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Trenwith, William Arthur (Billy) (1846–1925)

by Bruce Scates

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

William Arthur Trenwith (1846-1925), by unknown photographer, 1898

William Arthur Trenwith (1846-1925), by unknown photographer, 1898

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21399820-35

William Arthur (Billy) Trenwith (1846-1925), bootmaker, trade unionist and politician, was born probably on 15 July 1846 at Launceston, Tasmania, second son of convict parents William Trenwith, shoemaker, and his wife Beatrice McBarrett. Aged 7, William followed his father's trade, toiling with his hands for a living; when he was 13 his mother died. Unschooled and scarcely literate, Trenwith began his education in 1864 when he joined the provisional committee of the Launceston Working Man's Club. There he developed a flair for debating and made his first appearance in the boxing ring: by 19, Billy was the lightweight champion of Hobart Town and an equally formidable orator. He married Susannah Page (d.1896) at St John's Church, Launceston, on 2 November 1868 and left for Victoria.

After a time on the track, Trenwith set up in the boot trade at Carlton. He quickly became embroiled in local politics. His vigour and ability earned him an appointment as lecturer and organizer for the National Reform League, a loose coalition of selectors, miners, manufacturers and trade unionists, which aimed for a high protective tariff on local industries, a land tax and reform of the Legislative Council. Pragmatic and patriotic, Trenwith made these three issues central to his early political philosophy. He was involved in the great reform agitation of 1878 and fiercely defended (Sir) Graham Berry's assault on the Legislative Council. In 1879 Trenwith contested the seat of Villiers and Heytesbury, styling himself a 'radical candidate', but was defeated. He then turned his energies elsewhere and in May 1879 chaired the founding meeting of the Victorian Operative Bootmakers' Union in Collingwood. In 1883 he became its secretary; his salary of £3 a week won him instant notoriety as a 'paid agitator'.

He fought for the abolition of outwork in the bootmaking industry, hoping to eliminate cheap labour and to encourage unionization. The lock-out in 1884 testified to his ability as an organizer: Trenwith co-ordinated the strike effort from Trades Hall, imposing a levy on all bootmakers still at work and soliciting support from affiliated unions; he also sought assistance outside Victoria and outside the labour movement. Given his prominence in the dispute, many employers blamed him for their troubles. His 'objectionable and dictatorial manner' led them to expel him from negotiations and his 'well directed blow' at a non-unionist prompted efforts to have him imprisoned. To add insult to injury, Trenwith seemed to have stepped beyond his station: one employer complained that he dressed like a gentleman and drove from one factory to another in a buggy.

By 1885 the strike had become a crusade against sweated labour and secured Trenwith's place as a leader of the labour movement. Its termination reaffirmed his faith in the benefits of conciliation and in the fair and reasonable employer. By 1886 Trenwith had moved through a series of executive posts to presidency of the Trades Hall Council. His influence soon extended to the affairs of other unions: he became president of the Australian Journeyman's Butchers Association, secretary of the Railway Employees' Union, and helped to establish a boot trades conciliation board in Adelaide. Even so, Trenwith's rise in the labour movement was not without opposition. In 1887 he was appointed lifelong trustee of the Trades Hall, ending a protracted legal battle with the council's founding father, Benjamin Douglass. The appointment represented a triumph of the new guard over the old which had opposed Trenwith's militant political leadership. His relationship with the rank and file proved equally stormy. Meetings of the V.O.B.U. frequently censured him for his threatening and abusive language; when Trenwith offered to resign, applause and testimonials effected an uneasy reconciliation.

Trenwith, however, had his sights set on higher office. Throughout the 1880s he had been a consistent advocate of labour's political representation. By 1886 he was president of the Trades Hall parliamentary committee and, despite opposition from conservative sections of the council, stood for Richmond as a National Liberal League candidate. To advocate labour representation and to run for the Liberal party was no contradiction. It was in the Victorian radical tradition of an alliance of capitalist and worker against the squatters and in support of the tariff. Trenwith was no advocate of 'class legislation'. He held that the workers' presence in parliament was in the community's interest and scorned any suggestion of a Trades Hall party. Such assurances notwithstanding, he was again beaten.

In 1886-89 Trenwith prepared for parliament in a dozen lesser forums, assuming executive positions on the Workingman's Club, the Democratic Society, the Sunday Liberation Society and the Secularist Society. Despite his avowed atheism, he edged his way into respectable circles. In 1886 he was appointed a commissioner on the Adelaide Jubilee Exhibition and took a similar post on Melbourne's International Exhibition of 1888. He also sat on the provisional committee of the Working Men's College.

Trenwith's election to the Legislative Assembly as member for Richmond (1889-1903) was cheered in the Trades Hall Council. For a time, at least, 'Trenny' justified such confidence. Working-class education, unemployment and protection formed the staple of his initial speeches. In 1889 he moved the first of many resolutions for an eight-hour bill; it was easily defeated. Trenwith remained an active member of the T.H.C. which, in 1890, chose him to debate against Henry George, a fervent opponent of protection. In August Trenwith assumed de facto leadership of the maritime strike in Melbourne. A shrewd strategist, he urged an end to the strike and opposed moves to extend it to the shearing industry. The strike's defeat in November confirmed his belief in compulsory arbitration. As for many labour leaders, the strike marked the most radical period of his career. Alfred Deakin's 'dastardly' decision to call out the militia compelled Trenwith to attack his former political patrons. In November 1891 at the 4th Intercolonial Trades Union Congress he moved for independent labour representation in parliament. In April 1892 Trenwith was joined in the assembly by several new labour members and promptly—albeit unofficially—assumed leadership of the party. Labor was numerically weak and many of its policies were indistinguishable from those of the Liberals. Jealous of his independence as a parliamentarian, Trenwith refused to pledge himself to a party or platform.

He worked to secure Labor's partnership with the Liberals. At his insistence the name 'United Labor and Liberal Party' was adopted and from 1894 members gave consistent backing to (Sir) George Turner's Liberal ministry. Trenwith became a vocal supporter of such liberal initiatives as direct taxation, electoral reform and industrial legislation, and served on royal commissions on constitutional reform (1894) and factory legislation (1900). Protection remained his abiding obsession. With the free trade revival of 1893-94, he defended the tariff inside and outside parliament. In espousing such policies, he sometimes styled himself a socialist. Well-read in radical literature, he saw the state as the 'aggregate parent' of its citizens; its 'highest duty' was to provide for their well-being. His 'socialism' was practical and palliative.

Trenwith's concessions to the Liberals raised the ire of radicals. In June 1892 a procession of unemployed marched to his Richmond home, declared him to be 'a traitor to the trust … reposed in him' and demanded his resignation. As the depression deepened, disaffection spread. Ignoring Trenwith's plea that they had 'nothing but their cause in their favour', in 1894 the V.O.B.U. struck against mechanization and wage reductions. Militants endeavoured to have Trenwith dismissed from the union: despite his annual salary of £300 he had not paid his union dues. He was, moreover, losing touch with his party. In May 1896 the United Labor Party succeeded the U.L.L.P. It demanded a pledge from its parliamentarians and censured the Liberals for failing to achieve social reform. Trenwith repudiated both these resolutions. At Fitzroy on 7 April he had married with Victorian Free Church forms a widow, Elizabeth Bright (d.1923), and sailed with her to England. On his return he faced two successive challenges to his leadership, both sponsored by the radical wing of the party.

Despairing of labour politics, Trenwith threw himself behind the Federation movement. In 1897 he was the only Labor member to be elected to the Australasian Federal Convention; there he argued the benefits of protection, adult suffrage, proportional representation and referendum. His decision to support the bill, despite 'its many objectionable features', provoked a furore in labour circles: the Tocsin damned him as a 'political blackleg'. Trenwith then drifted from the party he had founded and relinquished his position as leader. From November 1900 to February 1901 he served as minister for railways, commissioner for public works and vice-president of the board of land and works in the Turner Liberal ministry, and also as chief secretary in 1901-02, under (Sir) Alexander Peacock. His support for the South African War and for Ted Findley's expulsion from the Legislative Assembly for seditious libel alienated many of those who still believed in him. Trenwith also came under attack from older political allies: in 1902 the Age accused him of snobbery and extravagance for travelling in a state carriage while minister for railways.

Retaining sufficient influence to win election to the Senate in 1903, Trenwith continued to support much of Labor's policy, particularly in the sphere of industrial legislation. He did so as an Independent member, his faith in protection and practical reforms overriding sectional loyalties. He further distanced himself from the labour movement by leaving his home and business premises at Richmond for a comfortable villa at Camberwell. His final rift with Labor came in 1909 when he withdrew his support from Fisher's government and backed the Fusion under Deakin in the hope of securing protection, the single political objective he was never willing to compromise. The people 'took their political revenge' when he was defeated by a Labor candidate in 1910.

Having unsuccessfully contested the State seat of North Gippsland in 1911 and the Federal seat of Denison (Tasmania) in 1913, Trenwith was defeated for the Senate in 1914. He then retired from public life. On 1 October 1924 he married Helen Florence Sinclair at Echuca with Presbyterian forms. He died on 26 July 1925 and was buried in Brighton cemetery. His wife, three sons and a daughter of his first marriage, and two sons and a daughter of his second, survived him. Obituaries in the labour press stressed the apostasy of his later years at the expense of his earlier achievements, deeming him to be 'unwept, unhonoured and unsung'.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Norton (ed), The History of Capital and Labour in all Lands and Ages (Melb, 1888)
  • H. G. Turner, The First Decade of the Australian Commonwealth (Melb, 1911)
  • B. R. Wise, The Commonwealth of Australia (Lond, 1913)
  • A. Deakin, The Federal Story (Melb, 1944)
  • G. Serle, The Rush to be Rich (Melb, 1971)
  • D. J. Murphy (ed), Labor in Politics (Brisb, 1975)
  • G. Davison, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne (Melb, 1978).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bruce Scates, 'Trenwith, William Arthur (Billy) (1846–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/trenwith-william-arthur-billy-8848/text15529, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 21 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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