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William Oliver Archibald (1850–1926)

by Dean Jaensch

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

William Oliver Archibald, n.d

William Oliver Archibald, n.d

National Library of Australia

William Oliver Archibald (1850-1926), politician, was born on 3 June 1850 at St Pancras, London, son of Thomas Archibald, a cabinetmaker from Edinburgh, and his wife Margaret, née Blackwood. William was orphaned at 10 and after basic education at national schools in London was apprenticed to the Protestant piano-building trade. A staunch supporter of W. E. Gladstone, he studied radical theorists and read T. B. Macaulay's essays so often that he knew them almost by heart. At 16 he joined the London Debating Society and quickly became a confident speaker. He belonged to the St Pancras Workingmen's Club, the Workingmen's Club and Institute Union, and the Reform League.

In 1879, being unemployed, Archibald migrated to New Zealand but moved on to New South Wales and Victoria before arriving about 1882 in South Australia, where he worked in the country and on the Port Adelaide wharves. He was a government employee in the Islington railway workshops in the late 1880s, and on 14 May 1887 in Adelaide married Rose Owens.

Archibald was a member of the executive council of the Railway Service Mutual Association, chairman of the Port Adelaide Working Men's Association in 1895 and a member of and prominent lecturer at Adelaide's Democratic Club. A foundation member of the United Labor Party in South Australia, he was its choice to represent Port Adelaide for the House of Assembly in 1893 and topped the poll. He retained this seat at the five succeeding general elections but retired from State parliament before the 1910 election. A hard-working member who always thoroughly mastered his subject, Archibald sat on six commissions and select committees and successfully piloted several bills through the House. Most notable were an Act of 1898 allowing for the establishment of free libraries in corporate towns, the Moneylenders' Act of 1903, an amended workmen's compensation Act of 1904, which it is said he also drafted, and an Act of 1907 to amend the law regarding distress for rent. He had been president of the State branch of the Labor Party in 1901-02 and as chairman of its parliamentary party in 1905-08 was influential in the Tom Price-A. H. Peake government of 1905-09. He led attempts to maintain the coalition after Price's death.

As Labor's candidate for the Federal seat of Hindmarsh in 1910, Archibald was elected unopposed; he proved to be a useful back-bencher. Next year he joined a party of parliamentarians who visited England for the coronation of George V. He held his seat in the 1913 and 1914 elections and on 17 September 1914 became minister for home affairs in Andrew Fisher's government. When Fisher resigned in October 1915, caucus did not elect Archibald to the W. M. Hughes ministry. Next year he resigned from the party over conscription and followed Hughes into the National Labor Party. Minister for trade and customs from 14 November to 17 February 1917, he was then dropped from the Nationalist ministry. Returned at the 1917 election, he lost his seat in 1919. Archibald had been an impressive minister: rugged and strong with burly physique, bow legs and a bullet-like head, he was vehement, logical and analytical in approach. Although his aspirates were 'always in confusion' and one observer claimed 'he slaughters the English language with pitiless ferocity every time he talks', T. H. Smeaton summarized his faithful contribution to the labour movement as 'based upon a sound judgement' and 'fairness to political opponents'. Others admired his reasonable radicalism and commented that he was 'one of the best-read men in the Federal parliament … whose speeches were invariably listened to with interest and respect'.

After the death of his first wife Archibald married a widow Elizabeth Pollard at Port Adelaide on 20 January 1903. In 1919 she died and he married for the third time, on 20 December next year, Marie Schmett, a divorcee. He was briefly a bookseller and lived at Semaphore, but later moved into the People's Palace, a Salvation Army home in Pirie Street, where he died intestate on 28 June 1926 leaving assets valued at £399. Survived by his wife and a daughter and son of his first marriage, he was buried in West Terrace cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 2 (Adel, 1909)
  • T. H. Smeaton, The People in Politics (Adel, 1914)
  • B. Dickey, ‘South Australia’, Labor in Politics, D. J. Murphy ed (Brisb, 1975)
  • Parliamentary Debates (South Australia), 1896, 1898, 1903, 1904
  • Observer (Adelaide), 17 June 1893, 6 May 1899, 3 July 1926
  • Australian Worker, 28 Jan 1905, 30 June 1926
  • Punch (Melbourne), 8 Dec 1910, 18 Feb 1915
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 29 June 1926.

Citation details

Dean Jaensch, 'Archibald, William Oliver (1850–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 June 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

William Oliver Archibald, n.d

William Oliver Archibald, n.d

National Library of Australia

Life Summary [details]


3 June, 1850
London, Middlesex, England


28 June, 1926 (aged 76)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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