Alfred Deakin

Early Days

Alfred Deakin as a boy
Alfred Deakin as a boy

Alfred Deakin was born on 3 August 1856 in Fitzroy, Melbourne. His parents, William and Sarah (nee Bill) were British immigrants who had arrived in Australia in 1850. Their daughter, Catherine Sarah, was born at this time. She was Alfred's only sibling and was to be a lasting influence throughout his life.

Alfred was a clever boy who developed an early love of reading. Authors such as Bunyan, Swift and Defoe were amongst his favourites. He was educated with his sister at her small girls' school until commencing at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School in 1864. His voracious appetite for books and vivid imagination caused his school work to suffer until he moved to the upper school and came under the influence of J.H. Thompson, one of the assistant masters whom he greatly admired.

He matriculated in 1871 and the following year became a law student at the University of Melbourne. Although he had no particular interest in law, his quick comprehension skills and superb memory enabled him to pass his course and to be admitted to the Bar in 1877.

He continued to direct his energies towards books and writing and his reading included subjects such as history, biography, travel, literature, religion, philosophy, and science. Throughout his life he was to produce a vast array of notebooks and diaries containing his thoughts on books and authors and on topics that caught his attention. His published works from this time included 'Quentin Massys' (1875), a blank verse drama in five acts.

Alfred Deakin in his late teens
Alfred Deakin in his late teens

Not surprisingly, his law career proved to be unsuccessful and it was an encounter with David Syme, the proprietor of 'The Age' and 'The Leader', which ultimately enabled him to earn his living. Between 1878 and 1883, Deakin wrote regularly for Syme's newspapers on a wide variety of topics.

It was also during this time that Deakin's interest in religion led him to spiritualism. Eastern mysticism, séances and other explorations of the spirit world were extremely fashionable, and Deakin's intellectual curiosity and fascination with religious topics led him to become involved in the movement. In 1877 he even published 'A New Pilgrim's Progress', an allegory of the progress of a soul towards perfection purportedly channelled via Deakin from John Bunyan himself. It was also through spiritualism that he met his wife to be, Elizabeth Martha Anne Browne ('Pattie') whose family was involved in the movement. Deakin and Pattie were married in 1882, despite some opposition from her parents who were wealthier than Alfred's family and who were concerned about his long term prospects. However they had a happy and fulfilling marriage which produced three daughters: Ivy, Stella and Vera. For Alfred, his family would prove to be a continual source of joy and contentment.

Deakin family portrait: Stella, Pattie, Ivy, Alfred, Vera. Deakin University Library
Deakin family portrait; l to r: Stella, Pattie, Ivy, Alfred, Vera

A Victorian Politician

Alfred Deakin portrait photo, 1886 (
Alfred Deakin, 27 July 1886

It was Syme who turned Deakin from a free trader to a protectionist and it was his work as a journalist that helped direct his attention towards politics. He had always been liberal in tendency; liberals at this time being similar to radicals in England in their belief in the breaking up of the big estates, a protective tariff and in having the support of the working classes. Thus when he was approached by a deputation from the Reform League in 1878 to stand as a candidate in the forthcoming election for West Bourke, he accepted, despite the fact that the election was to be held in less than a fortnight! After a whirlwind campaign, he defeated the opposition candidate by ninety-seven votes and was elected, at the age of twenty-three, to the Legislative Assembly. Unfortunately an electoral irregularity caused him to resign on principle, which he did at the conclusion of his maiden speech. He fought four more elections over the next eighteen months to secure West Bourke and establish himself in the arena of Victorian politics.

Deakin's concern for the welfare of the underprivileged (he also maintained an interest in the prevention of cruelty to animals for most of his life) led him to introduce legislation to curb 'sweated' labour and improve conditions in factories. Although his reforms were largely emasculated by the Legislative Council, the Factory Acts of 1885 and 1893 introduced some significant improvements, such as the regulation and inspection of factories, compensation for injured workers and the limitation of hours of work for women and children.

He also developed a long standing interest in irrigation after the drought of the 1880s led to him being appointed head of a Royal Commission into this topic. The lack of available information on irrigation caused him to take a three month tour of the United States in order to gather facts. Despite the short time available to him, his ability to grasp the essence of a subject enabled him to produce the 1885 report 'Irrigation in America', a concise and lucid explanation of the situation in the United States of America. This resulted in the 1886 Irrigation Act and the publications 'Irrigation in Italy and Egypt' (1887) and 'Irrigated India' (1893).

Deakin served in various roles in the Victorian Government, including Minister for Public Works and Water Supply, Chief Secretary and Solicitor General and he led the Liberal Party from 1886. The fall of the ministry in 1893 forced his return to the backbench where he remained throughout the 1890s, also returning to his legal practice in order to support his family. His voracious and wide ranging appetite for books and writing continued; his reading encompassing titles and authors as diverse as Plato, the Bhagavad Gita and George Meredith and he also published 'Temple and Tomb in India'(1893), an exploration of religion and architecture in India.

Building a Nation

Photo of Alfred Deakin (nla.pic-an23302062)
Alfred Deakin in an oratorical pose

It was from 1887 to 1900 however, that Deakin became increasingly involved in the movement for Federation and became Victoria's most prominent representative in all the Federal Conferences and Conventions held to discuss this issue and develop an Australian Constitution. The movement towards Federation had developed from a necessity to reach agreement on cross border trade and the need for a collective voice in dealing with the British Government. Deakin was a proud, native born Australian and at the same time a staunch imperialist. It was these factors, and his skills and knowledge relating to law, history, oration and negotiation which meant that he played a vital role in the burgeoning Federation movement until its culmination in 1900 when the Constitution was finally passed by the British Parliament.

Edmund Barton became Australia's first Prime Minister and Deakin became the first Attorney General and Leader of the House. Deakin was to become Australia's second Prime Minister and he served in this role for three terms (1903-4, 1905-8 and 1909-10). It was during his second term as Prime Minister that he received the first indications of the toll his hard work and responsibilities were taking on his health. His memory began to fail him and he wrote of his concern regarding this in his private journals.

As Prime Minister, Deakin was largely responsible for building the basic national government structure by recognising the need for, and fighting to establish, institutions such as the High Court, the Public Service and the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. Legislation relating to immigration, trade protection, defence and labour were framed by his Government, which gained an international reputation for experiments in welfare policies and reforms in working conditions.

Photo of Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin (nla.pic-an22948286)
Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin

Deakin was highly respected and regarded throughout his public life by both sides of the political spectrum. His stature and renown led to him being offered many honours and awards, including a knighthood; however his modesty led him to refuse all these.

Photo of Alfred Deakin after proposing his retirement (nla.pic-an24220342)
Alfred Deakin after proposing his retirement

Deakin retired from Parliamentary life in January 1913 with his health broken and his once magnificent memory virtually non-existent. Tragically, he was fully aware of his decline; his retirement was meant to be full of books and writing, but he was now unable to remember things that he had read the previous day. Despite this, he was persuaded to chair a Royal Commission on Food Supply in 1914 and to act as president of the Australian Commission at the International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. He found both tasks extremely onerous and his mental state worsened. The loving support of his wife, family and friends provided him with a great deal of comfort and eased his life as much as was possible until his death on 7 October 1919, at the comparatively early age of sixty-three.


See also: Alfred Deakin's family | Alfred Deakin and Federation | Alfred Deakin as Prime Minister