Tom Price from Stonecutter to Premier by S McCarthy

Tom Price

from Stonecutter to Premier

Tom Price.
from Stonecutter to Premier

Stephanie McCarthy


In her introduction Stephanie McCarthy states ‘The simple facts of Tom’s story are compelling. A starving boy becomes a stonecutter at the age of nine, continues his education at night school, lifts his family from dire poverty to comfort in less than a decade, courts and marries the girl he loves despite fierce opposition, develops ‘stonecutter’s disease and thus emigrates with her and their new baby to South Australia.’ This would be more than could be expected from anybody and would make a good story. For Tom Price it was only the start.

McCarthy continues that he ‘works as a stonemason on the construction of Parliament House. A few years later, he wins the seat of Sturt for the United Labor Party and enters parliament….to become Premier and Minister of Education and Works in 1905. By the time he dies in 1909 he has won from his foes respect and admiration. As for the ordinary people of South Australia, their expression of grief at losing their Premier is overwhelming, revealing how deeply they have grown to cherish their leader.’

How could and did, Tom, who was the son of an alcoholic father and illiterate mother, achieve what no other politician before or after him has, in such a relatively short life span of 57 years? McCarthy’s biography of Tom Price needed more than 400 pages to tell the story of this remarkably modest but determent man who with the help and support of his wife was able to improve the life and economic fortunes of South Australians.

While doing this the author has exposed some of the horrendous practices under which both male and female workers were forced to perform. Of particular interest to Tom were the railway workers, the seamstresses, farm and factory workers. She has also been able to report the good and bad of Tom’s actions or views.

Throughout the story McCarthy shows a distinct admiration for Tom, and so she should. After all he was not only her great grandfather but also a man of which all South Australians should be proud. Few if any have achieved what he did. Tom overcame daunting obstacles – born in dire poverty, without title or opportunity he became the first Labor Premier of South Australia. She also shows that even a hundred years after Tom’s death there is still much room for improvement in many of our social, political and economic problems.

Tom Price was born in January 1852 in Wales but grew up in Liverpool where he attended the penny-school. At age 9 he left to become an apprentice to his father, a stonecutter who drank most of the family income. Despite these difficulties Tom managed to continue his education at a Wesleyan Sunday School and at night classes. By age 14 he became interested in politics and when only 16 he had stopped his father from drinking and the large family could finally live in some comfort.

In 1871 he finished his apprenticeship and was admitted to the Liverpool Masons’ Society. Seven years later he was selected to show his skills at the Paris Exhibition which attracted more than half a million people. In 1881 he worked for himself and employed 23 men and 3 boys. That same year he became superintendent of the Sunday School and owner of several rental properties.

He also fell in love and married Annie Elizabeth Davies on 14 April 1881. Their first child was born on Valentine’s Day 1882. Soon after Tom was diagnosed with phthisis, better known as stonecutter’s or miner’s disease and advised to look for better climatic conditions. The young family expected to find these in South Australia.

They arrived at Torrens Island in May 1883 and Adelaide in June. They found a rental property at Unley and Tom joined the Operative Masons and Bricklayers Society, eventually becoming its President. Within 3 months he had started to build his own two-roomed cottage at Hawthorn which, when finished became the family home for as long as he lived.

Working as far away at times as Mount Gambier he was employed in the late 1880s on the new parliament house which was officially opened in June 1889. During the 1890s depression Tom was employed as clerk of works at Islington. In 1893 he was elected to parliament by a majority of one vote. He was not afraid of speaking his mind which occasionally landed him in deep water and costly court cases. One of which forced him to sell his house!

In one of his first major speeches he attacked the Wakefield system which he thought had been a great failure. It was his speech in favour of working conditions which resulted in the passing of the Factory Bill and saw the appointment of Augusta Zadow as Inspector of Factories.

Tom was a great supporter of the Village Settlement Scheme and Women’s Suffrage. He also became president of the Working Women’s Trade Union, founded by Mary Lee in 1890. After the 1896 election Tom retained his seat and was later described as one of the most popular members of parliament.

His support for country people and farmers in particular resulted in his appointment to the Advisory Agricultural Board. While in that position he passionately advocated a more educated approach to agriculture, one based on science. Early 1898 saw the birth of ‘Tom Jones’, a series of letters appearing in the weekly Herald, addressed to Premier Kingston or a fictional mate Pat Murphy. They offered Tom a window to show his heart and soul but were also an ingenious and secret devise for him to voice his ideas and criticisms with unprecedented freedom and at least some immunity from libel charges. Within a short time sales of the paper almost doubled.

Re-elected in 1899 Tom continued to make his views known on many different issues, including those on the Boer War. That same year he was elected leader of the United Labor Party. Early in 1900 he attended the Intercolonial Labor Federal Conference in Sydney where it was proposed, to form a Federal Labor Party, to exclude undesirable aliens and introduce old-age pensions.

Tom and his wife were present at the official celebrations on 1 January 1901 at Sydney of the first Commonwealth Day. Two months later he narrowly missed out being elected to the first Federal Government. When visiting New Zealand some months later he distinguished himself to all who met him, including the future King Edward VII. He was a tireless worker, talker and negotiator when it came to improve social and economic conditions in South Australia.

During 1903 much of his time was taken up by a crusade to deal with parental neglect and problems relating to young people. He was concerned with the suffering of the growing number of unemployed as well as the suffering of the elderly poor which was immense. He cited detailed examples of misery and despair. The increase in suicides and the religious hypocrisy displayed by the churches were matters of great concern to him as well.

Another major social problem which came in for criticism from him was the sale of sly grog, or stagger juice. Being a teetotaller himself and having suffered from the abuse of alcohol in his youth he tried his hardest to minimise the use of it. At the same time he tried to get workmen’s compensation for those men in Port Pirie who were affected by lead poisoning.

By 1904 Tom, and Labor in general, felt that it was possible to form government in the near future. He now worked even harder than ever and as always attended every session of parliament showing up the government’s short comings and unfulfilled promises. Between sessions he travelled the state far and wide giving lectures or attending meetings. In March 1905 Tom was near exhaustion but could taste victory.

With another election coming up he tried to get working men and women to vote instead of going to the races where the alcohol was flowing in great quantities. Tom’s efforts and hard work finally came to fruition on 27 May 1905 when Labor was successful. Tom was elected leader of the ULP and by the end of July the first Labor Premier in South Australia, Minister of Education and Commissioner of Public Works.

Tom’s biggest fight during his political life had been, and continued to be, with the Legislative Council, or Upper House. Privileged House, Graveyard House or Chamber of Obstruction, which rejected most of the Bills passed by the House of Assembly. When everything else failed to get his legislation passed he brought on a dissolution. The ensuing election of 3 November 1906 was a solid win for Tom and his party. Eventually most of the Bills were passed either in full or with some alteration.

After years of working six or seven days a week Tom and Annie left for a long ‘holiday’ in England and Wales where they arrived on 9 March 1908. There the ex-stonecutter left no stone unturned to advertise South Australia. He painted a picture of prosperity and stability, be it at a luncheon with royalty or nobility or when meeting at the House of Commons, a Chamber of Commerce, Town Hall, Conservative Club or at a private meeting with an old lady whose son had run away to South Australia.

While in London Tom was diagnosed with Bright’s disease and told to retire from politics immediately. If he didn’t he would not live much longer. Back in South Australia jealousy and nastiness soon showed as news of Tom and Annie’s successful tour became available. Even so, on their homecoming on 20 July 1908 they received a heroes’ welcome. Tom was back at work the very next day, ignoring both Bright’s disease and his aggravated phthisis.

All these years of hard work had taxed him to the limit. After the last session of parliament Tom was almost in a state of collapse. On doctor’s orders he took a short holiday at Robe and Victor Harbor at the start of 1909. Being restless and eager to get on with it he spent a few weeks at home and then at a friend’s home in the Adelaide Hills. He passed away on 31 May 1909 and was buried at the Mitcham Cemetery. Tom’s funeral was the biggest South Australia had ever seen.

In this excellently researched and tastefully written political biography Stephanie McCarthy has shown that Tom Price, the ex-stonecutter, had achieved his basic aim of improving the quality of life for a large number of people. She has also shown that there are still a few things which have not changed on the political, economic or social scene. We still are concerned about the import of cheap goods to the detriment of local producers. There are still problems with truancy and our education system in general, water allocation from the Murray and the ever increasing state debt, to name but a few.

Review by Nic Klaassen

Tom Price by Stephanie McCarthy,
PB, 421 pp, bibliography,
end notes, B&W photographs and index, is available at $39.95, from
Wakefield Press

Telephone 08 8352 4455


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