This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988
Sir Alexander James Peacock (1861-1933), premier and member of fourteen ministries, was born on 18 June 1861 at Creswick, Victoria, eldest of five children of James Henry Peacock, draper and later tailor from Suffolk, England, and his wife Mary Jane, née Murphy, from Cork, Ireland. He was educated at Creswick State School and Creswick Grammar School, where he was a pupil-teacher from January 1877 to June 1881. Alexander went to Melbourne and worked briefly for a grocer before returning to join W. P. Jones's legal mining manager's business in Creswick. He established his own firm, handling some of the richest Victorian gold-mining companies, including the Berry group; his brother Pat also became a legal manager. Peacock remained connected with mining management for most of his life, eventually setting up other offices in Ballarat and Melbourne. He was a member of a royal commission on gold mining (1889-91) and president (1889) of the Legal Managers' Institute of Victoria.
Active in the Australian Natives' Association at its period of greatest influence, Peacock was a founder of the Creswick branch and its secretary for twenty years. An influential pressure group, the A.N.A. was a training-ground for aspiring politicians. Peacock was a director in 1884-1904 and three times chief president (1885-87, 1893-94). He was also an active Freemason and grand master (1900-05) of the United Grand Lodge of Victoria.
First elected to the Legislative Assembly in March 1889 for Clunes and Allendale (Allendale from 1904), Peacock was unopposed in the four following elections and held the seat for a record forty-four years. Tall, imposing, jovial and moustached, he was remembered by Daryl Lindsay as a man who 'did all the right things as the representative of the district, had a suave word for everybody, patted the children on the head and was extremely popular'. A rural Liberal-protectionist with radical instincts, he was a political survivor who dealt pragmatically with the factions and changing alliances within Victorian politics. An honorary minister first in the Munro ministry in 1890-92, he was then minister of public instruction and postmaster-general under William Shiels in 1892-93. In (Sir) George Turner's first ministry Peacock was chief secretary and minister of public instruction from September 1894 to December 1899, in effect deputy leader.
The Factories and Shops Act of 1896 which he introduced as chief secretary, brought him almost legendary fame, although others like Alfred Deakin, W. A. Trenwith, A. Tucker, W. C. Smith, Samuel Mauger and the Anti-Sweating League had established the basis for reform. Designed to prevent 'sweating' (unduly low wages, long hours and poor working conditions), the Act established the Victorian wages board system. A board for each industry of equal numbers of employee and employer representatives and an independent chairman was to determine minimum wage rates. Persisted with in the face of strong opposition, this achievement brought Peacock widespread popularity as a humane politician.
As education minister, however, he had to preside over severe retrenchments during the depression, and then defend his department against strong criticism, notably by Deakin and David Syme of the Age, of its backwardness. Chastened and under heavy pressure, Peacock appointed Theodore Fink to head the royal commission on technical education (1899-1901) and adopted many of his wide-ranging recommendations in amending legislation of 1901. One of the inquiry's principal witnesses, Frank Tate, was appointed first director of education; in future years as premier or minister Peacock was to work closely with him and pride himself on the appointment.
Commended by Deakin as 'a Federalist before all else', Peacock was one of ten Victorian delegates to the Australasian Federal Convention of 1897-98, being elected on the Age ticket with Deakin, Turner, H. B. Higgins and (Sir) Isaac Isaacs. When Turner returned to office in 1900 Peacock was again appointed chief secretary and minister of labour. On 1 January 1901 he married Millie Gertrude Holden at St Andrews Church, Port Fairy. Next month, on Turner's departure to the Federal parliament, Peacock became premier, treasurer and minister of labour, with broad Labor support. As a consequence of the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York he was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1902.
Peacock's attempts to reform the Legislative Council, to introduce women's suffrage and further control of factories and shops were frustrated by the council. He had to abandon Turner's proposed constitutional convention to consider reduction of the size of parliament and reform of the council. Eventually the public economy campaign of the Kyabram movement and the National Citizens Reform League brought about his defeat in the assembly by (Sir) William Irvine in June 1902 and electoral disaster in September. Unlike many others in 1903 he was conciliatory during the railways strike. Early in 1904 he passed the Liberal leadership to Donald Mackinnon. In 1903 Peacock had lost narrowly to Robert Reid in a joint sitting of parliament to fill a casual Senate vacancy; in 1913, however, he was to make no claim to succeed Deakin in the Ballarat seat.
In February 1907 when (Sir) Thomas Bent reconstructed his ministry after negotiation with the remaining staunch Liberals, Peacock returned to office as chief secretary and minister of labour, and made important amendments to the Factories Act. But on 20 October 1908 he and Mackinnon resigned over Bent's volte face on land legislation, which led to his defeat.
Peacock did not become a minister again until W. A. Watt gave him the portfolios of public instruction and labour in his ministries of 1913-14. In June 1914, on Watt's transfer to Federal parliament, he again became premier, as well as treasurer and, briefly, minister of labour. On the outbreak of war Peacock was one of the first to call for 'a truce by the political parties'; he later supported conscription. Through his friendship with F. W. Hagelthorn, minister for agriculture and an old Creswick pupil, he launched support in September 1915 for the establishment next year of the Commonwealth Advisory Council of Science and Industry. His administration appointed the Brown Coal Advisory Committee in 1917 which recommended the establishment of the State Electricity Commission to generate electricity from Victoria's vast brown coalfields. In October 1916 he carried legislation introducing six o'clock closing of hotels. He supported Tate in resisting closure of German Lutheran schools. When drought, crop failures and escalating government expenditure brought down his National Party ministry at the election in November 1917, Peacock yielded government to (Sir) John Bowser's 'Economy Party'.
Peacock joined the Lawson Nationalist ministry in November 1920 as an effective deputy leader and minister of public instruction, labour, and forests. When Lawson retired in 1924, Peacock returned for his third, but short-lived, term (April-July) as premier, to be defeated over electoral redistribution by an alliance between Labor and the Country Party. After an assortment of four governments in eight months, he emerged as treasurer, minister of public instruction and of labour (November 1924–May 1927), in coalition with John Allan and the Country Party. Useful legislation on public-service superannuation and the conditions of the teaching service was passed, as was a slight modification to the extreme electoral advantage of rural voters. After their conclusive electoral defeat, Peacock retired as leader of the Nationalists. In July 1928 he was elected Speaker, a post he relished until his death, and one in which he enjoyed the confidence of all parties.
Never regarded as an intellectual, Peacock was a popular and likeable conciliator. His arresting, raucous laugh was so much his trademark that Melbourne Punch described him as laughing himself into popular favour. In 1898 Beatrice Webb commented on the laugh 'of appalling noisiness' and described him as having 'neither intellectual conviction nor intellectual prejudices, only a general good-will towards the world, ready to try any plausible remedy for actual suffering'. A journalist 'tried to get down the swift-flowing phrases and side-splitting wisecracks … I never knew a man to talk so fast and to laugh so much at his own jokes'. (Sir) Frederic Eggleston later suggested that Peacock had been underrated. He saw him as an heir to the liberal tradition in Victorian politics, 'one of the most acute tacticians ever in Parliament in Australia', adding the reservation that 'his skill in managing the House was greater than his ability in formulating policy'. But he was always sound in finance; moreover, he had always been unlucky, Eggleston concluded, in the periods he became premier. His political skills were particularly important in a period of continually unsettled party groupings. He never travelled overseas.
Peacock died on 7 October 1933 at Creswick and was buried there after a service at St John's Church of England; he had been a member of Ballarat Synod. Schools were closed for the day, the funeral was broadcast and a special train provided for mourners. Childless, he was survived by Lady Peacock (1870-1948) who, as the United Australia Party candidate, won his seat at the by-election to become the first woman member of the Victorian parliament. Not enjoying the experience, she did not recontest the seat in 1935. Peacock's estate was sworn for probate at £4121. There is a portrait of him in the Creswick Historical Museum and a bust in the library of the Victorian parliament. His brother Rev. Andrew became an archdeacon of the Church of England. Andrew Peacock, M.H.R. (b.1939), is not related.
Alan Gregory, 'Peacock, Sir Alexander James (1861–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/peacock-sir-alexander-james-7994/text13927, accessed 10 December 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988