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Edwards, Albert Augustine (1888–1963)

by Suzanne Edgar

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

Albert Augustine Edwards (1888-1963), hotelier, philanthropist and politician, was born on 6 November 1888 in the West End of Adelaide; no record of his birth has been found, but his mother was a Mrs Miller. He attended St Joseph's Catholic primary school before working on stalls at the city's markets and racecourses; from 1915 he ran a tea-room. He became secretary of the West Adelaide Democratic Club and of the Adelaide Electorate Committee of the United Labor Party, and a controversial official of the West Adelaide II Football Club.

In 1914-31 he held Grey Ward in the Adelaide City Council for the Labor Party. He was licensee from 1915 of the Duke of Brunswick Hotel. An anti-conscriptionist, he was member for Adelaide in the House of Assembly in 1917-31. In parliament Edwards belligerently defended persecuted Germans, the city's poor, bookmakers, under-paid teachers and police; in 1920 he campaigned with his friend John Wren against the deportation of the German priest, Charles Jerger. Described by an opponent as a 'Tammany Hall boss', Edwards nevertheless sought slum clearance and control of 'land sharks' and rack-renters. He supported the licensing of bookmakers and opposed a prohibition referendum. He was also an active prison reformer.

In 1924 Edwards sold his public house and leased the Newmarket; he also had a hotel at Second Valley where he and young footballers celebrated after Saturday's matches. He relished the pleasures of public life: from 1922 he sat on the Central Board of Health and following Labor's huge win in 1924 was government spokesman on prisons and reformatories. Next year he became visiting justice at Yatala Labour Prison and a member of the State Children's Council; he joined the board of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery. At Yatala he was an effective reformer, but in 1926 conservatives' suspicion precipitated a royal commission into the release of prisoners. Charges against Edwards were not substantiated; and it was stated that he had often 'raised prisoners practically from the dead'. Nevertheless he resigned in 1927 to the dismay of staff and prisoners. 'Bert', or 'the King', as he was known, resembled Hal Gye's illustrations of the hero of The Songs of the Sentimental Bloke; Gye also drew him for the Bulletin. He had also upset the State Children's Council. He told the 1926 law reform commission that the Magill Reformatory was filthy, vermin infested and did not rehabilitate, and that state wards were being used as a cheap labour force. He recommended a smaller board, and by the end of year a new Act set up the Children's Welfare and Public Relief Board; in 1928 the old council was abolished. In 1927 Edwards had opened another hotel, at Victor Harbor.

As the Depression worsened, rifts between Labor factions deepened. Edwards, a member of the Australian Workers' Union, directed in August 1929 D. H. Bardolph's bitter pre-selection campaign for a Legislative Council by-election; Edwards's tactics against the winner S. R. Whitford endangered his own position. In September he defied caucus and joined a march of unemployed. By the end of the month the party's council refused him pre-selection for Adelaide, but his electorate committee overturned this and in 1930 he won with the swing to Labor.

In October Edwards and Bardolph campaigned for J. T. Lang in New South Wales. In his absence the party refused endorsement for his City Council seat. Since he had already nominated, the council held that he could not withdraw and he defeated his Labor opponent in December.

Allegedly 'under the baton of Bill Denny', the attorney-general and one of Edwards's 'most bitter opponents' in the party, he was arrested on 13 December and charged with having committed sodomy in May. His trial lasted eight days in February 1931. Some of those who recall it allege that Edwards was 'framed', although it is not usually denied that he was a homosexual; he is said to have antagonized police by probing their fatal shooting of an escapee in 1930. The main evidence against him came from his ex-employee, John Gault Mundy, then an inmate of Magill Reformatory, who admitted that he had hoped to shorten his own sentence for a similar offence by informing. Edwards was sentenced to five years hard labour at Yatala. 'My enemies have succeeded … with loaded dice', he told the chief justice, Sir George Murray. The Edwards Defence Committee unavailingly arranged three appeals, including one to the High Court.

On 8 June 1933 Edwards was released; in 1937 he resumed hotel-keeping. Next year he was suspended from the Labor Party for alleged ballot irregularities. He failed in attempts to re-enter State parliament that year and in 1950, and the Federal parliament in 1940. In 1948 he won back his old seat on the City Council. He continued to donate to the party generously.

Edwards displayed his increasing wealth in characteristically truculent and flashy style; but he also retained his lifelong compassion for Adelaide's destitute. In 1961 he gave £13,000 for a men's refuge in Whitmore Square; in 1963 he provided an adjoining property as a rehabilitation centre for prisoners—the Frank Lundie Hostel. He supplied money to the Daughters of Charity for their Hutt Street meal centre, the hall of which bears his name, and he was a benefactor to numerous other denominations. Each week he collected surplus food from city shops and distributed it among the poor. He had a well-stocked library; and his home was used by needy country people seeking family members' medical treatment.

Between the wars Edwards drove a large Studebaker car. He dressed in white suits, with Hamburg hat, bow tie and suede shoes, favouring silk pyjamas and gold-tipped cigarettes. One arm was tattooed with a heart. His dark, curling hair, parted in the middle, framed a large hooked nose over a receding chin. Following his death, on 24 August 1963 and a requiem Mass at St Francis Xavier's Cathedral, his body was embalmed and buried at West Terrace cemetery in a copper casket. His estate, divided among Adelaide's poor, was sworn for probate at £45,942.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (South Australia), 1920, p 662, 1926, pp 1063-1066
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1925 (38), 1926 (54) (75), 1927 (23) (38) (58)
  • Gay Changes, 2 (1979), no 4, p 11
  • Daily Herald (Adelaide), 29 Mar, 15 May 1917
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 21 Feb 1919, 19, 21, 26 July, 5 Aug 1920, 10 Jan 1925, 2, 28 June 1926, 4 Apr 1927, 22 Dec 1928, 26 Sept, 18 Oct, 12, 29 Nov 1929, 14, 17 Nov 1930, 4-7, 11-14, 18 Feb, 11 May 1931, 8 July, 24 Mar 1933, 13, 14 Jan 1938, 26, 28 Aug 1963
  • Bulletin, 28 Aug 1929
  • Southern Cross (Adelaide), 2 June 1961, 30 Aug 1963
  • register no 35, 1931 (Supreme Court, South Australia)
  • PRG54/33, 41 1931 (State Records of South Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar, 'Edwards, Albert Augustine (1888–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/edwards-albert-augustine-6092/text10437, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 26 October 2014.

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

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