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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Oakes, Charles William (1861–1928)

by Mark Lyons

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Charles William Oakes (1861-1928), by Swiss Studios, 1913-14

Charles William Oakes (1861-1928), by Swiss Studios, 1913-14

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23479474

Charles William Oakes (1861-1928), jeweller and politician, was born on 30 November 1861 at Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, son of James Richard Oakes, storekeeper from Lancashire, and his Irish wife Agnes Jane, née Revelle. Aged 9, Charles accompanied his family to Sydney and attended Paddington Superior Public School. After being apprenticed to a watchmaker and jeweller, he followed his trade and in 1891 established his own jewellery business in Oxford Street, Paddington, which prospered. He also excelled at cricket, Rugby and cycling. On 1 September 1885 he married Elizabeth Gregory, niece of the cricketer David Gregory.

Drawn towards politics, Oakes joined the Paddington and Woollahra Literary and Debating Society and, in 1891, the fledgling Labor Party. A committed free trader, he left the party in 1894 over the solidarity pledge. In 1898-1904 he was an alderman on Paddington Municipal Council and interested himself in its finances. In 1901 he won the Paddington seat in the Legislative Assembly as a Liberal. He did not shine in parliament, but proved an effective and forceful speaker on matters about which he was knowledgeable. His Protestantism made him an enthusiastic member of the Liberal and Reform Association's committee. A Freemason, Oddfellow and president of the Ulster Association of New South Wales, in the sectarianism of the early 1900s he found it helpful to join the Loyal Orange Institution and the Australian Protestant Defence Association. While he shared their prejudices, his wider contacts in the sporting world prevented him from becoming a bigot.

During the decade Oakes became president of the New South Wales Rugby Union and of the Cricket Association, and a vice-president of the Surf Life Saving Association. He was a member of the Australian Natives' Association and a trustee of the Sydney Cricket Ground and of Clarke and Shark islands. He was known as a shrewd businessman and a good organizer. In 1907 he was appointed an honorary minister, largely to reduce the work-load of the premier (Sir) Charles Wade, but was defeated in 1910. Next year he was able to retire from active involvement in his business. In 1913 he was elected to the Senate but lost after the double dissolution next year.

In 1917 as a Nationalist Oakes returned to the assembly for Waverley and in 1920-25 represented Eastern Suburbs. While he was deputy leader of the National Party in 1920-25, his experience, wide contacts and his easy-going manner made him an important intermediary between the various non-Labor factions. In July 1919 he had been appointed minister without portfolio and from February to April 1920 minister for housing under Holman. He was colonial secretary and minister for public health in (Sir) George Fuller's seven-hour ministry in December 1921. Holding the same portfolios under Fuller from April 1922 until he resigned in April 1925, he was acting premier for the first six months of 1923.

In office Oakes was no innovator but a solid administrator. He joined the New South Wales Protestant Federation in 1921, but was not active or vocal. Deputy-chairman of the committee organizing the 1920 visit of the Prince of Wales, in 1922 he was appointed C.M.G. He was nominated to the Legislative Council in May 1925, but ill health limited his attendance. Survived by his wife, son and daughter, Oakes died of cerebral haemorrhage on 3 July 1928 at his Bellevue Hill home and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • Paddington Municipal Council, Paddington, 1860-1910 (Syd, 1910)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 19 July 1917
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 July 1901, 4 July 1928
  • Town and Country Journal, 4 Mar 1908
  • Fighting Line, 18 June 1914.

Citation details

Mark Lyons, 'Oakes, Charles William (1861–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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