Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Elmslie, George Alexander (1861–1918)

by Barry O. Jones

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

George Alexander Elmslie (1861-1918), politician, was born on 21 February 1861 at Lethbridge, Victoria, son of Henry Elmslie, a stonemason from Kent, England, and his Irish-born wife Catherine, née Ryan. The family later moved to Carlton, Melbourne. It was intended that George should be a schoolteacher, but at 16 he decided to follow his father's trade. He worked on several major buildings in Melbourne including Wilson Hall for three years and St Patrick's Cathedral for twelve. On 7 April 1887 at St Jude's Church of England, Carlton, he married Clara Ellen Williams, daughter of a stonecutter; they had a son and a daughter.

Like his father, Elmslie was a diligent and dedicated member of the Operative Stonemasons' Society, from 1888 holding various offices on its central committee including that of president in 1892. He represented the union on deputations, on the Trades Hall Council, the Political Labor Council and on wages boards, notably the Stonecutters' Board in 1900-01. When in October 1902 he won the Legislative Assembly seat of Albert Park for Labor he acknowledged modestly that 'as far as any ability he possessed was concerned, it was largely due to his connection with the Society'. Melbourne Punch described him as 'careful, deliberate, patient and reliable', as befitted his painstaking trade; a man whose radical political beliefs evolved from careful reasoning over many years. J. W. Billson remembered him as 'slow to make up his mind, but very determined when he came to a decision'.

Elmslie served as secretary of the Victorian Parliamentary Labor Party in 1904-12 and deputy leader in 1912-13, and became leader in September 1913 when George Prendergast resigned after illness. At that time the Liberal ministry of W. A. Watt proposed to enlarge the assembly, increasing the disparity between quotas for metropolitan and country seats, and this aroused much controversy. On 4 December, when thirteen Liberals voted with eighteen Labor members to defeat a clause of the electoral districts bill, Watt resigned, and Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Madden invited Elmslie to form Victoria's first Labor government. On 9 December Elmslie was sworn in as premier and treasurer. At this time salaried ministers were required to resign and recontest their seats on appointment, usually a mere formality. Elmslie remained outside the parliament for the entire fourteen days of his ministry although he was an interested spectator in the public gallery during debates. Conscious that he was in a sense 'a sort of locum tenens' while Watt played his political game, Elmslie did not attempt to initiate policies or amend legislation during this period. On 16 December a censure motion was carried by 40 votes to 13 and, after Madden refused to grant Elmslie a dissolution, Watt was recommissioned as premier on 22 December.

During the war Elmslie staunchly supported the war-aims of the Empire. He was a hard-working politician and a frequent and lengthy speaker, regarded by many as merely a 'decent plodder'; his aversion to self-advertisement left him virtually unknown to the Victorian public. He took an interest in local sporting and social bodies: he was president of the South Melbourne Football Club and a member and ex-president of the Middle Park Bowling Club. He was also an active supporter of the South Melbourne Technical College. In his later years, he suffered from poor health and in 1916 went on a voyage to Hawaii. However, his death of uraemia on 11 May 1918 at his Albert Park home was unexpected. His wife died of cancer three months later; their son survived them. After a state funeral Elmslie was buried in Melbourne general cemetery—all evidence of his grave has now disappeared.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1918, 2nd S, v 149, p 4, 18
  • Labor Call, 31 Aug 1911, 7, 14 June 1914, 14 May 1918
  • Punch (Melbourne), 12 Mar 1914
  • Argus (Melbourne), 13, 14 May 1918
  • Australian Worker, 16 May 1918
  • Operative Stonemasons' Society of Australia, Victorian branch, Deposit no E 117 (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

Barry O. Jones, 'Elmslie, George Alexander (1861–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/elmslie-george-alexander-6109/text10469, 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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