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Clive Philip Stoneham (1909–1992)

by Julie Kimber

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Clive Phillip Stoneham (1909–1992), railway clerk, mayor, and politician, was born on 12 April 1909 at Maryborough, Victoria, third son of John Stoneham, piano tuner, and his wife Ada Florence, née Esnouf, former textile worker. While John had been born in Victoria, Ada migrated with her family from Jersey, Channel Islands, to New Zealand, before moving to Australia. Her early involvement as a trade union activist in the anti-sweating campaigns in New Zealand and her long-standing advocacy of workers’ rights profoundly influenced Clive, who later commented that he was ‘reared from the cradle on Labor politics and trade union history’ (Age 1953, 2).

Educated at Maryborough East State and Maryborough High schools, Stoneham joined the Victorian Railways at fifteen as a junior clerk. He took out his union ticket and Australian Labor Party (ALP) membership on his first day. On 13 October 1930 he married Maisie Beatrice Chesterfield at Christ Church, Maryborough. They would have three daughters and a son who died in infancy. Prodigiously active in his local community and the labour movement, Stoneham was elected to Maryborough Borough Council at twenty-nine, and was mayor at thirty-three. His involvement with the Victorian Decentralisation League brought him national attention.

Stoneham successfully contested the by-election for the seat of Maryborough and Daylesford in the Legislative Assembly after the death of its sitting Labor member, George Frost, in 1942. His maiden speech advocated water conservation and decentralisation: these were the bedrock issues he promoted for the rest of his career. He entered parliament critical of the ALP’s recent support of (Sir) Albert Dunstan’s United Country Party government. Immediately, he found himself in a fierce dispute with the premier over what he considered to be the government’s poor record on decentralisation; later, he attacked it for failing to respond adequately to the findings of the royal commission investigating the 1939 Black Friday bushfires.

In late 1942 Stoneham was blocked from volunteering for war service by the Labor leader, John Cain, who believed his country seat was crucial to forming government. He was rewarded with an honorary ministry (lands and water supply and decentralization) during the Cain government’s ill-fated four-day term of September 1943. After an electoral redistribution, he successfully stood for the seat of Midlands in 1945. During Cain’s subsequent two terms in office he held the portfolios of transport (1945–47), State development and decentralization (1945–47, 1952–55), agriculture (1952–55), and water supply (1952–55). The loyal, hard-working, and non-ideological Stoneham managed to weather the calamitous 1955 split in the ALP that terminated the latter of those ministries.

On the death of Cain in August 1957, Stoneham became deputy leader to Ernie Shepherd. A little over a year later Shepherd was also dead and Stoneham, a safe option given the continuing tumult in the party, was elected leader of the Opposition, a position he held from 1958 to 1967. Hamstrung by a State executive that was increasingly dominated by the industrial left, thwarted by the breakaway Democratic Labor Party and its anti-Labor preference strategy, and outfoxed by the Liberal premier, (Sir) Henry Bolte, he led a parliamentary rump that came to be seen as a ‘permanent Opposition’ (Rivett 1967, 2).

Nevertheless, Stoneham’s position enabled him to speak on important matters. In 1963 he met with Indigenous leaders protesting against the move to close Lake Tyers Aboriginal station, and spoke passionately in parliament, questioning why Aboriginal Victorians ‘should be forcibly assimilated’ (Vic. LA 1962–63, 3178). He also advocated the need for disarmament; boycotted the visit of the South Vietnamese prime minister, Air Vice Marshal Nguyễn Cao Kỳ; and, as a member of the Citizens’ Anti-Hanging Committee, was involved in efforts to spare Robert Tait and Ronald Ryan from the hangman’s noose, condemning the government for its ‘official reversion to barbarism’ (Age 1966, 1).

Despite taking the fight to Bolte on numerous occasions—at one point calling him a ‘dirty rotten coward’ (Vic. LA 1965, 764)—Stoneham was unable to upset the premier’s supremacy. The last election he contested as Opposition leader, in April 1967, delivered Bolte a record fifth consecutive term. Stoneham was seen as ‘too tame’ (SMH 1967, 2) to trouble Bolte and there were doubts about whether he had either the energy or capacity to renew the party. Labor looked to the post-split generation to reverse its fortunes and chose Clyde Holding as his replacement.

A big man, with pale blue eyes, Stoneham was a Labor leader in the old mould, relying on a sturdy pair of boots and a gregarious nature. He was fundamentally decent, and ‘knew everybody … and they knew him’ (Vic. LA 1992, 4). A dedicated local member, he devoted his Sundays to his constituents, who waited for him on the verandah of his home in Fraser Street. He retired from parliament in 1970, and the same year was appointed OBE. Maisie who, along with Stoneham’s mother, maintained a supportive and stable home environment, died in 1978. He remained a visible and loved local identity and continued to live in the house in which he was born, until old age and infirmity forced him into care. Survived by his three daughters, he died on 2 July 1992 at Maryborough and was buried in the local cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne). ‘Hanging of Ryan Set for Jan. 9.’ 13 December 1966, 1
  • Age (Melbourne). ‘Mr. C. P. Stoneham—Railman.’ 15 January 1953, 2
  • Cleary, Colin. Bendigo Labor: The Maintenance of Traditions in a Regional City. Epsom, Vic.: Colin Cleary, 1999
  • Costar, Brian, and Paul Strangio, eds. The Victorian Premiers: 1856-2006. Annandale, NSW: Federation Press, 2006
  • Maryborough District Advertiser. ‘Clive Stoneham Dies, 83.’ 7 July 1992, 2, 8
  • Rivett, Rohan. ‘Firebrand Leader.’ Canberra Times, 16 May 1967, 2
  • Stoneham Papers. Private collection
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘“Get Bolte” Policy Unlikely to Succeed.’ 21 April 1967, 2
  • Victoria. Legislative Assembly. Parliamentary Debates, vol. 270, 1962-63, 3178
  • Victoria. Legislative Assembly. Parliamentary Debates, vol. 279, 1965, 764
  • Victoria. Legislative Assembly. Parliamentary Debates, vol. 408, 1992, 4

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Julie Kimber, 'Stoneham, Clive Philip (1909–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 June 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012