman of committees in 1878-85 and in 1887-89. Cameron's knowledge of parliamentary procedures was unrivalled and he maintained order fairly and firmly in some of the most turbulent sessions in the history of the New South Wales parliament. Meanwhile in the 1870s he restored his personal relations with the Trades and Labor Council, developed as a skilful and forceful debater, was known as the 'stentorian carpenter' and emerged as a dynamic focal point for radical pressure in parliament. He agitated resolutely for the eight-hour day and in 1875 chaired a select committee on the reform of Sydney's lodging houses. He purposefully resisted excessive assisted immigration and admission of Chinese, and was a lively supporter of the seamen in the 1878-79 shipping strike against the employment of low-paid Chinese. 'The Tribune of the People', said the Echo, 9 February 1878, 'has the appearance of a respectable English mechanic in his Sunday clothes [and argues] “Land is the only real property … and why should the working man of the city be debarred from his fair share”.' Protection of animals was one of his projects. He had no more direct success with it than with any of his other objectives, but indirectly he influenced public opinion greatly and eventually reforms were made in most of the abuses he campaigned against. In the 1880s he was a trustee of the National Park and a member of the Board of Technical Education.

In 1881 Cameron's relations with the Trades and Labor Council deteriorated over the handling of the trade union bill later introduced by Jacob Garrard. This disagreement contributed to his defeat in West Sydney in 1885; he also failed in a country seat. His business partnership with James Fletcher was dissolved in 1886 and he became secretary of several building societies. With substantial help from Parkes he defeated Bruce Smith in a by-election at Kiama in 1887. He did not seek re-election in 1889 and in 1890-94 was employed as a foreman of works and time-keeper in the Government Architect's Branch. He did not join the Labor Party in 1891 but was returned as a free trader for Waverley in 1894 and 1895. In the 1890s he was a prominent temperance advocate. He died at Waverley on 26 January 1896 from apoplexy induced by the excessive summer heat and was buried in the Presbyterian section of the Waverley cemetery. On 1 January 1876 at Waterloo Wesleyan Church he had married Eleanor Lyons; they had two sons and three daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • Illustrated Sydney News, 19 Dec 1874
  • Bulletin, 28 Jan 1882
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Jan 1896
  • Trades and Labor Council minutes, 1871-80 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Cameron, Angus (1847–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/cameron-angus-3146/text4693, accessed 24 November 2017.

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