William Spence

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The Honourable
William Spence
William Spence.jpg
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Darling
In office
29 March 1901 – 5 May 1917
Preceded by New seat
Succeeded by Arthur Blakeley
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Darwin
In office
30 June 1917 – 13 December 1919
Preceded by Charles Howroyd
Succeeded by George Bell
Personal details
Born (1846-08-07)7 August 1846
Eday, Scotland
Died 13 December 1926(1926-12-13) (aged 80)
Terang, Victoria
Nationality Scottish Australian
Political party Labor (1901–17)
Nationalist (1917–19)
Spouse(s) Ann Jane Savage
Occupation Unionist

William Guthrie Spence (7 August 1846 – 13 December 1926), Australian trade union leader and politician, played a leading role in the formation of both Australia's largest union, the Australian Workers' Union, and the Australian Labor Party.

Early life[edit]

Spence was born on the island of Eday in the Orkney Islands, Scotland, the son of a stonemason, and migrated to Australia with his family as a six-year-old child. He had no formal education and worked as a farm labourer in the Wimmera district of Victoria from the age of 13. Later he acquired a gold-mining licence and worked for various mining companies. In 1871 he married Ann Jane Savage.[1]

In 1874 Spence was one of a number of militant mine-workers who formed the Amalgamated Miners' Association of Victoria, and he became the union's general secretary in 1882. He led the union into mergers with similar unions in the other Australian colonies, forming the Amalgamated Miners' Association of Australasia.[2] In 1886, he became the first president of the Amalgamated Shearers' Union and by 1890 most shearers in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales had joined the union and 85 per cent of the shearing sheds were open to union members only.[1]

Since the Australian economy was expanding rapidly at this time and there was an acute shortage of labour, the unions were in a strong bargaining position and were able to secure great improvements in the living standards of Australia's rural working class. But the Depression which began in 1891 led to acute class conflict as the mine owners and graziers tried to cut wages to remain solvent in the face of falling commodity prices, and the unions resisted. In 1894 Spence led the amalgamation of the miners, shearers and other rural workers into the Australian Workers' Union (AWU), Australia's largest and most powerful union. There were bitter strikes in the maritime and pastoral industries, in which Spence played a leading role, although he was generally a force for moderation in the labour movement. He was the AWU's secretary from 1894 to 1898 and president from 1898 to 1917.[1]

Political career[edit]

Group photograph of all Federal Labour[3] Party MPs elected at the inaugural 1901 election, including Chris Watson, Andrew Fisher, Billy Hughes, Frank Tudor, and King O'Malley. Spence is seated in a chair at far left.

The defeat of the strikes of 1891–1894 led Spence and other labour leaders to move into politics. Spence supported the formation of the Progressive Political League, an early labour party, in Victoria in 1891 and he was narrowly beaten at a by-election in 1892 for the seat of Dundas in the Victorian Legislative Assembly. In 1891, he supported the first election campaign by the Labour Party in New South Wales, which won a number of seats in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. In 1898 Spence he became MP for Cobar in western New South Wales.[4] He remained president of the AWU, making him one of the most powerful men in New South Wales politics. He described himself as "an evolutionary, not a revolutionary, socialist."

Unlike many in the labour movement, Spence supported the federation of the Australian colonies, and in 1901 he was elected to the first Australian House of Representatives as MP for the NSW Division of Darling. Like most of the older generation of labour leaders who were born in the United Kingdom, Spence was associated with the more conservative wing of the Australian Labor Party, led by Billy Hughes. He was not really suited to parliamentary life and did not hold office until he was appointed Postmaster-General in the third Fisher Ministry from September 1914 to October 1915. He was also appointed to the undemanding position of Vice-President of the Executive Council in the second Hughes Ministry from November 1916 to February 1917.

In 1916 Hughes decided to introduce conscription to maintain Australia's contribution to the Allied forces in World War I. Most of the Labor Party bitterly opposed this, but Spence sided with Hughes. As a result, he was expelled from the party along with Hughes and the other conscriptionist MPs. He was also deposed as president of the AWU and shortly after was expelled from the union. At the 1917 federal election, although Hughes was easily returned to power, Spence lost his seat, mainly because the AWU organised the rural workers to oppose him. Shortly after he was returned to Parliament at a by-election for the Tasmanian seat of Darwin. He was one of only a small number of people who have represented more than one state or territory in the Parliament. In 1919, he ran for the Melbourne seat of Batman, but was defeated.

Spence took up farming and died of pulmonary oedema at Terang, Victoria, survived by his wife, four daughters and three of his five sons.[1] His daughter Gwynetha had married publisher and politician Hector Lamond in 1902.


Spence was typical of the founding generation of the Australian labour movement, in that he was born in Britain rather than Australia, was self-educated, was active in the temperance movement and was an active Protestant Christian – he was a Primitive Methodist lay preacher. Like most of his generation, he was loyal to the British Empire and thus supported conscription, while the younger, Australian-born and more secular (or Irish-Catholic) wing of the labour movement opposed it. Unlike Hughes, he soon regretted his break with the Labor Party and never recovered from his rejection by the union he helped found.


In 1972 the Canberra suburb of Spence was named after William Guthrie Spence.[5] In October 2003 the Australian Workers' Union named its Melbourne headquarters in Spence's honour.


  1. ^ a b c d Lansbury, Coral; Bede Nairn. "Spence, William Guthrie (1846–1926)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Australian National University. Retrieved 10 May 2007. 
  2. ^ "Spence, William Guthrie (1846–1926)". Australian Trade Union Archives. Retrieved 16 February 2010. 
  3. ^ As noted further on in the article the spelling of "Labor" in "Australian Labor Party" was not adopted by the party until 1912.
  4. ^ "Mr William Guthrie Spence (1846–1926)". Members of Parliament. Parliament of New South Wales. Retrieved 10 May 2007. 
  5. ^ "Suburb name search results". Australian Capital Territory Planning and Land Authority. Retrieved 14 May 2007. [dead link]

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Agar Wynne
Succeeded by
William Webster
Preceded by
Albert Gardiner
Vice-President of the Executive Council
Succeeded by
Edward Millen
Parliament of New South Wales
Preceded by
Thomas Waddell
Member for Cobar
Succeeded by
Donald Macdonell
Parliament of Australia
New division Member for Darling
Succeeded by
Arthur Blakeley
Preceded by
Charles Howroyd
Member for Darwin
Succeeded by
George Bell
Trade union offices
New title General Secretary of the Australian Workers' Union
1894 – 1900
Succeeded by
Donald Macdonell