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Batchelor, Egerton Lee (1865–1911)

by Dean Jaensch

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

Egerton Lee Batchelor (1865-1911), by T. Humphrey & Co., 1908

Egerton Lee Batchelor (1865-1911), by T. Humphrey & Co., 1908

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23370714

Egerton Lee Batchelor (1865-1911), politician, was born on 10 April 1865 in Adelaide, son of Capel Baines and Elizabeth Batchelor. His father, a photographer, died when Batchelor was very young and his mother was left to raise three sons. He was educated at the North Adelaide Model School and when 12 became a pupil-teacher there. He also taught at an early age in a secondary school at the North Adelaide Church of Christ. Although he showed promise as a teacher, Batchelor's fascination with mechanics led him at 17 to become an apprentice engine-fitter in the government engineering plant at Islington. After eleven years at this trade, during which he worked in country towns and was promoted to foreman, he resigned to take up politics. On 10 January 1890 he had married Rosina Mooney in the Christian Chapel in Adelaide and they lived in the city.

Batchelor was a central figure in the South Australian labour movement as early as his twenties. He joined the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (Adelaide) in 1882, was elected to executive office almost immediately and was president four times in 1889-98: he was also a member and president of the Railway Service Mutual Association. First elected as a delegate to the Trades and Labor Council in 1889, he was its treasurer in 1892 and secretary next year. With this record of service to the movement, it is not surprising that he was one of the leading foundation members and a driving force in the formation of the United Labor Party in 1891: he was elected secretary for four years from 1892 and president of the party in 1898. An automatic choice by the U.L.P. for its first electoral contests in South Australia, he was pre-selected to contest the House of Assembly election on 15 April 1893 for West Adelaide. He won a notable victory: a confirmation that the Labor Party had 'arrived' in the colony, and an indication of personal support for Batchelor. He topped the poll, defeating a sitting minister and relegating C. C. Kingston, arguably the colony's strongest politician, to second place. He supported opening up land under a leasing system; factory, steam-boilers and workmen's lien-legislation; a state bank; and women's suffrage. He retained first position at the elections of 1896 and 1899.

Batchelor was on the front bench in parliament from the start. A prominent party spokesman in all major debates, he was secretary of the Parliamentary Labor Party in 1893-97 and leader, after the death of J. A. McPherson, from 1897 until 1899. Following the fall of the Kingston ministry in December 1899 and the brief interregnum of V. L. Solomon, Batchelor was invited to join (Sir) Frederick Holder's government. Although the Labor Party pledge of 1899 refused the right of members to join a non-Labor administration, caucus released Batchelor from this constraint: Holder's was essentially the old Kingston ministry with which Labor had associated closely. Batchelor resigned from caucus and from the leadership and became the first Labor member in Australia to join a non-Labor ministry, with the party's unanimous approval. He remained in the Holder administration as minister of education and of agriculture until he resigned from State parliament in 1901. His main achievement while minister was the organization of a scheme to enable pupil-teachers to receive two years university education as part of their training.

Batchelor was elected to the House of Representatives in 1901, and was the only South Australian Labor member in that House in the first parliament. When the State was divided into districts for the 1903 election, Batchelor left to a colleague J. Hutchinson what would have been his 'natural' (and safe Labor) district of Hindmarsh, and defeated the sitting member Solomon in Boothby. He retained this seat in the 1906 and 1910 elections, at least partly as a result of a strong personal vote, for, following his death, Boothby was won easily by a Liberal. Batchelor was never defeated in an election throughout his parliamentary career.

In 1901 he had acted briefly in June as party leader and had been one of the committee which framed the constitution and rules of the Federal parliamentary party. As the only Labor member with considerable cabinet experience, he and J. C. Watson and W. M. Hughes chose the first Labor ministry in 1904; he then believed that 'responsibility will do great good not only to the Labor members but to the working class generally throughout Australia'. He took the portfolio of home affairs, and in the Fisher ministries of 1908-09 and 1910-13 was minister for external affairs until his death. When Watson retired as leader in 1907, Batchelor was one of four nominated by caucus to succeed him, but he withdrew from the contest. He was a consistent supporter of alliance with the Liberals until the 1908 change of policy. A member of the Australian delegation to the 1911 Imperial Conference in London, he was principal spokesman on trade and foreign policy: The Times praised his 'sound commonsense and cool judgment'. In 1911 Batchelor took over responsibility for the Northern Territory. Believing that 'the treatment of the natives formed the blackest page' in Australia's history, he quickly moved to establish reserves, to aid 'preservation of the native tribes' and to 'ameliorate the present conditions'. He appointed the enlightened anthropologist Herbert Basedow as protector, and two medical assistants.

A 'vigorous, wiry-looking abstemious man', Batchelor was, however, never robust. On 8 October 1911, when climbing Mount Donna Buang near Warburton, Victoria, with fellow members of the Wallaby Club, he collapsed from a heart attack and died immediately. After a memorial service in Melbourne, his body was returned to Adelaide for burial in West Terrace cemetery. He was survived by his wife and six children, and his estate was valued for probate at £3200. A locality near Darwin was later named after him.

Throughout his career Batchelor was a leader of the moderate wing of the Labor Party and a driving force for reforms. A committed Christian, an active member of the Churches of Christ, he was determined to provide greater opportunities for working people. He was versatile in both his profession and in his recreations; he retained his interest in education and literary affairs, and was a constant speaker at meetings in South Australia and interstate. Both his colleagues and his political opponents praised his diligence, honesty and sincerity. 'Batch', as his friends called him, was respected for his 'energy, organising talent and general ability', and as a speaker who was 'clear and forcible, marshalling facts with great care and precision' in perfect English: no orator, he was a good debater, and always calm and good-tempered when others were excited.

After his death the Bulletin remarked: 'It is questionable if any man in the Australian Parliament was more popular or more deserving of popularity, and in point of intellect he ranked either first or a good second among the members of the Fisher ministry'. Batchelor had a 'philosophic mind, seeking to weigh fairly the arguments on both sides to elicit the truth'. His popularity was partly due to his dislike of doctrinaire stances. In The Labor Party and its progress (1895) he wrote that while solidarity was important, 'the United Labor Party does not by any means include the whole of the party of Progress': that 'no party is run exactly on the lines I think best … [but] by joining that party whose aims and policy are nearest my own, I can ensure the success of some of those things I want to see brought about … and use my voice and vote to convert the other members of the party to my way of thinking'. This approach evoked such descriptions of him as 'a man of much natural ability who possesses the entire confidence of his fellow workers' and whose 'unassuming manner masked a fund of quiet wisdom'.

Select Bibliography

  • J. J. Pascoe (ed), History of Adelaide and Vicinity (Adel, 1901)
  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 2 (Adel, 1909)
  • T. H. Smeaton, The People in Politics (Adel, 1914)
  • S. O'Flaherty, A Synopsis of the Formation and the Historical Records of the Australian Labor Party, South Australian Branch (Adel, 1956)
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1900, 3 (44)
  • Pictorial Australian (Adelaide), June-July 1893
  • Review of Reviews (Australasian ed), 20 May 1904
  • Observer (Adelaide), 14 Apr 1894, 16 July 1898, 14 Oct 1911
  • Punch (Melbourne), 11 Aug 1904
  • Times (London), 3 Mar 1911, p 5, 1 June 1911, p 5, 9 Oct 1911, p 3
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 9-11 Oct 1911
  • Age (Melbourne), 9 Oct 1911
  • Bulletin, 12 Oct 1911.

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Citation details

Dean Jaensch, 'Batchelor, Egerton Lee (1865–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/batchelor-egerton-lee-82/text8641, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 25 November 2017.

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

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