Wednesday, October 7, 2009

I have been to the Commons

It is 90 years ago today that Alfred Deakin died. He was an early Australian leader, shaping many of the new federation’s policies, and becoming its second prime minister, serving three terms in all. The National Library of Australia has an extensive set of his diaries, covering over 30 years, all of which are available to view online - but only in their original handwritten form.

Alfred Deakin was born in Melbourne 1856, the second child of English immigrants. While teaching to earn a living, he studied law at the University of Melbourne, and graduated in 1877. By 1880, though, he had a taken a job as editor of The Leader, a weekly magazine associated with Melbourne’s daily paper, The Age. About the same time, he was elected to the Victorian parliament, where he served for 20 years, sponsoring an important irrigation bill and acts protecting factory workers. In 1882, he married Elizabeth Browne. They had three daughters.

From the early 1890s or so, Deakin refused cabinet posts in the Victorian parliament so as to concentrate his efforts on the federation movement. This led, eventually, to him travelling to England (with others) in 1900 to guide the constitution bill through parliament. He served in the new commonwealth’s first parliament as attorney general under prime minister Sir Edmund Barton, and then, in 1903, became prime minister himself. His party, though, devoted to protectionism, could not muster a majority, and he resigned the following year.

Deakin returned as leader in 1905. The legislation his government passed in the next three years is considered to have done much to shape the Australian commonwealth. He also served another short term as prime minister from 1909 to 1910. He retired from politics in 1913, and died, aged only 63, on 7 October 1919, exactly 90 years ago today.

There is no shortage of biographical information about Deakin on the internet. Wikipedia has a longish entry and a few links, but both the National Archives Australia’s Prime Ministers website and Australian Dictionary of Biography Online have far more detailed biographies. For Deakin’s diaries, though, look no further than the National Library of Australia which holds a large archive of Deakin material, and has made images of all the pages of all the diaries available on its website.

The National Library of Australia gives a brief description of the holding: ‘Alfred Deakin’s diaries, kept each year from 1884 to 1916, provide a succinct account of his daily activities. There is a tendency towards fuller entries in the later years. Two volumes were kept for 1887 and for 1890 (the large one for the latter year being used in part for his visit to India). The series also contains Deakin’s two ‘travel diaries’, being a daily account of his tour of America in 1885 and his visit in 1887 to the Colonial Conference in London. The diaries are based on letters that Deakin sent back to his family, which were transcribed and edited by his sister, Catherine Deakin. Deakin’s ‘Crude index to the diaries’ comprises brief diary entries for the years 1878 to 1913. . .’

I can’t find any substantial extracts of the diaries on the internet, but Marilyn Lake has culled a few quotes - including a part of the one below - for her interesting essay on Deakin’s oratorical powers - Sounds of History: Oratory and the fantasy of male power.

Here is Deakin in London in April 1887 (taken from the page images on the National Library of Australia website): ‘I have been to the Commons and found the interior so rich and beautiful as the exterior - the House itself tho’ not over large - of fine carved wood and full of members. Heard no speaking of special note. Two feeble old Liberals moved an amendment and an aldermanish but capable Conservative made a good solid reply. Easter coming. Start for Scotland on Thursday.’

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