Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Shepherd, Alfred Ernest (Ernie) (1901–1958)

by John Lack

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Alfred Ernest (Ernie) Shepherd (1901-1958), community leader and politician, was born on 6 January 1901 at Bendigo, Victoria, eldest of eight children of Victorian-born parents Alfred Shepherd, miner, and his wife Rebecca Josephine, née Neilson, both active Presbyterians. Leaving Violet Street State School at the age of 14 to help support his family, Ernie worked for Robert Harper & Co., and studied maths and carpentry at night at the Bendigo School of Mines. He joined the Labor Party, became secretary of the Newsboys' Union (to secure a pay rise for fellow paper-boys) and supplemented his income by driving for political candidates, including Tom Tunnecliffe. In 1916 he went to Melbourne, lived with an aunt at Footscray and attended anti-conscription meetings. At 17 he began an apprenticeship as a pattern-maker in the Victorian Railways' workshops at Newport.

An enthusiastic sportsman, Shepherd swam and dived competitively, and played football with the Footscray and North Melbourne second XVIIIs. He was honorary secretary of the Footscray Swimming Club (1918-30), Footscray Football Club (1930) and Footscray District Football League (1933-45). In addition, he was a Victorian Football League umpire (for matches in the second division), and a judge and registrar of the Victorian Amateur Swimming Association. The F.F.C., F.D.F.L. and Victorian Football Union were to award him life memberships. At Ballarat East on 9 April 1927 he married with Presbyterian forms Beatrice Vera Hancock, a dressmaker. By 1929 they had their own home at Footscray. The nearby St Andrew's Presbyterian Church became the family's place of worship.

This leading-hand pattern-maker, staunch member of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, indefatigable secretary, and family man, emerged as 'Labor's trump card' at the 1943 Footscray municipal election: 'The most prosperous city was that with the greatest number of contented individuals', Shepherd declared, 'and Labor stood for making the home life all that it should be'. He served five terms (mayor 1948-49) before retiring from the council in 1955 with an unrivalled reputation for assiduous attention to residents' concerns. A strong supporter of home-ownership as a stabilizing social and political influence, he was made a director (from 1945) of four district co-operative housing societies. He befriended and praised businessmen who lived in and contributed to the community from which they made their money; he supported postwar immigration, but drew attention to overcrowded schools and the housing shortage; and he worked hard to establish youth clubs and elderly citizens' centres.

A non-smoker and teetotaller whose recreations were gardening and reading, Shepherd never owned a car, preferring to cycle, walk or use public transport. His plain style of living, approachability and network of friends stood him in good stead, and helped him to win the seat of Sunshine in the Legislative Assembly in 1945. Redistributions saw him move to the seats of Ascot Vale (1955) and Footscray (1958). He proved a tireless local member, renowned for innumerable silent acts of generosity. John Cain, the leader of the Australian Labor Party, groomed him as his successor and allocated him the education portfolio when Labor won government in December 1952. A hard-working minister, he revitalized his department's building programme, travelling widely to open new classrooms and schools, and to assess local needs. He retained the portfolio when Cain reorganized the government in March 1955, following the split in the A.L.P. 'No country could be over-run by Communism', Shepherd said while campaigning for the general election in May, 'if the people could be given a high standard of education, decent living conditions, an impartial press and the opportunity of home ownership'. His wife broadcast with him on radio-station 3KZ, extolling the government's progressive education policy.

The election result consigned Labor to Opposition. L. W. Galvin lost his seat and Shepherd succeeded him as deputy-leader. Although he deplored sectarianism, lamented the split and was devastated by the fracturing of lifelong friendships, his relations with local right-wingers remained cordial. On Cain's death in August 1957, Shepherd was unanimously elected leader. Opening Labor's 1958 election campaign at Footscray, he announced a 'family first' platform, promising improved employment, housing and schools. He repudiated attempts to link his party with communism and ascribed the A.L.P.'s defeat to the 'unity ticket' of the Democratic Labor Party and the Liberal and Country Party. While opening a youth centre in his electorate, he died suddenly of myocardial infarction on 12 September 1958 at West Footscray. He was accorded a state funeral and was cremated. His wife and their two daughters survived him.

Stockily built, quietly spoken, bespectacled and well groomed, 'Shep' was a disarmingly fair-minded Labor man propelled to party leadership in turbulent times. He earned considerable respect as a committeeman, a councillor, and a parliamentarian dedicated to the interests and welfare of the common man and the family. A staunch Empire loyalist who upheld the monarchy, Australia Day and the Anzac spirit, he was seen as an asset to a party accused of leftist extremism. He was a home-loving man whose parliamentary and ministerial duties undermined his uncertain health. An education trust, a bridge over the Maribyrnong River, a memorial garden at Maidstone and a reserve at Footscray Park were named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • K. White, John Cain and Victorian Labor 1917-1957 (Syd, 1982)
  • J. Lack, A History of Footscray (Melb, 1991)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 10 Sept 1958, p 407
  • City of Footscray, Mayoral Report, 1948-49
  • Footscray Advertiser, 21 Aug, 11 Sept 1943, 6, 20 May, 15 July 1955, 8 Aug 1957, 18 Sept 1958, 21 May 1959
  • Age (Melbourne), 21 Aug 1957, 3 May, 13, 15, 17 Sept 1958
  • private information.

Citation details

John Lack, 'Shepherd, Alfred Ernest (Ernie) (1901–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/shepherd-alfred-ernest-ernie-11676/text20865, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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