Peacock Talk by Dr Alan Gregory


Sir Alexander Peacock KCMG  MP


At Melbourne high school; my old school; at the entrance door are two gargoyles, one is of Frank Tate - the first director of education and the other is Sir Alexander Peacock the minister for public construction at the time and both were involved in founding that school.
Much had been written about the famous Frank Tate but nothing about Peacock.
Secondly I had commenced my teaching career at Ballarat East high school and being absorbed in Ballarat, it’s history and getting to know Creswick and having a busload of Creswick students come to the school each morning I soon became aware of Peacock.

Creswick as you know only too well was a place of historical importance.
It is well known as the birthplace of the Lindsay‘s, it was where prime minister John Curtin was brought up;  General Sir John Northcott; the home of WG Spence and the birthplace of Robert Menzies’ mother, and as well it was the home of Alexander Peacock and the birthplace of the organisation the Australian Natives Association. From the 1850s it was a mining town and the lure of gold transformed the town as people poured in. It brought many Chinese too - 700 in an area called Chinatown. The Chinese did not enjoy a good time there.
Mining sustained Creswick for 40 years. The close of the Madame Berry mine in 1890 signalled the end and the population from almost 5,000 people had fallen to 3,000

J A Graham writing in 1912 said

The glory is departed looms in capitals across the mining fields; but the beauty of the landscape, the skyline of the wooded ranges and the umbrageous gullies are still preserved to us, and even as in the pristine loveliness of the forest at the voice of Spring the sarsaparilla and Wattle burst into purple and gold.

This was Peacock’s town where he was born and died.

Alexander Peacock was the eldest of five children of James Peacock a draper and tailor originally from England and his wife Mary who was Mary Murphy from Ireland.

His brother Andrew became a clergyman and eventually the Archdeacon of the Otways, his sister Margaret, was housekeeper for Andrew, -neither married.  His brother Henry married Mollie Butler;  his other sister Caroline married Samuel Fyson. The daughter of the Fyson’s, Enid, became Mrs Uglow and a valuable source for my research. Peacock stayed with the Fyson’s when he came to Melbourne.

Peacock was educated at Creswick State School then Creswick Grammar, an excellent school at the time and he was a happy and popular student who was much liked.  He did well in the civil service exam at 13 and considered a position in the Telegraph department and may have worked there for a short time. In 1877 he became a pupil teacher at his old school. This was a common way of entering the teaching profession in those days. In his four years as a pupil teacher, he was very successful and well regarded

He then went to Melbourne working briefly as a grocer before returning to Creswick and becoming a legal mining manager.  He eventually established his own firm as a mining manager in a time of prosperity for mines and did very well there and he remained connected with mining management.

Peacock was active in the Australian Natives Association at its greatest period of influence.  He was the founder of the Creswick branch and secretary for 20 years the ANA as it was called was a very influential pressure group at the time and a training ground for many politicians.  He also was a director and chief president of the organisation.

In 1881 about 70% of the population were native born. Peacock was chief president of the ANA in 1885 and 1886. In 1882 the ANA had 645 members but by 1886 it had 4½ thousand members.

At one ANA rally a speaker spoke in support of a republic. Peacock with great emotion attacked the speaker and at the end all joined in to sing God Save the Queen. An elderly man rushed forward and pressed an amethyst ring on Peacock’s finger. He never knew who the donor was but wore the ring all his life.

He was first elected to the legislative assembly in 1889 as the member for Clunes and Allendale.  He was unopposed in the four following elections and he was to hold a seat for a record 44 years. I have a folk verse from one of the elections which I got from a lady in Ballarat who remembers his campaign as a young girl

This was the 1904 election

One, two three
Elshaugh up a tree
Four, five, six
Grose is in a fix
7,8,9 Peacock every time
There’ll be a hot time
In the old town tonight

He was a tall imposing man with a moustache, very jovial and Daryl Lindsay, one of the famous Lindsays of Creswick, remembered him as a man who did all the right things as the representative for the area and he was extremely popular.  He called himself a rural Liberal protectionist and yet of the time he was rather radical and he was a survivor in a time when there were many different factions and changing alliances within Victorian politics. He first entered parliament under Premier James Munro in 1890 and he was appointed first a minister.  Then he became a minister in the William Shiels ministry in 1892 and then he was in Sir George Turner’s ministry.  In that ministry he was both Chief Secretary and Minister of public instruction as education was then called.

The parties were a peculiar mix in the period before Federation. There were no fundamental differences of opinion although protectionist versus free trade groups had been.  There expediency was more frequently the dominant philosophy political organisation in the sense of well organised statewide parties was not to be found. It was estimated that 30% of the parliamentarians were professional men 30% were shopkeepers 20% came from the land and 7% were artisans.

He served as a Minister twenty times and was Premier three times.

His overall achievements were, I think, four
1. The Factory Acts which removed sweating and improved the conditions of the working man
2. His role in Education reform in appointing Tate and implementing new policies
3. His even handedness - which meant he was admired by all parties making him an ideal Speaker
4. He was an outstanding and indefatigable local member who served his electorate brilliantly for 44 years.

Held court at the American hotel, shouted drinks and was always a soft touch.


Then came one of Peacock’s most important claims to fame the
Factories and Shops Act of 1896.

Conditions in many Victorian factories were appalling. Workers were exploited and their conditions were dreadful. What was called ‘sweating’ was widespread. Sweating was described by a board as
‘ grinding the faces of the poor, taking advantage of their necessities to impose almost any terms on them, and reducing the remuneration paid for the work to an amount so low that the worker could hardly exist thereon’

Many workers were affected, especially in the furniture trades, the laundries and the bakeries. It was well documented with many heart-rending cases.
The depression had made things worse, with massive unemployment.
The conservative Legislative Council was an obstacle to any reform.
The churches were distressed about it.
Peacock went incognito into many of the factories and shops to investigate. He was appalled and distressed by what he found and went into action. The bill passed - it was a major accomplishment and it was a memorial to him. It is his major legacy.

He was minister of public construction a number of times ( six) and at important times.  He was minister when he appointed the Fink royal commission into technical education which ended up widening its terms of reference and covered all state education and lead to major reforms of the poor education system.
There were many faults in the education system – payment by results, narrow curriculum, teachers were paid poorly,

The young innovative Inspector of schools Frank Tate was appointed the first director of education in 1901 and he was to have a major impact on education in Victoria and indeed throughout Australia
Peacock’s backing of Tate and the reforms made were very significant and that’s why for example the gargoyle of Peacock is alongside that of Tate at the entrance of Melbourne High School because it was Tate who introduced State secondary education which had been strongly opposed by the private school sector.

In his private life Peacock, on attending an ANA conference at Port Fairy, he met the daughter of the local landowner in notable Millie Holden.  That friendship developed into romance and he married Millie in 1901.  It was to be a very happy union but sadly without children

Peacock was a Minister in the government of Sir George Turner. Indeed he was Chief Secretary, Minister of Public Instruction and Minister for Labour.  When with Federation Turner decided to enter the Commonwealth Parliament where he became Treasurer, Peacock who was popular and regarded as a good Minister became Premier in 1901.
He was also regarded as ‘clean’ - he had not become involved in the doubtful investments in the 1890s Land boom and bust. Many had been involved in unsavoury financial dealings.
Peacock was knighted KCMG in 1902

Peacock had also been involved in the various Federal conventions and worked for Federation with Deakin, Isaac Isaacs, Turner and Higgins.

Peacock had his set-backs
He was unable to reform the very conservative Legislative Council or get reforms through the council in matters like women’s suffrage or further changes to the Factories Acts.
He also had political set-backs such was the chaos of the parties at the time.
In 1915 he helped establish the Commonwealth Advisory Council in Science and Industry and in 1917 was involved in setting up the State Electricity Commission to generate electricity from brown coal

His last period as Premier was in 1924 and his last portfolio was from 1924/27 as Treasurer and Minister for public instruction and in 1928 he retired as leader of the Nationalists Party.
However such was his popularity he was elected Speaker in 1928 a post he held with great distinction until his death in 1933



He was well regarded as speaker. Two functions especially honoured him as Speaker. In 1929 on the 40th anniversary of being a member, a record he was warmly praised, given a dinner to note his 40 years service and given a Grandfather Clock

Then in 1931 to mark his birthday he was thanked by all parties and told he was the best speaker the House had ever had.


The Man

Peacock had an arresting raucous laugh that was most distinctive
Described as laughing himself into public favour he was always in caricatures pictured with kookaburras! Such was his laugh


A recent article on him was entitled “The Laghing Pragmatist”

Scottish comedian Harry Lauder    ……………………


Peacock died in his home from a heart attack, after a short illness.His funeral was a major event – not only for Creswick but the whole state of Victoria.

There was an enormous stream of cars - biggest event Creswick had ever seen.  

A special train took mourners from Melbourne via stops on the way to the funeral, and returned them

Peacock lay in state in the Creswick Town Hall.

The Parliament House bells rang – but no one turned up – they were all at the funeral and so the House sitting lapsed.

He was succeeded by Millie Lady Peacock who was educated at Methodist Ladies College in Melbourne.  She was the first woman to be elected to parliament. 

She was not keen on being in Parliament and served for one year only. However in 1937 she turned on the Electricity which had come to Creswick !

She died in 1948

Peacock was a legendary figure in Creswick and in his electorate.  He was a non-drinker;  he never drove a car and never travelled outside Australia.! No one was a better member of parliament than he.

Millie was so supportive she was known as the Assistant Minister.

The gates of the Forestry School- which he opened, are named in his memory.
A bust and a portrait honour him in the Victorian Parliament House.



Dr. Alan Gregory

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