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Homburg, Robert (1848–1912)

by Ian Harmstorf

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

This is a shared entry with Hermann Robert Homburg

Robert Homburg (1848-1912), politician and judge, and Hermann Robert Homburg (1874-1964), lawyer and politician, were father and son. Robert was born on 10 March 1848 at Brunswick, Saxony, son of Wilhelm Homburg (d.1860), grain merchant, and his wife Caroline Magdalene Pauline, née Schumacher. In 1853 Wilhelm left for the Victorian goldfields and his wife and children followed twelve months later. In 1856 the family went to Tanunda, South Australia, where Robert attended the English-German Educational Institution of Leschen and Niehuus; later he worked for Dr Koehnke, a local land agent. In 1867 he was articled to (Sir) James Boucaut. Next year he moved to the Tanunda branch of (Sir) John Downer's legal firm, and in 1874 he was admitted to the Bar.

On 30 April 1873 Robert married Emilie Peters at Angaston. After her death from tuberculosis he married, on 16 October 1882 in Adelaide, Johanne Elisabeth Fischer. From 1880 he was president of the German Club, which was patronized by relatively wealthy conservative German-Australians who wished to keep German culture alive. He was naturalized in 1883.

In 1884 Homburg was elected to the House of Assembly for Gumeracha, a seat with a strong German-Australian element, which he retained until 1902. He then transferred to Murray and retired in 1905. He was attorney-general in 1890-92 in the Playford ministry, in 1892-93 in the Downer ministry, and in 1904-05 in the Jenkins ministry when he was also minister of education. He was a good speaker in the House; his views shifted gradually to the right as he shook off the mild radicalism of his youth.

In 1905 Homburg was appointed a justice of the Supreme Court; this aroused much criticism in the legal profession as a political move, both his experience at the Bar and legal expertise being questioned. Some sources suggest that his national origin was the unspoken objection. However he proved his critics wrong and gained respect by bringing to the bench the incorruptible integrity, impartiality and compassion that had marked him as a politician. He was the first non-British migrant to be appointed to such a position in Australia.

Homburg's home life was cited as a model, for it was filled with love, music, literature and art and, although he was not a strict Lutheran, he enjoyed the full confidence of the Lutheran pastors. He was one of the first men in Australia to bridge successfully the gap in public life between British and non-British cultures. He died on 23 March 1912 at Medindie, South Australia, survived by four sons and four daughters: three children by his first wife and five by his second. The family declined a state funeral and he was buried in North Road cemetery.

Robert's eldest son Hermann Robert was born on 17 March 1874 at Norwood. Educated at Prince Alfred College and the University of Adelaide, he received his final certificate in law and was admitted to the Bar in 1897. He entered his father's legal firm, Hamburg & Melrose, and on 29 November married Emma Lydia Louisa Herring in an Anglican ceremony, although he was a free-thinker. In 1906-15 and 1927-30 he was a non-Labor member for Murray in the House of Assembly and from 1933 to 1941 was a member of the Legislative Council (Central No.2). He was attorney-general under Peake in 1909-10 and minister for industry as well in 1912-15, and attorney-general and minister for industry in 1927-30 in the R. L. Butler ministry.

Hermann Homburg was a tall impressive-looking man of powerful personality, 'an intellectual' and 'a man of culture', being widely read in both English and German. His fluent German was accent-free and he increased his knowledge of German literature by trying to read, and commit to memory, one passage a day going to work in the tram-car. He did not suffer fools gladly and his patriarchal manner annoyed those who politically or personally crossed him. As attorney-general he added to the reputation for integrity laid down by his father; he was also an extremely efficient and capable minister. He employed a quick turn of phrase against political opponents and hecklers at meetings.

Such men polarize feelings towards them and it was Homburg's misfortune that Australia was at war twice with Germany during his life. In 1914 while he was attorney-general, his government office in Adelaide was raided by soldiers with fixed bayonets while he was there. Next January he resigned his portfolio, to avoid embarrassing the government in the forthcoming election. His resignation, which had been offered earlier, was now regretfully accepted by Peake. Homburg wrote of the 'campaign of lies and calumnies against me … because I am not of British lineage'.

Defeated at the election in April, he was as much a victim of the swing to Labor as to any disadvantage of ancestry. He unsuccessfully contested Murray again in 1924, won it in 1927, and lost it in 1930. Between the wars he was a leader of Adelaide's secular German community. His home continued the inherited traditions of German culture: indeed, some said that he became even more German after World War I. Certainly his war experiences destroyed his ability to straddle naturally German-Australian culture. The German way became something ideological; it was no longer unselfconscious. Homburg was bitter that sixty-seven German place-names, a constant reminder of the German contribution to South Australia, had been changed in 1918.

With Hitler's rise he was perhaps naive in failing to appreciate the use made of culture by the Nazis for political purposes. His voluble support for German ways was tactless. Certainly the authorities suspected him by the time war was declared in 1939, even if he himself was able to see clearly the difference between culture and politics: 'Because you prefer to run your home a certain way, teach your children a particular set of moral values, and cultivate a love of German literature and music, does not mean you are disloyal to the country you have adopted as your own. Rather the fact that you can do these things in political peace and without economic hardship kindles within you a desire to protect and foster the society in which you live'.

At this time Homburg was in parliament but not in office. His home and private office were searched and he was interned on 25 November 1940 but released after appeal on 21 December, under open conditional arrest, one condition being that he moved interstate. In January 1941 he was taken to Melbourne and in February moved to Ballarat whereupon he retired from parliament and did not recontest his seat. On 18 December 1942 he was allowed to return to Adelaide, reporting to the police three times a week for the next eighteen months. None of the evidence presented against Homburg was more than circumstantial, unsubstantiated or inconsequential. The judges at his appeal stated, 'it is obvious that one or more of the persons reporting [unanimously] may have a grudge against the objector Homburg and under pledge of secrecy be willing to lie to cause him distress and trouble'. The War Precautions Act that allowed accusation without proof permitted many an old score to be settled. He recorded his experiences in both wars in South Australian Lutherans and War-Time Rumours (Adelaide 1947).

Homburg continued to practise as a solicitor until the day before his death on 12 December 1964 at Dulwich. Survived by one son and two daughters, he was buried at Centennial Park cemetery.

Robert Homburg's second son, also Robert (1875-1948), a lawyer and politician, was a member of the House of Assembly for Burra Burra from 1912 to 1915 when he also resigned in the face of 'gross slanders' about his loyalty.

Select Bibliography

  • Quiz (Adelaide), 24 Feb 1905
  • Register (Adelaide), 25 Apr 1890, 25 Mar 1912, Australische Zeitung, 27 Mar 1912
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 23 Oct 1948, 14 Dec 1964
  • Way letters 1905, PRG 30/5/9 (State Records of South Australia)
  • CRS A367 item CE 5376 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Ian Harmstorf, 'Homburg, Robert (1848–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/homburg-robert-6722/text11609, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 30 September 2016.

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

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