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Flowers, Fred (1864–1928)

by Bede Nairn

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

Fred Flowers (1864-1928), by unknown photographer

Fred Flowers (1864-1928), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 17472

Fred Flowers (1864-1928), house-painter and politician, was born on 4 March 1864 at Dilhorne, Staffordshire, England, son of William Flowers, gardener, and his wife Dorothy, née Robinson. He migrated to Sydney with his family about 1882. Joining the United Painters' Trade Society (he also worked as a plasterer), he became its delegate on the Trades and Labor Council of which he was vice-president in 1892. He played a part in the council's founding of the Labor Electoral League (Labor Party) in 1890-91, and as a Labor candidate ran unsuccessfully for the seats of South Sydney, 1891, Newtown-St Peters, 1895, and Waterloo, 1898. He was prominent in the extra-parliamentary work of the party and in June 1892, with John Christian Watson, represented the T.L.C. in discussions with the central executive committee of the L.E.L. which restored the role of the council within the league.

In 1894 the T.L.C. was temporarily disbanded because of financial problems, and its president, Watson, won a country parliamentary seat. Flowers replaced him as the efficient and popular city industrial leader needed to maintain the essential trade union base of the Labor Party. By the end of the year he was chairman of the L.E.L. In 1895 he presided over negotiations that settled the competing interests of the L.E.L. and the Australian Labor Federation, an industrial-political organization dominated by the Australian Workers' Union, which had sought to assume the position of the T.L.C. in the party. In May the Political Labor League emerged from the discussions—it remained the official name of the Labor Party in New South Wales until 1918, when it became the New South Wales Branch of the Australian labor Party. Flowers became the first president of the P.L.L. He widened his community status by work for temperance, heading a campaign in Newtown in 1892. He had married Annie Foster at St Peter's Anglican Church, Sydney, on 26 January 1888.

Flowers' leadership of the Labor Party helped to consolidate its structural growth in the 1890s. He chaired successive annual conferences in 1896-98, firmly upholding the sovereignty of conference over the parliamentarians and the powerful role of the executive. At the 1897 meeting he stressed the educative role of the party, remarking that even some workers identified Labor with anarchy. That year he was one of the ten top Laborites who ran on a specific Federation platform for the Australasian Federal Convention. None was elected. Defeated for the party presidency in 1898, he took the set-back urbanely. Next year the parliamentary Labor Party precipitated the downfall of the (Sir George) Reid government, and in 1900 the new premier, (Sir) William Lyne, had Flowers appointed to the Legislative Council. The Labor Party, which planned to abolish the council, then had five members in a house of sixty.

The measured pace of the Upper House suited Flowers' style. He developed as a tactful and skilful politician, with a mastery of procedure. Meanwhile, he remained near the head of affairs in the party. He was a delegate to its Federal conference in 1900 and was on the State executive in 1900-12, president in 1906-07. He was the president of the premier Rugby League club, South Sydney, in 1908-28; as the patron of the New South Wales Rugby Football League in 1910-28, he contributed much to its survival in the difficult early years. In 1924 he became first chairman of the league's Australian Board of Control.

In October 1910 the Labor Party formed its first government in New South Wales. In the McGowen ministry (1910-13) Flowers was appointed vice-president of the Executive Council and representative of the government in the Legislative Council (until 1915). In 1911-12 he had short terms as chief secretary, minister for public instruction and secretary for lands. In the Holman Labor ministry (1913-16) Flowers acted as colonial secretary from June 1913 to April 1914, and became the State's first minister of public health, from April 1914 to April 1915—he had been one of the originators of the Labor Party's health policy in 1897 when it sought the nationalization of medicine. His interest and knowledge in the field were extended in 1900-11, when various annual party conferences sought wider and improved medical and hospital services. The Labor pressure complemented informed professional opinion. As acting chief secretary in 1911, and later as health minister, he energetically and efficiently effected reforms and paved the way for further improvement by John Daniel Fitzgerald in 1916-19. Flowers was a director of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1916-18.

He shared the enthusiasm of Niels Nielsen for the preservation, as parks, of the remaining Sydney Harbour public waterfronts. When he took over from Nielsen as secretary of lands in 1911, (Sir) Charles G. Vade asked whether a house-painter was up to the job. Flowers encouraged the building of a new zoological gardens at Taronga Park, on Bradleys Head, and became chairman of the controlling trust next year. In 1915-16 he arranged the transfer of animals and birds from their inadequate location in Moore Park to their new harbour site. The zoo became known internationally.

The Legislative Council proved a bugbear for the Labor Party, especially for Holman. Abolition was unrealistic; Labor appointments were necessary, but would confirm its power and affront party members; a Labor majority seemed impossible. In 1911 Holman had 11 put in, including 4 who were not in the party; next year he appointed Fitzgerald, giving Labor 13 in a House of 54. Sir Francis Suttor, president of the council, died on 4 April 1915, and Flowers succeeded him on 27 April with salary of £750.

Flowers combined deep patriotic feelings for both England and Australia. Visiting England early in 1916, he noted the sacrifices trade unionists were making to help defeat the 'ultimate barbarian', Germany. With two sons at the war (one was killed), he joined the Universal Service League and was on Billy Hughes's platform when the pro-conscription campaign was opened in September 1916 in Sydney. Because of his membership of the Upper House he was not directly involved in the Labor Party spasms over conscription. But he separated from the party, although he did not join Holman's National Party. He co-operated with the Storey-Dooley Labor governments in 1920-22. Storey appointed him to the Tramway Construction Advisory Board in 1920. Flowers was not so friendly with Jack Lang in 1925-27.

He had long suffered from diabetes and died of its complications on 14 December 1928; he was buried with Anglican rites in South Head cemetery, survived by his wife two daughters and a son. Flowers' estate was sworn for probate at £9826. There is a memorial tablet to him at Taronga Park.

Flowers was a good example of the many intelligent young men, socially and educationally deprived, who were active in radical circles in Sydney in the late 1880s and early 1890s; who, many of them, were delegates at the T.L.C.; who joined the Labor Party and whose lives became inextricably mixed with its growth in New South Wales, with mutual benefits, as the party took the lead in social and administrative improvement, holding office in 1910-16. Trade unionism matured Flowers' reforming insight, and through him and others modified New South Wales society. His interest and advancing expertise in medical and hospital development gave depth and form to party policy in 1897-1911, and his administrative flair conditioned practical progress in 1911-15. His contribution to environmental betterment was also noteworthy. As a successful, experienced and popular politician he was poised in 1916 to help Labor to resolve its embarrassment over the Legislative Council. But the party was convulsed by the war and the conscription split.

Select Bibliography

  • H. V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader: The Story of W.A. Holman and the Labour Movement (Syd, 1940)
  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • New South Wales Rugby League Annual, 1928
  • B. Dickey, ‘The Labor government and medical services in N.S.W., 1910-1914’, Historical Studies, no 48, Apr 1967
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 June 1918, 23 July 1920, 15 Dec 1928
  • Australian Worker, 19 Dec 1928.

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Flowers, Fred (1864–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/flowers-fred-6198/text10651, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 24 October 2014.

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

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