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Airey, Peter (1865–1950)

by Martin Sullivan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Peter Airey, by P. S. Poulsen

Peter Airey, by P. S. Poulsen

State Library of Queensland

Peter Airey (1865-1950), school teacher, politician and writer, was born on 9 January 1865 at Dalton-in-Furness, Lancashire, England, son of Peter Airey, labourer, and his wife Mary, née Akrigg. With his brother Samuel and his widowed father, he emigrated to Maryborough, Queensland, in 1875. Three years later he became a pupil-teacher at Bundaberg North with the Department of Public Instruction. He was appointed an assistant teacher at Maryborough in 1883, and then to schools at Bundamba, Rockhampton, Mount Morgan, Charters Towers and Hughenden and the Central School for Boys in Brisbane. He led his colleagues in publicly demanding substantial salary increases, and was president and vice-president of the East Moreton Teachers' Association, the largest branch of the Queensland Teachers' Union. On 1 February 1901 he was made head-teacher of Hughenden, allegedly as punishment.  

In June 1901 Airey resigned and was elected unopposed for Flinders, becoming the first state-school teacher to represent Labor in the Legislative Assembly. He soon became whip and secretary of the parliamentary Labor Party. In September 1903, when W. H. Browne and William Kidston, Labor's parliamentary leaders, resigned from caucus to enter a 'Lib-Lab' coalition, Airey was elected leader of the Labor Party and president of the central political executive. He held these positions until April 1904 when he filled the cabinet vacancy caused by Browne's death and for a few days replaced him as secretary for mines and public works; he then became home secretary. An erstwhile supporter of the liberalism of Sir Samuel Griffith, Airey was always reformist though never avowedly socialist, and found it impossible to support the socialist objective passed by the Labor-in-Politics Convention of May 1905. This resolution led to the split during the next convention in March 1907 when Airey with Kidston and his supporters left the Labor Party. He was defeated in a three-cornered contest for Flinders on 18 May 1907. Because of a premiers' conference and illness, Kidston delayed the naming of his new cabinet and Airey remained home secretary until 3 July 1907 when he was appointed minister without portfolio with a seat in the Legislative Council. After the government fell in November, he won South Brisbane at the elections for the assembly in February 1908 and became treasurer in Kidston's new ministry. When Kidston joined the conservative Robert Philp in a coalition in October, Airey was dropped from the cabinet and withdrew support. Defeated at the election in October 1909 he then went into semi-retirement.

In 1916 he helped form a branch of the Universal Service League, a body advocating compulsory military service. Airey chaired, organized and spoke at meetings in Brisbane and country centres, and as secretary-treasurer of the league worked for W. M. Hughes. On 15 November 1916 at a meeting of interstate conscriptionists he seconded the motion leading to the conference of 9 January 1917, at which he represented Queensland, which founded the Nationalist Party.

A keen student, Airey became a gifted linguist, specializing in German and proficient in French and Latin. He was known as a brilliant speaker and an able administrator whose political success seemed assured; but he preferred writing. Before his election he had established himself as a versifier and essayist. He contributed frequently to the Bulletin, his chief publisher, and also wrote under the pseudonyms 'P. Luftig', 'Philander Flam' and 'Furness Born' in the Queenslander, People's Newspaper, Boomerang, Worker and, later, Steele Rudd's Magazine. The Bulletin described his verse in 1904 as 'a task entered upon as doggedly and conscientiously as the correction of school exercises and with as little poetic inspiration', but admitted occasional flights of something better.

After leaving parliament Airey lived partly by writing and partly from investments; indeed, he never took another regular job but lived at Birkdale near Brisbane on a farm bought in 1921 and worked by a son. He sat on the Cleveland (Redland) Shire Council in 1924-27 and in May 1924 became employers' representative on a board investigating the need for a farm workers' award. Six of the nine children born of his marriage to Martha Watts Lintern on 29 December 1897 shared an estate sworn for probate at £19,426 after he died of heart failure on 10 August 1950 at Birkdale.

'I started life as a joyous enthusiast and regenerator', he said of himself, 'but I have come to the conclusion that an essential preliminary to social reform is the extermination of two-thirds of the social reformers'.

Select Bibliography

  • D. J. Murphy (ed), Labor in Politics (Brisb, 1975)
  • Queensland Education Journal, Oct 1897, Aug 1898
  • Brisbane Courier, 18, 26 July 1897, 8 Mar 1898, 12 Aug 1899, 25 Mar 1907, 26 Oct 1908, 13, 21, 24 July, 8, 10, 11, 17, 24 Aug 1916
  • Worker (Brisbane), 25 May 1907
  • Daily Mail (Brisbane), 11 May 1908
  • Daily Standard (Brisbane), 21 July 1916
  • M. G. Sullivan, Education and the Labor Movement in Queensland 1890-1910 (M.A. thesis, University of Queensland, 1971)
  • register of arrivals, Imm/115 (Queensland State Archives)
  • register of teachers (male), vol 4 (Queensland State Archives)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Martin Sullivan, 'Airey, Peter (1865–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/airey-peter-4984/text8277, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 August 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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