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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Charleston, David Morley (1848–1934)

by Dean Jaensch

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

David Morley Charleston (1848-1934), by unknown photographer

David Morley Charleston (1848-1934), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B58524

David Morley Charleston (1848-1934), engineer, unionist and politician, was born at St Erth, Cornwall, England, on 27 May 1848, son of John Charleston, blacksmith, and his wife Elizabeth, née Williams. Following primary education he was apprenticed at the ironworks of Harvey & Co. at near-by Hayle, and in 1870 joined the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. In 1874 he moved to San Francisco, United States of America, to work as a marine engineer on ships of the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. He migrated to South Australia in 1884 and worked for his brother, a lime-merchant, and for the government as supervising engineer on the Hackney Bridge. He was again a marine engineer in 1886, but resigned next year from the Adelaide Steamship Co. after labour troubles and worked as an engineer with the English & Australian Copper Co. at Moonta until 1891. He married in 1895 but his wife Mary died two years later and there were no children.

Charleston had been associated with the labour movement in London, joined the Democratic Club in Adelaide, and was a delegate to the United Trades and Labor Council. In 1888 he was one of the first U.T.L.C. members to be made a justice of the peace. He was a conciliator in labour disputes in the late 1880s, chaired the Eight Hours Protection Society and was president of the U.T.L.C. in 1889-90.

At the general election in 1891 Charleston stood for the newly formed United Labor Party and headed the poll for the Central District of the Legislative Council. In 1894 he was a delegate to the intercolonial conference of Labor parliamentarians in Sydney. He travelled in the South Australian countryside, lecturing on politics; one such talk, 'Universal depression: its cause and cure', was printed in 1895. The first major dissident in the party, in 1897 he was called a traitor by his leader Tom Price. On 18 August Charleston resigned from the U.L.P. and the council. At the by-election, as an independent Liberal he defeated the Labor nominee, a result which horrified the party but which was described by conservative Observer as 'a triumph for political honour and personal reputation'.

Charleston had been a strong supporter of Federation and in 1901 he was elected to the Senate as a free trader; by this time he had become a relatively large rural property-owner. He was defeated by Labor in the 1903 election and next year was a foundation member and organizing secretary of the Farmers and Producers Political Union; in 1908 he became its general secretary. He stood again for the Senate unsuccessfully in 1906 as a candidate for the F.P.P.U. and in 1910, after amalgamation, for the Liberal Union.

In the 1890s Charleston had been closely connected with the Homestead Blockers League, especially over village settlements on the River Murray. He was a prominent member of the South Australian Cornish Association and a long-term council-member of the South Australian School of Mines and Industries; in 1914 he spent six months in London with a government commission to inquire into technical education. A largely self-educated man, Charleston was praised for the 'clearness, earnestness and comprehension' shown in his speeches. He died at his home at Mile End on 30 June 1934, leaving an estate sworn for probate at £254.

Select Bibliography

  • J. J. Pascoe (ed), History of Adelaide and Vicinity (Adel, 1901)
  • Pictorial Australia, May 1891
  • British Australasian, 9 Apr 1914
  • Observer (Adelaide), 23 May 1891, 28 Aug, 18 Sept 1897, 2 June 1928
  • Town and Country Journal, 3 Feb 1894
  • Mail (Adelaide), 31 Jan 1914
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 2 July 1934
  • J. Scarfe, The Labour Wedge: the First Six Labour Members of the South Australian Legislative Council (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1968).

Citation details

Dean Jaensch, 'Charleston, David Morley (1848–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 31 October 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 7

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