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Sleath, Richard (1863–1922)

by B. E. Kennedy

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

Richard Sleath (1863-1922), miner, unionist and politician, was born on 3 October 1863 at Ceres, Fifeshire, Scotland, son of Richard Sleath, ploughman, and his wife Mary, née Fernie. As a lad, he migrated to Queensland and worked as a shearer, timber-cutter, prospector and labourer. After some years mining at Gympie, he worked as a quarryman in Sydney, where he married Jane Dawson of Argyllshire on 11 March 1887. They had three sons and a daughter and were divorced in 1907.

In 1887 Sleath had arrived on the Barrier with his bride. His elusive role as company promoter and provisional director of the Broken Hill Smelting & Refining Co. was short-lived. The exhaustion of 'surface shows' and the rise of Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd ended the hopes of many men, who turned to the Amalgamated Miners' Association. In 1889 Sleath was elected president to lead the struggle to make the Barrier a closed shop, achieved by a strike in November. His youth and 'dictatorial' manner won him enemies too, and his early attempts to enter local politics failed. Undeterred, he exploited the 1890 maritime strike to win a shorter working week of forty-six hours and a clause guaranteeing arbitration in any future disputes.

Elected to the hospital committee in 1891, Sleath pressed for and next year sat on the board of inquiry (chaired by Dr Ashburton Thompson) into the prevalence and prevention of lead poisoning at the silver-lead mines. In June 1892 Sleath helped to found a branch of the Australian Socialist League, which espoused nationalization of the mines. By then, B.H.P. was determined to reduce labour costs and introduce the contract system; this issue and the directors' refusal to negotiate precipitated the 'Big Strike' on 3 July. Sleath, with his fine physique, forcible speech and ready repartee, was prominent.

Boldly attending the shareholders' meeting in Melbourne on 27 July, he denounced the directors and described the hazards of mining. Returning to Broken Hill, Sleath withstood an assault from the manager of the Australian Joint Bank, who regarded him as an 'unmitigated ruffian'. The companies reopened the mines on 25 August with 'free labourers' from the coastal cities: tempers flared between unionists and police, and Sleath helped to avert violence in several ugly incidents. However, on 15 September he and six other strike leaders were arrested and charged with 'unlawful conspiracy and inciting riots'. Tried at Deniliquin, Sleath was sentenced to imprisonment for two years. The arrest of the leaders undermined the strike.

On his release in mid-1893, 'the martyr' returned to the Barrier. Standing for Labor, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Wilcannia in 1894 and held the seat until 1904, as Independent Labor (1898) and as an Independent (1901). Defeated for the Australasian Federal Convention in 1897, he was estranged from the Labor Party over his support for Federation. In April 1900 he visited South Africa with a parliamentary delegation.

Returning to Sydney after his defeat for the Darling in 1904, Sleath shifted sand in Centennial Park and, again a quarryman by 1909, was president of the Quarrymen's Union of New South Wales (1911). During World War I he supported conscription and stood unsuccessfully as a Nationalist for the Federal seats of Cook (1917) and West Sydney (1920). Survived by three sons he died of bladder disease on 10 October 1922 in Sydney Hospital and was buried with Anglican rites in Waverley cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Dale, The Industrial History of Broken Hill (Melb, 1918)
  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • B. Kennedy, Silver, Sin, and Sixpenny Ale (Melb, 1978).

Citation details

B. E. Kennedy, 'Sleath, Richard (1863–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sleath-richard-8455/text14851, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 20 August 2014.

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

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