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Peake, Archibald Henry (1859–1920)

by G. Grainger

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Archibald Henry Peake (1859-1920), by Fruhling Studio, c1910

Archibald Henry Peake (1859-1920), by Fruhling Studio, c1910

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 10801

Archibald Henry Peake (1859-1920), premier, was born on 15 January 1859 at Chelsea, London, ninth child of Robert Peake, coach-trimmer and later teacher, and his second wife Mary, née Hunt. They migrated to Victoria in 1862 and two years later moved to South Australia. Archibald's father taught him and later he was tutored in ancient history, logic and the classics. He developed an interest in literature and contributed numerous articles to the press. Peake was clerk to the Naracoorte District Council in 1879-97 and was for many years librarian of the local institute. Of medium height, lean and thin-faced as a young man, he was a non-smoking, teetotal Presbyterian. On 24 February 1884 he married Ann Thomas at Apsley, Victoria; they had four daughters and five sons.

In 1897-1915, at first as an Independent, Peake represented Albert (later Victoria and Albert), which included Naracoorte, in the House of Assembly. After entering parliament he was a partner in the auctioneering firm, Monks & Peake, at Mount Barker and sat on the local district council in 1905-07. He was a fellow and president (1916-20) of the Adelaide branch of the Royal Society of St George and a Freemason.

A representative of small-farmer radicalism, Peake supported Kingston's government, declaring in his maiden speech that 'the cry of socialism had lost its terrors for him … the State should do for the people what they as individuals could not do so well for themselves'. Lucid, calm—some said cold—and occasionally witty, he was a fine debater.

From 1899 Peake supported Holder's Liberal ministry. In 1901 he warned Holder's successor, Jenkins, that his government must enact progressive legislation or lose the support of the Labor Party and Liberals. Jenkins, however, increasingly co-operated with the Australasian National League, the conservative Opposition, and in 1904 took its representatives into his ministry. The Peake group of about fifteen members became the Liberal Party and the official Opposition.

Peake sought a Liberal-Labor alliance: 'the only difference between us is a difference of degree and of speed'. Between them the two parties won a six-seat majority at the 1905 election and formed a coalition with two ministers from each party. Since Labor held more seats, its leader Thomas Price became premier, with Peake as treasurer and attorney-general (South Australia's first without legal training) and, occasionally, acting premier. Bountiful harvests in 1905-08 allowed him to return successive budget surpluses and to reduce the accumulated public debt. His closer settlement and land taxation legislation foundered in the Legislative Council.

After the 1906 election Labor was close to governing in its own right. Peake, with only nine Liberal followers, offended Labor by denying it additional places in cabinet. By 1908 only Price's support for the coalition, based on his comradeship with Peake, bound Labor to the alliance. The Liberals exhibited a new assertiveness: in 1906 they had formed the Liberal and Democratic Union with a network of branches. Peake, who dominated the party, stressed that the L.D.U. represented 'something not so sharply set as Labourism, not so dull in its edge as conservatism'. But with Labor taking over the middle ground, Kingstonian liberals like Peake had to choose.

When Price died in May 1909 Labor demanded the premiership as a condition for continuing the coalition. Peake refused. Invited to form a ministry, he filled it with L.D.U. members and became premier, treasurer and minister of education. The ministry survived with the parliamentary support of the A.N.L. and the Farmers' and Producers' Political Union, and in December was reconstructed to include members of both. Though Peake contended that his actions were in response to developing Labor extremism, thoughts of his own political survival were probably uppermost.

Stung by Labor's April election victory, in September 1910 the anti-Labor parties amalgamated to form the Liberal Union, with Peake as parliamentary leader. While the A.N.L. and the F.P.P.U. readily approved the merger, the L.D.U., which salvaged fewest of its principles from the compact, had hesitated. Peake persuaded an L.D.U. conference that 'the day of the middle party is passed'; it approved the fusion by one vote.

Exploiting memories of the industrial disputes that had dogged Verran's Labor government, the Liberals won an eight-seat majority in 1912. Peake again became premier, treasurer and minister of education. His government concentrated on constructing rural railway lines, often against expert advice. Most proved uneconomic, impoverishing the railways for years. In 1912 the government created the Industrial Arbitration Court; in return for the introduction by it of a minimum wage, workers lost the right to strike or to engage in any activity which might prolong a strike. Six o'clock closing of hotels was carried at a plebiscite simultaneously with the 1915 election, and remained for over fifty years. Peake's government liberalized the franchise for the Legislative Council. In London in 1913 Peake had an audience with King George V and recorded his experiences in Notes from a Diary (1914). The ministry's major achievement was its arrangement in 1914, with the Federal, New South Wales, and Victorian governments, for the locking of the Murray River: the River Murray Commission carried out the co-ordinating agreement.

Despite a 1913 redistribution intended to assist the Liberals, at the March 1915 election Labor under Crawford Vaughan won a six-seat majority. In some areas the wartime electorate had reacted against Peake's alleged sympathy for 'Germans', notably his former attorney-general Hermann Homburg. Peake himself lost his seat, but some weeks later won Alexandra in a by-election and became Opposition leader. Next year he joined the State Recruiting Committee and the South Australian committee of the National Referendum Council, formed to co-ordinate the State's 'Yes' campaign in the first conscription plebiscite.

In February 1917 Vaughan's government lost its majority after the Labor split over conscription. Peake opposed the creation of a 'win the war' coalition ministry of Liberals and Labor conscriptionists, and in July formed a Liberal ministry after defeating Vaughan in parliament. After divisive debate, the Liberals offered the new Nationalists three of the six ministerial places, but insisted that Peake remain premier, with a casting vote in cabinet. The Nationalists, who distrusted Peake, reluctantly accepted the terms. The coalition ministry was sworn in on 27 August, Peake becoming premier, chief secretary and attorney-general. He abhorred being harnessed to the Nationalists and resented the role he believed Sir Langdon Bonython and the Advertiser, in supporting them, had played in swinging public opinion behind the formation of the coalition. Using information in confidential government correspondence Peake accused Vaughan in parliament of having bribed Bonython with a promise of further honours. Governor Galway came close to demanding Peake's resignation for breach of confidentiality.

The coalition's Technical Education of Apprentices Act of 1917 laid the foundation for the most liberal and efficient system of industrial apprenticeship in Australia. A scheme was also approved which allowed public funds to primary producers establishing co-operative businesses, the most successful being the Berri Growers' Co-operative Distillery Co. Ltd. Less laudable was the government's removal of sixty-nine place-names of German origin, though Peake did help to block attempts to disfranchise German South Australians.

The coalition won a twelve-seat majority at the April 1918 election. That year the status of women was improved by the removal of discriminatory provisions in the State's divorce laws, and by the widening of women's rights to claim against a deceased spouse's estate. In 1919 the government approved the establishment of a model garden suburb, reflecting the ideas of Charles Reade, and Flinders Chase, the Kangaroo Island reserve. The coalition also introduced much of the legislation for South Australian soldier settlement, set up the war-service home loan scheme, and administered the wheat scheme of which Peake was controlling minister from late 1918.

Personal and political differences unsettled the coalition from the outset. When in 1919 the Nationalists voted with Labor to amend the government's industrial code bill, Peake declared that they must merge with the Liberals or oppose them: 'I don't want to see any more of these so-called Nationalists after the next election'. The Liberal Union demanded from the National Party an assurance of full support during parliament's next session. It was refused and in March 1920 the Nationalist ministers resigned on Peake's request.

Presiding over the coalition in its final months exhausted Peake. His health was poor in early 1920, though the Liberal Leader still referred to his 'rugged strength … He is like granite—strong and enduring'. On 6 April, only hours before his all-Liberal ministry was to be sworn in, he died of cerebral haemorrhage; after a state funeral, he was buried in West Terrace cemetery. His wife and seven children survived him. A portrait by A. J. Webb hangs in Parliament House, Adelaide.

During Peake's career the Labor Party's growth polarized South Australian politics. By 1910 Liberals like him were anachronistic; in siding against Labor, Peake assisted the development of a two-party system. After his death, he was generally depicted as being 'misunderstood'. Nationalist Edward Anstey commented on Peake's openness and warmth which 'perhaps for public reasons he had endeavoured to hide—qualities which only those who came in close contact with him really knew existed'.

Select Bibliography

  • A. G. Peake, The Peake Family in South Australia (Adel, 1972)
  • R. I. Jennings, W. A. Webb, South Australian Railways Commissioner 1922-1930 (Adel, 1973)
  • P. Loveday et al (eds), The Emergence of the Australian Party System (Syd, 1977)
  • Parliamentary Debates (South Australia), 1897, p 11, 1901, p 59, 1919, p 1741
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1913 (75)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 24 May 1906
  • Weekly Herald (Adelaide), 1 Jan 1910
  • Liberal Leader (Adelaide), Feb 1920
  • Register (Adelaide), 20 Nov 1916, 16 June 1917, 7 Apr 1920
  • R. L. Reid, South Australia and the First Decade of Federation: The Story of Leadership of a Small State, Together with its Trials and Tribulations (M.A. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1954)
  • K. Quartly, The Liberal Union in Power: the Peake Government 1912-1915 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1966)
  • B. Edwards, The Price Government (Labour-Liberal Coalition) 1905-1909 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adeaide, 1973)
  • P. D. Wright, The Formation of the Liberal Union in S.A. (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1977)
  • G. Grainger, The Liberal Union-National Party Coalition Government in South Australia 1917-1920 (M.A. thesis, Flinders University, 1983)
  • S. R. Whitford, An Autobiography (State Records of South Australia)
  • Peake papers (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

G. Grainger, 'Peake, Archibald Henry (1859–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/peake-archibald-henry-7995/text13929, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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