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Baker, Ezekiel Alexander (1823–1912)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Ezekiel Alexander Baker (1823-1912), by unknown photographer

Ezekiel Alexander Baker (1823-1912), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 08565

Ezekiel Alexander Baker (1823-1912), politician, was born at Middlesex, England, son of Ezekiel John Baker, firearms manufacturer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Burgess. He was trained in his father's business, which had contracts with the East India Co. and the Board of Ordnance; he also studied mineralogy and mining. In 1853 he emigrated to New South Wales as mineralogist to an English company that failed after prospecting for gold in the Tamworth district. Baker then prospected for himself at various diggings between Bathurst and Burrangong near Young, where he became a mail contractor.

By 1861 Baker was well known in the southern goldfields of New South Wales and in July was chosen with James Torpy to represent the miners' case after the anti-Chinese riots at Lambing Flat. In Sydney at a large meeting Baker showed that he was opposed to the Chinese but deprecated their ill treatment by a minority of diggers; he also stressed that the riots reflected the need for reform of the mining regulations and claimed strongly that, since the great majority of miners were peaceable, they should be protected by law against the harsh military action ordered. In 1866 he founded the Mining Record at Grenfell and in 1870 was returned for the Goldfields South electorate in the Legislative Assembly. In November his seat was declared vacant because he had been appointed to the royal commission on the goldfields; he was re-elected in December.

Baker was an active and thoughtful politician, although his mining speculations affected his career. He supported Henry Parkes with whom he corresponded at length, but reserved the right of independent action. In February 1877 he was secretary for lands in John Robertson's ministry which resigned in March. In Robertson's later 1877 ministry he was secretary for mines from August to November and for lands from November to December. In December 1878 he joined the Parkes-Robertson coalition as secretary for mines and summed up his parliamentary experience in the Grenfell Record, 11 January 1879: 'We have had government after government, and Parliament elected every year or two, but their efforts in the way of legislation have been fruitless … certain it is that the great experiment we are trying in these young countries of attempting to govern after the model of Great Britain is looking at present like a failure'.

The coalition's early success was reflected in Baker's Duty on Gold Abolition Act, 1879, Mining Act Amendment, 1880, and Ringbarking on Crown Lands Regulation Act, 1881. But Baker himself was a main reason for the coalition's ultimate failure. In March 1873 he and others had been granted a mineral lease at Milburn Creek, near Cowra, to mine copper, after objections that the land had already been sold by the crown. Baker's company operated until 1877 when the Supreme Court upheld the objections and ejected it. Next year the company petitioned for compensation and a select committee successfully recommended 'their case to the favourable consideration of the government'. The investigation, begun in May by the premier, James Farnell, ended in 1879 when arbitrators estimated that £16,502 be paid. The Parkes-Robertson ministry accepted the recommendation and parliament approved payment of £17,199. As secretary for mines Baker kept scrupulously out of the negotiations; however, they led to allegations of bribery and corruption that reached a peak in August 1881 when the distribution to shareholders was made. Then it was revealed that £4710 'was spent in a way that cannot be exposed to the light'. Baker and other trustees were alleged to have taken excessive amounts, some of them to bribe parliamentarians, notably Thomas Garrett.

Parkes and Robertson eventually agreed with demands for a royal commission; it was entrusted to Julian Salomons who reported on 3 March 1881: 'there was an appropriation by the trustees themselves, not only without the consent or knowledge of their co-shareholders, but under circumstances of concealment and false statement, evidencing a consciousness on their part, that such appropriation was unauthorised and unjustifiable'. On 8 November the assembly unanimously agreed that Baker 'has been guilty of conduct unworthy of a Member of this House' and expelled him by 71 votes to 2. Parkes had insisted that parliament should decide the question apart from any action in the law courts, and Baker had told him that as a minister he was responsible to parliament and not to the cabinet. Robertson had supported Baker and was absent from the expulsion and later resigned himself.

Baker was later brought to court but the case was dropped. In April 1883 he petitioned for the rescission of the assembly's condemnation of 8 November 1881. After a long debate in which Garrett argued that Baker's 'not … overstrong character' had led him into a false position over the whole affair, the assembly agreed on 1 May, by 23 to 21, that Baker's censure 'should be rescinded, and it is hereby rescinded'. It seems that parliament correctly decided that Baker was entitled to the money he had received and that most shareholders in the company had agreed.

Baker represented Carcoar in 1884-87 and then retired from public life but continued as a successful mining entrepreneur. In 1846 at Salisbury, England, he had married Bernice Byron Diment; they had four sons and two daughters. In 1880 at West Maitland he married Louisa Georgina Kelsh; they had three daughters and one son. He died on 28 January 1912 at Hurstville and was buried in the Anglican section of the Sutherland cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1881, 1, 277-96
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 17 Oct 1874
  • Bulletin, 18 Sept 1880
  • Town and Country Journal, 17 Feb 1887
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Baker, Ezekiel Alexander (1823–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/baker-ezekiel-alexander-2919/text4213, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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