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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ash, George (1859–1897)

by Suzanne Edgar

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

George Ash (1859-1897), journalist, lawyer and politician, was born on 19 September 1859 in Southwark, London, son of James Ash, journeyman baker, and his wife Eliza Ann, née Goodfellow. In his teens Ash ran away to sea but was brought back and put to work in a warehouse. In 1877 he went to South Africa, where he joined the staff of the Kaffrarian Watchman in King William's Town and enlisted as a volunteer in order to report the Kaffir war.

In 1879 Ash migrated to South Australia and worked on the Mount Gambier Border Watch and the Narracoorte Herald. He bought the latter in December 1880 with J. B. Mather. Within three years they had paid off their loan and established a reputation for integrity and fearlessness. The editorial tone was strongly anti-squatter; some felt Ash 'looked upon himself as a heaven-born reformer sent down to set us all straight'. In 1885 he married Nellie Malcolm; they had five children. In 1886 he was elected to the Narracoorte District Council.

On 9 April 1889 Ash wrote an article attacking a local landowner. Libel was alleged and the case attracted much debate over freedom of the press. Ash ably conducted his own defence but, having alleged perjury, was not allowed to bring evidence in support. The plaintiff eventually won on a legal technicality, but public sympathy lay with Ash. Despite the success of a sustaining fund, he was forced to sell the paper and by August was bankrupt.

Contesting the district of Albert at the April 1890 election, Ash supported free trade, increased land tax, women's suffrage, payment of members and Federation, and continued his popular crusade against dummying; he became the youngest member of the House of Assembly. A commentator described him as full of brain, backbone and tongue, eccentric, 'a smart man—but not a discreet one'. Encouraged by (Sir) Samuel Way, (Sir) J. H. Symon and C. C. Kingston, Ash consolidated his hard-won legal experience by matriculating in 1891 and studying law; he worked for Kingston as an articled clerk.

Phenomenally industrious, Ash would leave parliament at midnight, walk home to Woodville and, after brief rest, begin his office work and studies. He won the Stow Prize in 1892 and 1893 and topped his final year of law. In December 1894 he was admitted to the Bar, and became Kingston's partner, although they were not aligned politically. Ash headed the poll again in Albert at the 1893 and 1896 elections when he was associated with the conservative National Defence League. He had sat on the 1892 shops and factories commission. A teetotaller and non-smoker, he was a diligent official visitor to Adelaide's two lunatic asylums. His agitation for separation of retarded children from adult lunatics resulted in 1894 in government consent to subsidize the building of Minda Home. Ash wrote articles in the Advertiser seeking subscriptions and was honorary secretary of the founding committee.

Late in 1896 his doctor warned that he was overworking dangerously. Ash soon contracted typhoid fever, but still was selected as a delegate to the 1897 National Australasian Federal Convention. He did not attend, having died on 23 February 1897, aged 37. 'The good always die young' he had once joked. Ash was buried in West Terrace cemetery; his estate was sworn for probate at £1200.

Some had deplored Ash's apparent veering from a liberal to a conservative stance; his friends described it as consistent independence. Kingston admitted that Ash's dogged individualism and conscientious pontification over trivial details would have prevented his joining a government, but believed that he had become 'a potent voice in the parliament'.

Select Bibliography

  • Minda Home, Fifty Years of Sympathetic Care and Practical Service (Adel, 1948)
  • South Australian Institutes Journal, June 1931
  • Register (Adelaide), 17 July–6 Aug 1889, 17, 19, 21, 25 Mar, 4, 7, 11 Apr 1890
  • Observer (Adelaide), 9 Aug, 13 Dec 1890, 27 May 1893, 27 Feb 1897
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 24 Feb 1897
  • Border Watch, 24 Feb 1897
  • J. H. Symon papers, 1736/1/825 (National Library of Australia)
  • Register no 301, 1894 (Supreme Court, South Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar, 'Ash, George (1859–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 22 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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