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Roberts, Ernest Alfred (1868–1913)

by Robert Thornton

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

Ernest Alfred Roberts (1868-1913), by T. Humphrey & Co. , 1908

Ernest Alfred Roberts (1868-1913), by T. Humphrey & Co. , 1908

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23366087

Ernest Alfred Roberts (1868-1913), politician, was born on 21 February 1868 in London, son of John Henry Roberts, officer in the merchant service, and his wife Sarah Ann, née Woodford. He was educated on the island of Guernsey and then went to sea before settling in Queensland in 1886. In 1888 he moved to Port Pirie, South Australia, where he worked as a wharf labourer and became union secretary. A radical with exceptional abilities as an orator and organizer, he was prominent in forming, and was first secretary of, a local workingmen's association. He also helped to establish and manage a co-operative bakery and was a member of the town council in the early 1890s.

In 1893 Roberts stood as an independent Labor candidate for Gladstone in the House of Assembly. Narrowly defeated, he won the seat for Labor in 1896 and 1899. Though the youngest member of the assembly, Roberts soon featured prominently in debates, advocating such reforms as the early closing of factories and improved conditions for merchant seamen. The Adelaide Critic commented that this 'swollen-headed young man' appeared to be 'as caustic as he is clever'. In November 1899, with his Labor colleague A. Poynton, he crossed the floor with the group that caused the fall of Kingston's ministry.

Roberts opposed South Australian troops being sent to the South African War in 1899, but early in 1900, affected by British defeats, he volunteered and served as a lieutenant with the 4th Imperial Bushmen's Contingent. Shortly after his return in July 1901 Roberts resigned his seat to organize and equip the 2nd Battalion, Australian Commonwealth Horse. As captain he served in western Transvaal in mid-1902.

After his return Roberts turned to journalism, editing the Labor Weekly Herald in 1904-08. In May 1905 he won the assembly seat of Adelaide. An active and astute supporter of the first South Australian Labor-Liberal coalition led by Tom Price, Roberts sat on royal commissions into the affairs of produce merchants (1906) and into wheat-marketing practices in the State (1908). He was vice-president and president of the United Labor Party in 1907-08. He also sat on the council of the South Australian School of Mines and the board of management of the Adelaide Co-operative Society.

He won the Federal seat of Adelaide in 1908 and retained it in 1910 and 1913. In October 1911, following the death of E. L. Batchelor, Roberts was appointed honorary minister. He ably assisted Senator (Sir) George Pearce, and served as government spokesman on defence in the House of Representatives, and during Pearce's visit to England in 1911 was acting minister for defence.

Of slight, almost diminutive build, Roberts always seemed to be 'full of fire, energy and enthusiasm', seldom missing a sitting of the House. An outstanding debater, master of the art of parliamentary repartee whose voluble speeches rivalled those of W. M. Hughes, Roberts confessed privately to an unconquerable inward nervousness.

On 2 December 1913, only minutes after taking part in a spirited parliamentary debate, Roberts collapsed and died. He had long had a heart condition. He was popularly regarded as one of the federal party's ablest and most promising members, and his untimely death was much lamented in Labor circles. The Bulletin commented that the movement had lost 'one of the pluckiest men' it had ever known.

Roberts was buried in West Terrace cemetery, Adelaide, after a state funeral attended by some 6000 mourners. On 27 August 1892 at Port Pirie he had married Bridget Marie Collins, who established the first State women's branch of the party at Prospect in 1913. She and their son and three daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Ausralian Defence Department, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray ed (Melb, 1911)
  • T. H. Smeaton, Labor's Thirty Years' Record in South Australia (Adel, 1923)
  • Critic (Adelaide), 17 Aug, 7 Sept 1901
  • Punch (Melbourne), 22 July 1909, 26 Oct 1911
  • Daily Herald (Adelaide), 3 Dec 1913
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 3 Dec 1913
  • Bulletin, 11 Dec 1913
  • J. Playford, Australian Labor Party Personnel in the South Australia Legislature 1891-1957 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Robert Thornton, 'Roberts, Ernest Alfred (1868–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/roberts-ernest-alfred-8224/text14393, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 26 October 2014.

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

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