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McGregor, Gregor (1848–1914)

by G. Grainger

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Gregor McGregor (1848-1914), by T. Humphrey & Co

Gregor McGregor (1848-1914), by T. Humphrey & Co

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23366174

Gregor McGregor (1848-1914), labourer and politician, was born on 18 October 1848 at Kilmun, Argyllshire, Scotland, son of Malcolm McGregor, gardener, and his wife Jane. In 1854 the family went to Ireland where Malcolm became chief gardener to Sir Gerald Aylmer and Gregor attended the National School, Tyrone, before joining his father. Travelling through England on foot for two years as an agricultural labourer furnished experience of rural poverty. At the Clyde shipyards, Scotland, where he worked in 1869-76, he participated in successful agitation to reduce the working week.

In 1877 McGregor emigrated to South Australia. Short, sturdy and thickset he became an itinerant farm labourer in the mid-north of the colony. An accident in 1878 while felling trees permanently and seriously impaired his sight, but McGregor was to reduce the burden of his disability by developing a prodigious memory. On 10 April 1880 in Adelaide he married Julia Anna Steggall who died within the year. On 17 June 1882 he married the widowed Sarah Ann Brock, née Ritchie, at the Flinders Street Baptist Church, Adelaide.

When employment became scarce McGregor spent 1885-91 in Victoria as a stonemason. On his return to South Australia and navvying, he immersed himself in the trade union movement, becoming secretary, then president of the United Builders' Labourers Society. He was several times president of the United Trades and Labour Council of South Australia and in 1893 president of the United Political Labor League. As a radical agitator and spirited fighter he helped materially to organize the Labor Party. McGregor was elected to the Legislative Council for the Southern District in May 1894. A fervent protectionist who espoused the sanctity of White Australia, he gave his main attention to workers' compensation and conciliation and arbitration. He derided the South African War and opposed any South Australian contribution.

Though initially suspicious of Federation he was the State's first Labor representative elected to the Senate in March 1901. From May he was deputy chairman of the parliamentary party and first leader in the Senate. He was vice-president of the executive council in the three pre-war Labor ministries and a regular delegate to Commonwealth Labor conferences. He came to dominate the Senate through his tactical shrewdness. A wrestler in his youth, he enjoyed a political fight, leading the Labor-controlled Senate in 1913-14 against the Cook government; a double dissolution followed in June 1914.

McGregor supported compulsory arbitration, age pensions, land taxes on large estates, the formation of the Commonwealth Bank and nationalization. A democratic individualist he campaigned against inappropriate reverence for British forms and traditions, facetiously urging British aristocratic candidates to refuse any offer of the governor-generalship as a gesture of solidarity with Lord Hopetoun. He believed that the High Court of Australia rather than the Privy Council should ultimately determine any Australian legal issue. Himself a devout and teetotal member of the Church of Scotland, he opposed the reading of prayers in parliament as a distasteful and hypocritical 'parade of religion'.

His speeches were usually short and spontaneous with a calculated vulgarity that led him to be accused of 'a coarse brutal directness'. They could however be inexorably logical, fortified by the pages of figures he could recite from memory. Devoted to his party and its principles, McGregor relished election opportunities for the stump-oratory that returned him a large personal vote. The practicality rather than the theory of issues concerned him. When Labor held the balance of power in the House of Representatives in 1901 he announced that his party was 'for sale, and we will get the auctioneer when he comes, and take care that he is the right man'. Powerful, dour and bitter-tongued in debate, outside politics he was genial and good natured, one of the most temperate and widely trusted Labor leaders. He enjoyed travelling and was a member of the South Australian Caledonian Society and the Democratic Club, Adelaide.

Increasing physical disabilities reduced his effectiveness, and in mid-1914 he was unable to perform his parliamentary duties. He died of a heart condition at home at Unley on 13 August 1914 and was buried in West Terrace cemetery after a state funeral. His wife and stepson survived him. He left an estate valued for probate at £734. McGregor was a widely esteemed figure in early Federal politics: after his death the Bulletin described him as 'a rough-hewn old man' who commanded 'universal respect'.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1907)
  • G. F. Pearce, Carpenter to Cabinet (Lond, 1951)
  • G. Souter, Lion and Kangaroo (Syd, 1976)
  • Who Was Who, 1897-1916
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 22 May 1894, 10 Dec 1903, 14 Aug 1914
  • Register (Adelaide), 22 May 1894, 14 Aug 1914
  • Daily Herald (Adelaide), 14 Aug 1914
  • Bulletin, 20 Aug 1914
  • J. Scarfe, The Labour Wedge: The First Six Labour Members of the South Australian Legislative Council (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1968).

Citation details

G. Grainger, 'McGregor, Gregor (1848–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/mcgregor-gregor-7362/text12789, accessed 24 November 2017.

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