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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Hamilton, William (1858–1920)

by B. W. Nethercote

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

William Hamilton (1858?-1920), trade union leader and politician, was born probably in 1858 in Melbourne, son of George Hamilton, miner, and his wife Mary Ann, née Richardson. In 1860 his parents took him to the McIvor Creek goldfield (Heathcote) where, after a rudimentary education, he began work as a miner. He went to New South Wales in 1875 as an itinerant bushworker and moved to Queensland as a shearer in 1882. Three years later, mining lured him to Croydon, Queensland, to the Kimberley, Western Australia, and to Broken Hill, New South Wales, before he returned to the shearing sheds of western Queensland in 1888.

During the shearers' strike of 1891 Hamilton led a strike camp at Clermont. On 7 March some of his men jostled and abused members of the pastoralists' executive and threw stones at their police escort. Although Hamilton sought to restrain illegal acts, he was arrested with other union leaders and charged with criminal conspiracy under a statute of 1825, already repealed in England. Convicted and sentenced by a hostile judge to three years imprisonment, he refused proposed release unless his innocence was acknowledged. Declaring 'I will see you in Hell before I'll scab on my mates', he served his full sentence on the penal island of St Helena in Moreton Bay. Following his release, Hamilton returned to western Queensland and on 8 June 1896, at Rockhampton, married Mary Ann Mitchell, daughter of a Longreach grazier who in his youth had participated in the Eureka rebellion.

As Labor member for Gregory in the Queensland Legislative Assembly in 1899-1915, Hamilton secured enactment of the Shearers' and Sugar Workers' Accommodation Act in 1905. When T. J. Ryan's Labor government took office in May 1915, Hamilton's seniority and his reputation as a martyr of the early labour movement ensured his election to the ministry. He was appointed on 8 June as minister without portfolio but when Ryan persuaded caucus of the need for a minister in the Upper House, Hamilton became minister for mines and was appointed to the Legislative Council on 10 July.

Opposition to Queensland's first 'socialist' government was entrenched in the council where Hamilton faced the toughest challenge of his political career; his response was competent but not brilliant. Though an adept tactician and a forcible speaker, he lacked the legal background to counter attacks on Labor's legislative programme. As the council rejected twenty-seven major bills in his twenty months as government leader, the pressures on Hamilton were immense and his work-load as mines minister was heavy. When the president of the council Sir Arthur Morgan died, Hamilton was appointed on 15 February 1917 to preside over his erstwhile political opponents. Firm and dignified, he was so impartial that some believed he had lost his Labor sympathies. He died on 27 July 1920 of cardiac disease at his South Brisbane home and was buried in Toowong cemetery after a state funeral with Anglican rites. His wife, three daughters and a son survived him.

The keynote of Hamilton's career was his enduring faith in the capacity of Labor to capture control of the political system by constitutional means and to use parliamentary power as an instrument of social change.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Stuart, Part of the Glory, foreword L. Hadow (Syd, 1967)
  • D. J. Murphy, T. J. Ryan (Brisb, 1975)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1891, p 102, 1920, p 28
  • Daily Standard (Brisbane), 28 July 1920
  • Queenslander, 31 July 1920
  • Worker (Brisbane), 5 Aug 1920
  • PRI 2/7/259, Col Sec A/4829 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

B. W. Nethercote, 'Hamilton, William (1858–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 22 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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