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Edgar, Alexander Robert (1850–1914)

by Ian F. McLaren

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Alexander Robert Edgar (1850-1914), Methodist minister and social reformer, was born on 8 April 1850 in County Tipperary, Ireland, second of five sons and four daughters of Edward Edgar, engineer, and his wife Mary, née Haslam. The family landed in Melbourne in February 1855, camping on arrival at Fitzroy, then residing at Windsor where Alexander went to All Saints' School. They moved in 1857 to St Arnaud, where he attended day school until he was 14. He was successively pupil-teacher, gold prospector, tutor, prospector again, and assistant to the district surveyor.

Although an Anglican, Edgar was influenced by Rev. Albert Stubbs to join the St Arnaud Methodist Church in June 1867. Finding employment difficult to obtain he left in August for Ballarat, Castlemaine and Warrenheip, before returning in March 1869 to join his father in working unsuccessfully a St Arnaud mine. He then moved to Pleasant Creek (Stawell), working manually at the mines. As a lay preacher, he gave his first sermon at Concongella Creek on 18 July.

Edgar was nominated in January 1872 to the Methodist Provisional Theological Institution attached to Wesley College, Melbourne. Completing two years training, he was appointed to Kangaroo Flat in April 1874, followed by Inglewood (1876-79) during which time seventeen new churches were built. He was ordained at Wesley Church, Melbourne, early in 1878 and on 3 April married 29-year-old Katharine Haslam. He was appointed to Long Gully, Bendigo (1879-81); Sebastopol, Ballarat (1881-84); Port Melbourne (1884-87) where he opened a 'ragged school' in the slum area, was active in the temperance movement and became chairman of the local option campaign; Chilwell (1887-90); and Geelong (1890-93) where Christian Endeavour was introduced to Australia, and a mission established. A tall, broad-shouldered man with a magnetic personality, Edgar was a dynamic preacher and persuasive evangelist. His organizing ability and sympathetic understanding of and sincere activism in social problems extended his influence. Asked why he helped the undeserving, he replied, 'I spend my life in giving men another chance'. He was an excellent lecturer.

In 1893 the Methodist Conference established the Central Methodist Mission at Wesley Church, with Edgar as superintendent and A. J. Derrick as secretary. At this time there was great public concern over the exploitation of labour by many employers during the widespread unemployment of the early 1890s. In 1893 the government appointed a board of inquiry into the Factories Act, particularly the practice of sweating. Edgar joined a deputation of tailors and bootmakers to the chief secretary in 1894. Meetings on 'The sweating evil' were called at the Central Mission on the following Sunday afternoons and both were filled to capacity to hear Edgar, S. Mauger and Dr W. Maloney, who was an inquiry member.

This inaugurated Pleasant Sunday Afternoon services as a weekly feature; they continued as a major forum for social, political and religious leaders. Music of good standard was introduced and applause permitted. The Gaiety Theatre was rented in 1900 to hold crowded meetings. Old-age pensions and women's suffrage were advocated, and in May 1906 the fiery W. H. Judkins used the forum to launch the Forward Social Reform Movement to attack gambling, liquor, prostitution, corruption, and John Wren. It was said that 'services at Wesley were ritualistic in the morning, socialistic in the afternoon and evangelistic at night'.

As a result of his anti-sweating activities, Edgar was appointed chairman of the first Victorian wages board—the clothing—and later the coopers' and jam boards. On 19 September 1901, in giving evidence to the royal commission on the operation of the factories and shops law, he stated that as board chairman he had negotiated agreements without ever having to give a casting vote. He was also a member of the board of inquiry on unemployment (1899-1900).

Other social activities initiated by Edgar in the depressed 1890s included the village settlement at Kardella, Gippsland; free labour bureaus; unemployed committees; the Sisterhood and Sisters' Home; South Yarra Central Mission Rescue Home for women; Central Mission Hospice for men; Tally Ho boys' farm at Burwood; Bichloride of Gold Institute of Victoria for alcoholism and drugs; and the annual Old Folks' At Home gathering. Open-air meetings with a brass band and singing were a feature of Edgar's mission. When the 'move on' clause against street meetings was invoked Edgar preached while striding down Bourke Street.

In a lecture on 'the need for good government' on 19 August 1894, Edgar was reported in the Age as having said: 'You have individuals in Parliament who are a disgrace to the community; men who are known to be liars and profligates; men who are prepared to tread under foot everything that is noble to attain their ends'. On 22 August he was called to the bar of the Legislative Assembly on a breach of privilege charge, but after debate, the House proceeded to the next order of the day.

In 1901 Edgar became president of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, and next year Methodist Union with the United Free Methodist, Bible Christian and Primitive Methodist churches was achieved. His health was affected by the strain of his many activities and he visited England three times to recuperate from breakdowns, and for eye treatment. In 1906 he visited British Methodist missions and North America. He preached in Wesley Church for the last time on 26 January 1912. Edgar died of heart disease on 23 April 1914 at Hawthorn, survived by his wife and two daughters of their eight children. He was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. A memorial tablet and a stained-glass window were placed in Wesley Church.

A brother William Haslam (1858-1948) was an estate agent and a member of the Legislative Council in 1904-13 and 1917-48 and of the John Murray and W. A. Watt ministries in 1909-13.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Fison, The Methodist History of Victoria and Tasmania 1898-1908 (Melb, nd)
  • Souvenir of a Great Historical Event (Melb, 1902)
  • I. E. Watkin, Jubilee History of Wesley Church: Including Methodism in Early Melbourne, and the Story of the Central Mission, 1858-1908 (Melb, 1908)
  • A. J. Derrick, The Story of the Central Mission (Melb, 1918)
  • W. J. Palamountain, A Methodist Greatheart (Melb, 1933)
  • C. I. Benson (ed), A Century of Victorian Methodism (Melb, 1935)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1894, p 1403, 1446
  • R. Howe, ‘Protestantism, Social Christianity, and the ecology of Melbourne, 1890-1900’, Historical Studies, Apr 1980
  • Age (Melbourne), 20, 23, 25 Aug 1894, 24 Apr 1914
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 25 Aug 1894
  • Punch (Melbourne), 27 May 1909
  • Argus (Melbourne), 20 Apr 1914
  • E. M. Wilson, The Campaign for National Righteousness … 1900-16 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Melbourne, 1957).

Citation details

Ian F. McLaren, 'Edgar, Alexander Robert (1850–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/edgar-alexander-robert-6085/text10423, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 16 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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