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Wade, Sir Charles Gregory (1863–1922)

by John M. Ward

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

Sir Charles Gregory Wade (1863-1922), premier and judge, was born on 26 January 1863 at Singleton, New South Wales, eldest of six sons of William Burton Wade, a civil engineer from Shropshire, and his native-born wife Anne McBean, née Duguid. His brothers included Leslie and (Sir) Robert. Greg was educated at All Saints College, Bathurst (1874-76), and The King's School, Parramatta (school captain, 1879-80, and colour sergeant of cadets, 1880). Winning the Broughton and Forrest exhibition in 1880, he read classics at Merton College, Oxford (B.A., 1884). Described as 'a Hercules of a man' and regarded as one of the the finest wing three-quarters of his day, he played Rugby football for Oxford and represented England eight times. He also excelled at tennis, rowing and shooting. Called to the Bar at the Inner Temple, London, on 19 May 1886, he returned to Sydney and was admitted to the colonial Bar on 1 September. At All Saints Church, Petersham, he married Ella Louise Bell, daughter of a civil engineer, on 9 April 1890.

As a crown prosecutor in 1891-1902, mainly on the western circuit and in the Central Criminal Court, Wade fought his cases tenaciously; his convictions in 1895 included those of William Patrick Crick, George Dean and Thomas Rofe. He published several legal treatises, acted as a District Court judge and conducted four inquiries between 1898 and 1902 into colliery explosions and disasters. A foundation member of the Council of the Bar of New South Wales in 1902, he practised in the new Industrial Arbitration Court where he was increasingly briefed by coal-owners. He took silk in 1906. Albert Piddington thought that Wade was 'never brilliant or dextrous, but had a kind of massive personal strength which made his careful and thorough work tell'.

Supported by the Liberal and Reform Association (president from 1908), People's Reform League, New South Wales Alliance for the Suppression of Intemperance, Loyal Orange Institution and Australian Protestant Defence Association, Wade was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Willoughby in September 1903. He represented Gordon, an upper-middle-class seat, in 1904-17. In February 1904 he committed himself to local option without compensation.

Although a political novice, in August 1904 Wade was appointed attorney-general and minister of justice in (Sir) Joseph Carruthers' ministry. He introduced many legal reforms, among them protection of neglected children, and defended the independence of the judiciary. In June 1905 Labor members accused Wade of having administered the Industrial Arbitration Act unfairly. His social reforms appealed mainly to respectable Protestants of some means. His Liquor (Amendment) Act of 1905 was a victory for the temperance movement, and legislation on betting and lotteries in 1905-06 struck principally at gambling among young people and the working classes. Wade's rectitude drove his enemies to revile him as a hypocrite.

The ministry was bedevilled by scandals uncovered by the royal commissioner, (Sir) William Owen, who inquired into the administration of the Lands Department (1905-06). Charges were levelled that Wade (and Carruthers) wanted no action against Crick that might disturb their political arrangements or their pastoral friends. In August 1905 William Holman, Labor deputy leader, exempted Wade from charges of obstructing the royal commission, but when Wade accepted official advice against further prosecution of Crick and William Willis he endured malicious attacks.

Carruthers resigned after winning the election of September 1907. Wade succeeded him and took the portfolios of premier, attorney-general and minister of justice. He confided to Carruthers: 'I almost shudder at the responsibility of the position. I feel my want of experience is my great stumbling block—I must trust to luck & a strong constitution to pull us through'. To Melbourne Punch, Wade had the characteristics of the British bulldog—courage, tenacity, obstinacy, pugnacity and loyalty. His speeches were prosy, dreary and humourless; his voice especially when excited was 'harsh, even rasping', in contrast to Holman's mellifluous tone. Wade was a governor (1901-22) of The King's School, a member of the Australian Club and a trustee (1908-18) of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales. An imposing figure with 'a strong and powerful face', he was a shy and aloof man whose few friends included Archbishop John Wright.

Attempting to conciliate critics who thought the government indifferent to common people, Wade supported legislation to fix minimum wages for all employees, admitted that legalism had helped to frustrate the arbitration system, favoured extended old-age pensions, promised encouragement to the 'industrious and thrifty', and introduced a bill to provide court defence for the poor (an idea which he had earlier ridiculed). The government continued to pass reforming measures of a mildly progressive kind. Wade re-established the ministry of agriculture, authorized work to begin on Burrinjuck Dam and won general praise in December 1907 when he persuaded Charles Hoskins to take over William Sandford's ironworks at Lithgow, to fulfil the government contracts and to pay compensation to Sandford.

From November 1907 political life had been largely dominated by looming industrial strife in the collieries over mechanization and redundancy. Wade negotiated with both sides and proposed an independent tribunal to settle the dispute, on condition that the miners went back to the pits. By 21 November the immediate threat had waned. In March 1908 he introduced a new industrial disputes bill, substituting wages boards for the existing cumbersome arbitration, and banning strikes and lockouts. Labor accused him of planning to destroy trade unionism.

Governor Sir Harry Rawson reported to the Colonial Office in January 1909 that Wade had 'proved himself a high-minded, capable and strong Minister, and in the handling of some delicate and complicated matters has exhibited great tact, judgment and discretion'. Stubborn in defending State rights, Wade told Alfred Deakin in October 1907 that 'the general sentiment … is almost one of hostility': relations with the Commonwealth, already strained by the wire-netting case and by squabbles over the Federal capital site, were exacerbated by Deakin's New Protection and proposed financial arrangements.

In introducing amendments in December 1909 to the Industrial Disputes Act (including retrospective imprisonment for inducing unionists to strike), Wade provoked a Labor motion of no confidence which he imprudently ignored. Labor members withdrew from the Assembly for two days. The incident demonstrated Wade's parliamentary ineptitude. Following further coal strikes, in December the government arrested some union leaders, including Peter Bowling, under the 'Coercion' Act.

Throughout the coal strike of 1909-10 Wade's actions favoured the mine-owners. His argument that the government should protect the community from 'socialistic agitators' could not save him from public reaction to his severity. The Crown Lands (Amendment) Act (1908), giving leaseholders the right to convert to limited freehold, had been carried against strong Labor protest. Rumours persisted that Wade wanted the chief justiceship. His many reforms seemed unimportant.

Aware that his government was losing ground to Labor and alarmed by the swing against Deakin's Fusion ministry, Wade argued that Federal and State issues were separate and unavailingly tried to consolidate the Liberal position. His controversial plan to limit the size of parliament was dropped. He courted popularity by making Saturday a half-holiday in Sydney and Newcastle and by introducing a limited Workmen's Compensation Act. Wade's was very much a 'one-man government': nothing that he and his claqueurs did could save the Liberals; the election in October 1910 gave Labor a majority of two.

As leader of the Opposition, Wade made seemingly partisan objections to the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area legislation. He engaged with Holman in passionate exchanges over Bowling's conviction and release, and missed his chance to force Holman to the polls in July 1911. In August Wade was outmanoeuvred again when Holman persuaded the Liberal Henry Willis to accept Labor nomination as Speaker. In 1913 a royal commission cleared Arthur Griffith of Wade's charges of maladministration. The Liberals were overwhelmingly defeated that year.

Accused by Holman in 1915 of breaking their political truce, Wade laid the foundations of an alliance with the emerging Country Party and assisted the estrangement of Holman from the Labor Party. After the defeat of the conscription referendum in 1916, he and Holman helped to establish a national government. With his family, Wade departed on a trip to the United States of America and England; he allayed his anxiety at crossing the Atlantic by buying gutta-percha life-saving suits which he tested in the Hudson River. In 1917 he was appointed agent-general in London. He gave seven lectures at University College, London, published as Australia: Problems and Prospects (1919). Knighted in 1918, he was known as Sir Charles and was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1920.

In December 1919 Wade accepted a puisne judgeship in the Supreme Court of New South Wales. He served on royal commissions into gas and electricity prices in 1920-21 and had established himself as a fair, courteous and dignified judge when he died suddenly of heart disease on 26 September 1922 at his Potts Point home. He was buried in the Anglican section of South Head cemetery after a state funeral. His wife, two sons and twin daughters survived him. By then much of the bitterness of earlier years had subsided and Wade's integrity and dedication to public service were praised generously by men who had formerly opposed him.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • A. B. Piddington, Worshipful Masters (Syd, 1929)
  • H. V. Evatt, William Holman (Syd, 1945)
  • W. A. Steel and J. M. Antill, The History of All Saints' College, Bathurst, 1873-1934 (Syd, 1936)
  • British Australasian, 12 Apr 1917
  • Punch (Melbourne), 28 Nov 1907, 19 Aug 1909, 1 Jan 1914
  • Fighting Line, 19 Aug 1913
  • Town and Country Journal, 20 Nov 1917
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 June 1911, 3 June 1920, 27, 28 Sept 1922, 13 Sept 1923, 10 Sept 1926
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Carruthers papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 418/62, f324, /72, f35 (microfilm, National Library of Australia).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

John M. Ward, 'Wade, Sir Charles Gregory (1863–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wade-sir-charles-gregory-8938/text15707, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 31 August 2014.

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

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