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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gillen, Peter Paul (1858–1896)

by Rob Van Den Hoorn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Peter Paul Gillen (1858-1896), shopkeeper and politician, was born on 7 July 1858 at Golden Grove, Adelaide, second son of Thomas Gillen, labourer, and his wife Bridget, née McCan, both formerly of Cavan, Ireland. They moved up-country to Clare in 1862 where Peter attended R. Graham and L. W. Stanton's schools. An early bout of rheumatic fever left him weak, with a heart malfunction. He worked at Andrew Clarke's general store and on 24 May 1881 married Mary Gertrude Cousins at St Aloysius Church, Sevenhill.

Later he partnered his uncle Philip in a general storekeeping business, P. & P. P. Gillen. An active debater and land reformer, in 1882 he became secretary of the Irish Land League committee. Although never a shearer, he helped form the local branch of the Amalgamated Shearers' Union of Australasia. He was committed to his depressed district's development, and urged farmers to diversify. In 1887 he was elected a town councillor.

Gillen was also actively involved in the Hibernian Australasian Catholic Benefit Society, several Adelaide Catholic literary societies, the Catholic Southern Cross, the Australian Natives' Association and several Western Australian mining companies.

Disregarding medical advice, he won the House of Assembly seat of Stanley, at a by-election in 1889, supported by the Catholics and the Licensed Victuallers' Association (although he was a teetotaller). In parliament his aggressive, excitable nature, rapid speech, and uncompromising attitude drew criticism. He favoured protection, Federation, the expansion of South Australia's rural industries and the resumption of large estates for small farmers, although he opposed the single tax. He soon lost his stridency, became very popular, and aligned himself with the radical liberals.

In 1892 Gillen was commissioner of crown lands and immigration in the short-lived Holder ministry, and he held the same portfolio with C. C. Kingston next year. He sponsored village settlements, a device to place unemployed men on the land which was seen by conservatives as socialistic. At his death he was working on a major revision of pastoral legislation and on a speech for the new bill's second reading (passed in December).

Gillen's doctor had warned him against excitement; he did not expect to live long. On 22 September 1896 he suffered a heart attack during a cabinet meeting and died. He was survived by his wife (d.1929), five sons and a daughter and, after a state funeral, was buried at Sevenhill, near Clare. His colleagues' eulogies stressed Gillen's love for the poor and Kingston recalled that his last words had been 'benevolent counsels for the aid of the necessitous'. Gillentown near Clare and Gillen on the River Murray were named after him. His brother, Francis James Gillen, was a prominent ethnologist and explorer.

Select Bibliography

  • W. F. Morrison, The Aldine History of South Australia, vol 2 (Adel, 1890)
  • Parliamentary Debates (South Australia), 1896, p 434
  • Quiz (Adelaide), 23 Oct 1891, 21 Oct 1892
  • Pictorial Australian, June 1892
  • Public Service Review (South Australia), Sept 1896
  • JHSSA, no 6 (1979)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 3 May, 13 Sept 1890, 17 Oct 1891, 10 June, 1 July 1893, 26 Sept, 3 Oct 1896
  • Register (Adelaide), 25 Apr 1890
  • Northern Argus (Clare), 25 Sept 1896
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), and Weekly Herald (Adelaide), 26 Sept 1896.

Citation details

Rob Van Den Hoorn, 'Gillen, Peter Paul (1858–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 9 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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