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Bruntnell, Albert (1866–1929)

by J. D. Bollen

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

Albert Bruntnell (1866-1929), by unknown photographer, 1920

Albert Bruntnell (1866-1929), by unknown photographer, 1920

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 14115

Albert Bruntnell (1866-1929), Salvation Army officer, auctioneer and politician, was born on 4 May 1866 at Llanigon, Breconshire, Wales, son of Edward Bruntnell, master blacksmith, and his wife Harriet, née Owens. Brought up by his sisters and a stern father, he was educated at the local National school, then worked in a tailor's shop. He joined the Salvation Army about 1885 and made rapid progress through its ranks as a cadet in various parts of England.

Promoted captain in July 1888, Bruntnell was sent to Melbourne, and in August next year to Sydney. In October he made a big jump in rank when promoted staff captain. He was in Melbourne in 1890-93 and married Nellie Whittaker, a fellow officer, on 13 November 1891 in a ceremony at the Exhibition Building performed by General William Booth. In 1894 Bruntnell was promoted major and went to Christchurch, New Zealand, as the army's colonial secretary. He returned to Melbourne in 1897 as brigadier and colony commanding officer, and was in Queensland in 1900-02 in the same capacity. He became State commanding officer in Sydney in January 1903, but resigned in November when the New South Wales Alliance for the Suppression of Intemperance gave him a testimonial; personal gifts were forbidden by the army.

Bruntnell became a Methodist. An active member of the Australian Protestant Defence Association and the Protestant Federation, he was organizing secretary of the New South Wales Alliance in 1904-09, general superintendent in 1910 and vice-president for some years. He lectured on temperance all over the State. Grand chief templar of the International Order of Good Templars in 1907, he attended a meeting of its International Supreme Lodge in Washington in 1908 and that year campaigned for the United Kingdom Alliance in England. By 1912 he had become a partner in Strongman, Bruntnell & Co., auctioneers and estate agents at Burwood, and in 1914-29 was a partner in Bruntnell & Bannerman Ltd.

In 1904 he was defeated as a Liberal by E. W. O'Sullivan for the Belmore seat in the Legislative Assembly, but in July 1906 won a by-election for Surry Hills against John Norton. Next year he unsuccessfully contested Alexandria; in 1910 he won Annandale but lost it in 1913; in 1916 he won a by-election for Parramatta which he represented until 1929. Bruntnell was not essentially a party politician and that was precisely what made him a political asset, anti-wowserism notwithstanding. In 1911-12 he sat on the royal commission on the question of legalizing the totalisator and signed the majority recommendation that its introduction would add to existing evils.

Bruntnell was briefly minister of public health under W. A. Holman in 1920, and was minister of public instruction in Sir George Fuller's government in 1922-25. His fondness for debate and warmth of temperament drew him into the great controversies of World War I and its aftermath, and he portrayed the British Empire as 'standing white and clean on the summit of civilization'. In 1922 to counteract disloyalty, he instituted a pledge centred round 'the flag' for schoolchildren. He reintroduced high-school fees to obtain funds not available from a depleted treasury, presided energetically over the construction and renovation of primary schools, secured large subventions for the University of Sydney in 1922-23, and encouraged vocational training for trades and agriculture; he also believed every girls' school should have a kitchen.

Although Bruntnell retained close links with the Protestant cause throughout his political career, as a minister he saw the dangers of extreme legislation and fell out with the prohibitionist R. B. S. Hammond; he took no part in the debates on the controversial marriage amendment (ne temere) bill. He rejected excessive Protestant demands. By refusing to admit temperance lecturers into schools or to ban a procession carrying the Host at the Eucharistic Congress of 1928, he was responding to pressures of office and applying his rule of fair play: the state should 'keep the ring'.

On the resignation of Fuller in 1925, Bruntnell narrowly lost the leadership of the National Party to (Sir) Thomas Bavin, under whom he served as colonial secretary from October 1927. Survived by his wife and six daughters, he died of coronary vascular disease at his home at Pymble on 31 January 1929; he was buried in the Methodist section of Northern Suburbs cemetery, where a handsome memorial to him was erected in 1931. His estate was valued for probate at £2444. A portrait by Joshua Smith is held by the family.

'Briggie' Bruntnell had been popular in the party and in parliament. J. T. Lang recognized in him a man devoted to the people, humane, and of broad sympathies, 'whose name would not be associated with any cloud of dishonour'. Bruntnell succeeded as a politician because he had a way of winning respect, even when his views were unpopular; because he caught up and articulated values that were widely held in Australia at his time; and because he was conspicuously not just a politician.

Select Bibliography

  • J. D. Bollen, Protestantism and Social Reform in New South Wales 1890-1910 (Melb, 1972)
  • B. A. Mitchell, Teachers, Education, and Politics (Brisb, 1975)
  • Fighting Line, 18 Oct 1913
  • Australian National Review, 25 Feb 1929, 26 Feb 1931
  • Bulletin, 6 Feb 1929
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Feb 1929
  • A. Fairley, The Failure of Prohibition in New South Wales … (B.A. Hons thesis, University of New South Wales, 1968)
  • R. W. Johnston, The Temperance Alliance and New South Wales State Politics, 1904 to 1913 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of New South Wales, 1972)
  • private information.

Citation details

J. D. Bollen, 'Bruntnell, Albert (1866–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bruntnell-albert-5406/text9161, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 1 November 2014.

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

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