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Price, Thomas (Tom) (1852–1909)

by Steven Weeks

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Thomas Price (1852-1909), by unknown photographer, c1900

Thomas Price (1852-1909), by unknown photographer, c1900

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 11257

Thomas Price (1852-1909), premier, was born on 19 January 1852 at Harwd Brymbo, Denbighshire, Wales, eldest of seven children of John Price, stonemason, and his wife Jane, née Morris. They moved to Liverpool the next year. Tom's childhood was impoverished: his father failed to find regular employment because of intemperance. The boy embraced total abstinence and Wesleyan Methodism, and eventually convinced his father of their virtues. Tom was educated, until he began work at 9, at the St George Church of England Penny School, Everton, and later at evening classes in a mechanics' institute. He became a teacher, lay preacher and superintendent at his Boundary Street Sunday school. Apprenticed to a stonecutter, he eventually became an employer of a score of men. He pursued social issues through slum work and membership of the Liberal Reform Association and the Irish Home Rule League.

On 14 April 1881, at St David's Welsh Church of England, Liverpool, Price married Anne Elizabeth Lloyd. His lungs were affected by stone-cutting, so they migrated to South Australia in 1883. Tom worked as a stonemason and built a home at suburban Unley. He cut the stone and shaped the marble capitals on the columns of the new Parliament House. Later he was clerk of works responsible for building the government railway workshops at Islington, but was dismissed when he became a parliamentary candidate. He remained an active Methodist, was a Rechabite and Freemason, and also joined the Mitcham Literary Society and the Union Parliament. He belonged to the Operative Masons' and Bricklayers' Society of Australia, becoming South Australian secretary and president (1887), and from 1890 delegate to the United Trades and Labor Council; he was also a founder of the Building Trades Council and the Democratic Club.

In 1891 Tom Price joined the United Labor Party and assisted in that year's election campaign. Two years later he won the seat of Sturt (Torrens from 1902), becoming one of ten U.L.P. men in the House of Assembly. He advocated improved workers' accommodation, land reform, compulsory education and votes for women. Despite occasional lapses in grammar and pronunciation—'I was cut out of the rough', he said—Price was a poetic and aggressive orator; but heated debate often made him bleed from the lungs.

One of his earliest parliamentary speeches, made with raised right fist, was electrifying; supporting the factories bill, when one Opposition vote was needed to carry it, he exhibited garments worked by sweated women. He announced that sweating flourished 'in the Chinese dens throughout Adelaide'; that 'women were not able to bear children owing to what they had to suffer'; and that because he had dared to give evidence of these matters to a parliamentary commission he was boycotted and reduced to digging post-holes at a penny a hole. The speech caused conservative G. C. Hawker to cross the floor to enable the bill's passage. In 1906 and 1908 as premier, Price carried amendments to this Act.

He was a 'plain grizzly-bearded man' with no frills, but 'truth and transparent honesty' distinguished him and prudence guided his reforming ardour. In 1895, however, he provoked two prosecutions for libel over separate matters in a speech at Mitcham. The first lapsed. The second, for Price's allegation that John Langdon Parsons received money from landed interests to slander people who were politically opposed to them, produced a verdict against Price of £100 and costs. Parsons pursued a prompt recovery threatening insolvency and implying the consequent loss of Price's parliamentary seat. (Sir) Herbert Parsons mediated. Price paid £64, the actual costs involved, thereby impoverishing himself and his family for years.

Price and the U.L.P. supported the reformist liberal governments of Kingston and Holder from 1893 till 1901. Price described this period as getting 'a little, and then a little more of what one wanted'. In 1899 he replaced Egerton Batchelor as party leader. A member of the Central Agricultural Bureau in 1897-1900, Price broadened the party's base from the urban craft unions to include small farmers; he travelled and established branches in the country, where he knew the party must win seats to govern. He also developed a co-operative approach to employers. These practices upset the party's radical elements, led by the Australian Workers' Union, who wanted the U.L.P. to be solely a working-class party.

Early in 1901 Price enjoyed touring New Zealand as one of two South Australian delegates accompanying the Duke and Duchess of York, and closely observed political affairs there. He narrowly failed to be elected to the first Commonwealth parliament.

Price became frustrated by the failings of South Australia's Liberal ministries. Convinced that a true reformist government could only be achieved by a U.L.P. victory, he led it into the 1905 election. It was a triumph. The party increased its representation from 5 to 15, winning 11 of the 12 city seats with a policy of development and progress, expansion of business and honest government: 'they would not be frightened by the nonsense that had been talked about Socialism'. With the support of 8 Liberals headed by Archibald Peake, Price forced (Sir) Richard Butler's government to resign. The Labor leader formed a coalition with Peake and on 26 July became premier.

Price took the portfolios of education and public works in his four-man cabinet; reform of the Legislative Council was their major objective. He proposed its abolition, but this was unacceptable to Peake. Price compromised by recommending a £15 franchise and dual votes for the householder and his spouse. The council rejected this, along with workers' compensation, compulsory school attendance and other reforms. Late in 1906 the premier obtained a double dissolution on the issue of Upper House reform and Labor increased its assembly representation to 19. The council's intransigence continued. Finally Price accepted the council's proposal of a £17 householder franchise.

Labor's left wing criticized him for this compromise and the Price-Peake government remained unpopular with it for a lack of achievement. But important legislation was passed such as for the formation of wages boards, a minimum wage and nationalization of several companies to establish the Municipal Tramways Trust; the costly administration of the Northern Territory was surrendered to the Federal government and free state secondary schools were introduced. These steps signified an evolutionary approach to attaining social justice, which Price believed was the role of the Labor Party; he had established it as the major party in the assembly by demonstrating its capacity for responsible government. In 1908 Sir Samuel Way, who came to think Price 'had a spark of the Divine fire of real genius', said that he had never known a ministry as powerful. It paved the way for the subsequent Verran government to rule in its own right. Numerous moral laws were also passed: suppression of brothels and gaming, control and care of drunkards, consolidation of legislation on the supply of alcohol and local option.

Price knew South Australia's conservatism. At Mount Gambier, in a speech laying the foundation stone of the local institute, he deplored the uncleanness of some of the wealthy classes: 'it was not the working man who wanted more than one wife'. The town's ladies called him destroyer of the home, tore the stone from its setting, and obliterated with tar Price's name from its replacement.

He was growing 'frail and pinched' and a recuperative visit to England was arranged in 1908. Price spoke at public meetings in London, Bristol, Hull, Liverpool and elsewhere. He confessed to being 'both a Colonial Nationalist and an Imperialist', who 'now finds his Liberal and Radical friends eying him askance' when he endorsed protection and universal military training. The Anti-Sweating League gave him a reception.

Price continued to weaken. He died of phthisis and diabetes at Mount Lofty on 31 May 1909 and, after a state funeral, was buried in Mitcham cemetery. The coalition he had led fell apart. South Australians mourned their loss; he had disarmed those who believed that a workman could not be a statesman. Both sides in politics admired his commitment to South Australia and the fact that he had remained true to his origins. The Advertiser's editorial noted that his 'period was distinguished by the large amount of constructive legislation it witnessed'.

He was survived by his wife, three daughters and four sons, one of whom, Walter, won the Military Cross in World War I. The Price Memorial Hall at Adelaide High School had been opened in 1911. In 1915 Mrs Price, who had been a Labor party vice-president, became reputedly the first woman in the British Empire to sit as a justice of the peace. She was prominent in public affairs concerning women.

Their eldest child John Lloyd Price (1882-1941) was born on 14 February 1882 at Everton, Liverpool. In Adelaide he attended Unley and Mitcham Public schools, the Adelaide Business Training College and the South Australian School of Mines and Industries. In 1898-1915 he worked with the State railways. He was secretary of the Railway Officers' Association, the local branch of the Federated Masters and Engineers' Association and president of the South Australian Government General Workers' Association, becoming president of the United Trades and Labor Council and senior vice-president of the State Labor party (1922). He belonged also to the Hawthorn Literary and Debating and the South Australian St David's Welsh societies and was a leading cyclist; a Freemason, he supported the co-operative movement.

Before World War I Jack Price travelled in Europe and the United States of America investigating social problems. He was an auditor at the time of his marriage at Burra on 18 February 1914 to Elsie Isabel McBride.

Like his father he was aggressively confident; in 1916-24 he was a member of the Port Adelaide City Council and in 1915-25 he represented the port in the House of Assembly. After the split of 1917 he was secretary of the parliamentary party (until 1921) and whip.

In 1925 John Gunn's government appointed Price agent-general in London; he proved an assiduous agent. On his return in 1928 he won the seat of Boothby in the Federal parliament and held it till his death. In 1929 he became secretary of the Parliamentary Labor Party. He advocated orthodox deflationary economic policies to counter the Depression, opposing Theodore's radical remedies, and in March 1931 crossed the floor. He soon became parliamentary secretary of the United Australia Party, and in 1940-41 whip.

His move to the non-Labor side of politics ensured electoral success at a time when South Australian Labor's fortunes were at a very low ebb. Survived by two children, Price died of heart disease on 23 April 1941 and after an Anglican service and a state funeral was buried in Mitcham cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • T. H. Smeaton, From Stonecutter to Premier (Adel, 1924)
  • J. B. Hirst, Adelaide and the Country, 1870-1917 (Melb, 1973)
  • D. J. Murphy (ed), Labor in Politics (Brisb, 1975)
  • Pictorial Australian, Apr-May 1893
  • British Australasian, 4 Apr, 6 June 1895, 12, 26 Mar 1908
  • Critic (Adelaide), 6 Sept 1905
  • Honorary Magistrate, Nov 1915
  • Observer (Adelaide), 30 Sept 1893, 5 June 1909, 21 Mar 1925, 11 Sept 1926
  • Australian Worker, 14 Jan 1905, 3, 10, 24 June 1909, 11 Dec 1929
  • Bulletin, 27 July 1905
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 1 June 1909, 24 Apr 1941
  • Register (Adelaide), 1 June 1909
  • Fighting Line, 24 Jan 1921
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 28 Mar 1925
  • N. Ganzis, Tom Price: First Labour Premier (a Political Biography) (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1959)
  • PRG 30/5/12, 13 PRG 569 (State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

Steven Weeks, 'Price, Thomas (Tom) (1852–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/price-thomas-tom-8109/text14157, accessed 27 September 2017.

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