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Coneybeer, Frederick William (1859–1950)

by G. L. Fischer

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Frederick William Coneybeer (1859-1950), by unknown photographer, c1930

Frederick William Coneybeer (1859-1950), by unknown photographer, c1930

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 4535

Frederick William Coneybeer (1859-1950), trade unionist and politician, was born at Clifton, near Bristol, England, on 27 September 1859, fourth of twelve children of John Powsland Coneybeer, horse-collar maker, and his wife Mary, née Hobbs. In 1865 the family migrated to Orange, New South Wales, where Coneybeer attended primary school and the Rev. Francis Boyce's Anglican Sunday school; he learned horse-collar making in his father's shop. At the end of 1881 Coneybeer went to Adelaide and worked for James Holden & Co.; the depressed state of his trade encouraged him to join the Saddle, Harness and Collarmakers' Society. A delegate to the United Trades and Labor Council and a tactful and likeable negotiator, in 1888 he became council president.

Coneybeer held the House of Assembly seat of East Torrens in 1893-1921 and 1924-30 (for the United Labor Party 1893-1917). A Freemason and active in temperance and friendly societies, in 1894 he had a bill passed enabling women to benefit from the Acts relating to friendly societies. He held a wide range of offices and appointments, including secretary of the U.L.P., government whip, visitor to the Parkside Lunatic Asylum, member of the University of Adelaide council, and minister of education in the Price-Peake coalition government in 1908-09, and again in the John Verran Labor government of 1910-12. After Price died in 1909 Coneybeer was selected to head the coalition as premier, but he was denied office by the withdrawal of Peake and the belief of the governor, Sir Day Hort Bosanquet, that his ministerial experience was too slight.

As minister of education, Coneybeer increased the number of high schools and scholarships; he opposed Bible reading in state schools. Twice he tried to reform the education system but was frustrated while a royal commission examined the question. The Education Act, 1915, owed something to Coneybeer, but by then he had become Speaker, an office he held until 1921. In 1917, with other 'old hands', he was expelled from the Labor Party for supporting conscription. He at once helped to form the National Labor Party, and in 1923-24 was a leading negotiator for its fusion with the Liberal Union to form the Liberal Federation. Though he had now moved a long way from what he had once called his Christian Socialism, he still supported arbitration, improved education, reform of the Legislative Council, White Australia and temperance. He was defeated at the 1930 election and retired.

Meticulous, genial and energetic as a politician, Coneybeer was noted for his presence as master of ceremonies or humorous singer at countless smoke socials and concerts. He was at his best on the hustings—both Labor and non-Labor parties appreciating his organizing ability, assessment of electoral mood, and vote-winning appeal. From 1881 Coneybeer documented his political life and times in a remarkable series of personal diaries, which he bound himself, and an important collection of related papers.

On 20 February 1886 Coneybeer had married Margaret Jane Thomas at Holy Trinity Church, Adelaide. Predeceased by his wife, he died on 30 May 1950, survived by one daughter and three sons. He was given a state funeral and buried in Mitcham general cemetery. The State hundred of Coneybeer is named for him.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (South Australia), 1894
  • Observer (Adelaide), 7 Sept 1895
  • Australian Worker, 18 Feb 1905
  • News (Adelaide), 29 Mar 1924
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 31 May 1950
  • G. L. Fischer, The Hon. Frederick William Coneybeer, 1859-1950: A Political Biography (M.A. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1968)
  • Coneybeer papers (PRG 22, State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

G. L. Fischer, 'Coneybeer, Frederick William (1859–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/coneybeer-frederick-william-5748/text9733, accessed 23 November 2017.

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