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Sir Graham Berry (1822–1904)

by Geoffrey Bartlett

This article was published:

Graham Berry (1822-1904), by unknown photographer, 1898

Graham Berry (1822-1904), by unknown photographer, 1898

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21399820-36

Sir Graham Berry (1822-1904), politician, was born on 28 August 1822 near London, son of Benjamin Berry, a moderately successful Twickenham tradesman, and his wife Clara, née Graham. After elementary schooling he was apprenticed at 11 to a Chelsea draper and then followed his trade in Chelsea. In 1849 he married an 18-year-old Scottish lass, Harriet Ann Bencowe. In 1852 he sold up and migrated to Victoria, where he established himself in South Yarra as a general store-keeper and wine and spirits merchant; by 1856 he had prospered enough to visit England for eight months over family legacies. He had also begun his apprenticeship in politics.

In 1854 Berry sat on one of the juries which acquitted the Eureka rebels, and next year became secretary of the Prahran Reform League. The onset of harder times in 1857 and their human effects gave his incipient radicalism a fateful turn towards protection. He was soon prominent among Melbourne's radical speakers. He already spoke with an earnestness and control which contrasted vividly with the extravagant and denunciatory style of Charles Don and other lower-class spokesmen, although he yet lacked the educated fluency of Wilson Gray. His lack of education and his emotional nature showed not only in his speech but also in his lack of originality or of interest in theory. He never questioned the fundamentals of politics or society, only the concentration of power and wealth. Class antagonism was as rare in his early as in his later speeches; in the Victoria of his visions, all honest, industrious men would prosper, no class would dominate and no economic or political theories should stand in his pragmatic way.

In 1860 Berry strengthened his ties with Melbourne radicalism by buying the Collingwood Observer. He also abandoned trade for a political career that lasted nearly forty years and divided into three parts. By 1871 he had gradually become Victoria's leading protectionist on public platforms and in the Legislative Assembly, and as treasurer in Charles Gavan Duffy's ministry passed the first avowedly protectionist tariff. In the next decade he achieved undisputed leadership of militant radicalism and as premier forced the Legislative Council in 1877 to accept a land tax and four years later a reform of their chamber. In the final stage, despite a brief return to active politics in 1892-94, he remained largely above party as deputy-leader of an unchallengeable coalition in 1883-86, as agent-general in 1886-91 and as Speaker in 1894-97.

After two electoral failures in 1860, Berry was returned unopposed for East Melbourne in 1861 and soon afterwards in the general elections was elected for Collingwood. Simultaneously he was gaining experience in political organization. Prominent in a new Protectionist Election Committee he was showing already an instinct for compromise in the name of unity somewhat rare among radicals. The Heales government announced an unexpectedly radical policy, which the committee decided to endorse despite the limited degree of protection offered and its subordination to the land question. Berry announced the amalgamation of the Protection League, from which the committee had sprung, with the remains of the Land Convention, accepting the priority of the land question and urging radicals to return men pledged, not merely to principles, but also to vote solidly for the ministry.

The realization of his dream of unity, however, had to wait. Parliamentary defections defeated the government, the radical organization disappeared and public interest declined. In 1863 when the Healesites returned to office in alliance with James McCulloch and other eminent bourgeois with squatting connexions, Berry regarded this coalition as treachery and became one of a small group of irreconcilables. In the 1864 elections he joined the Australasian Reform League, a new radical organization which had a few successes. In debates on the 1865 land bill its members voted with uncommon regularity and cohesion, and co-operated with several independent radicals, but McCulloch's majority was so overwhelming that their opposition was fruitless. The government introduced a mildly protective tariff and, to prevent its rejection in the council, tacked it to the budget; when the council rejected this bill, the government was caught in a violent political struggle, rapidly shedding many of its more 'respectable' followers. Like other radicals, Berry was swept into the government party. He threw himself into working for a new Protection League and addressed innumerable public meetings. Popular feeling reached fever pitch; the elections of 1865-66 realized Berry's dream of a disciplined and overwhelmingly powerful radical party, firmly based on an aroused and organized public opinion.

Yet Berry himself had lost his seat. Before the elections he had attacked McCulloch for finding means to resume public payments, which he regarded as a retreat and the more suspicious in a merchant-pastoralist. Called to account at a Collingwood public meeting, he failed to gain a hearing, lost his temper and was condemned by electors who now saw in him merely another politician. He was then relegated from the top of the poll to a poor fifth. Collingwood had been a disaster. His newspaper had been unprofitable and was sold late in 1864; he had been manager of a company formed in 1862 to mine gold on Collingwood Flat but it had ceased to provide his salary and was breaking up amid recriminations. Now he was publicly branded as a political traitor.

In 1866 Berry fled to Geelong, home of the Victorian protection movement. With William McCann, radical member for South Grant, he bought the Geelong Register. At first things continued to go badly. His partner was gaoled for uttering and when Berry stood at the ensuing by-election he came a miserable third. He also had to return to McCulloch. After the tariff crisis the government had suffered losses on the left but the onset of the Darling Grant crisis in July 1867 obliged the rebels to return or face electoral defeat. Berry had contested South Grant as a ministerialist and was so considered at the 1868 general election though not standing. Throughout the crisis he was active in agitation for the McCullochites; their leaders gave his newspaper some financial assistance and in the ministerial elections of May, as the crisis approached its climax, he was sent by the McCullochite organization to contest the Ovens.

When Berry finally re-entered the assembly at the Geelong West by-election of October, he was slow to join the renewed radical drift into opposition. He may also have felt constrained by his short period as a leader writer for the Melbourne Herald, temporarily under the pro-McCulloch David Syme, and a man of his nature must have been badly shaken by the death of his wife on 2 September 1868. When the ministry fell in September 1869, Berry voted against it but was careful to say that the issue was too trivial to require resignation. In January 1870, however, John Macpherson's ministry invited him to become treasurer, and he accepted. The invitation was not so much a tribute to his standing as an acknowledgment of the ministry's difficulties: its previous treasurer had been defeated at a ministerial by-election, none of its free-trade supporters with financial experience would take office and numbers were so even that it needed someone whose seat was reasonably safe. Berry was easily re-elected and in March 1870 introduced his first budget. He was prevented by the need to conciliate free traders from acting on his protectionist beliefs and the ministry was defeated on his budget, but he had acquired a claim to be considered for office. Even his private affairs improved: in 1869 he married Rebecca Evans, a woman of some strength of character; his newspaper had also taken over the Geelong Advertiser which he edited for a time.

His brief ministerial experience stood him in good stead when the third McCulloch ministry fell in June 1871. Although probably not Duffy's first choice, Berry became treasurer and commissioner for trade and customs. The parliamentary situation now made it easy to raise the maximum ad valorem duties from 10 to 20 per cent; he could therefore be regarded as Victoria's leading protectionist while the success of his budget in producing an ample surplus increased his authority on finance. His association with Duffy and the opposition to the Francis ministry's 1872 Education Act which this was to entail also stored up goodwill among Catholics. By May, however, these advantages seemed to have vanished. The ministry fell; despite signs of popular support Duffy was denied a dissolution and failed completely at the ministerial elections. Berry himself had to resign office before the government's defeat, because it was suggested in the assembly that scandalous rumours current in Geelong about his private life were connected with an appointment given to his father-in-law. A select committee found no such connexion, but its report implied that the rumours were true. Apart from the distress for one to whom personal relations meant so much, it was a serious handicap for an aspiring radical, who must win the support of independent members.

The new government, headed by James Francis, was overwhelming in numbers and talent, and blessed with a full Treasury. For three years Berry remained one of its radical oppositionists, criticizing the government's every measure and especially its reluctance to take vigorous action against what they considered brute obstruction by a reactionary council. They were few, disorganized and powerless. However, the attempt of the treasurer, James Service, to rationalize Berry's tariff and to introduce direct taxes to meet a deficit led many protectionist supporters of the ministry to desert. The government, its majority fallen to one, was refused a dissolution and resigned in August 1875. Berry, therefore, not only because of his abilities and consistent opposition but also because of his intimate association with protection and the existing tariff, suddenly found himself chief secretary. He reserved the Treasury for himself, proposing to meet the deficit wholly by a land tax, rather stiffer and more progressive than Service's. Such a measure had been much discussed among radicals, to allow a more equitable distribution of taxation, break up large pastoral freeholds and even provoke a dramatic conflict with the council which would arouse public opinion enough to force constitutional reform. Until Service's budget, however, it had attracted little attention; after Berry's budget, it became the centre of a violent political storm. He lacked a majority and, more important, he lost the support of a small moderate faction led by McCulloch. In vain he offered its leaders several important posts; he had to form his cabinet from independents and extreme radicals. The ministry was defeated at once on fiscal policy by McCulloch and refused a dissolution by the acting governor, Sir William Stawell. McCulloch then became premier, committed to tariff reductions and direct taxation on all forms of wealth, not merely land.

Berry had spoken until then with careful moderation, avoiding all talk of 'bursting up' the great estates. Now, however, he saw himself as the victim of a plot by the combined Conservative forces of Victoria to destroy protection, evade taxation and maintain land monopoly. Recalling how quickly public interest had subsided after the refusal of a dissolution to Duffy, he began a great agitation and systematic obstruction which polarized parties into left and right, branded McCulloch quite unjustly as a reactionary and made the land tax the central plank of a new radical movement.

Obstruction and mass meetings failed to force a dissolution, and the 'stonewall' in the assembly was broken down by the 'iron hand' or closure, but Berry had consolidated his position as radical leader. He had also established contact with two political organizations which in February 1877 became the National Reform and Protection League under his presidency and in close association with his parliamentary party. After a brilliant campaign and supported by political Catholics, he won an overwhelming victory at the May general elections and again became chief secretary and treasurer. His powers were at their height and his party was powerful and disciplined, backed by an electoral and agitational organization such as had been only briefly foreshadowed before. The dreams of twenty years were realized.

At first Berry's path was smooth and his manner moderate. His cabinet was almost the same as in 1875, but only because he had failed to persuade Service and other moderates to join. His first revision of the tariff, to remove anomalies and foster intercolonial trade, pleased merchants more than militants and mercantile support helped his land tax through the Legislative Council. But the council raised difficulties over other bills and was expected to oppose the renewal of payment of members. This Act, first passed in 1870 and renewed in 1874 for the life of only one parliament and the first session of the next, was necessary to Berry's largely lower-middle-class party. Payment of members was therefore tacked to the estimates despite a warning from the council and, although Berry hesitated enough to introduce a separate bill, the council refused to entertain it while the tack remained. The appropriations bill was therefore passed by the assembly unamended and promptly rejected by the council on 20 December.

The influence of his colleagues, and the more passionate side of his own nature, carried Berry away. On 8 January 1878, 'Black Wednesday', large numbers of public servants were summarily dismissed, together with county court judges, coroners and police magistrates. The official justification was the need to conserve funds and carry out promised retrenchments. Several leading radicals, however, including Berry himself, spoke of it publicly as revenge upon the council through their friends. Rumour forecast further measures verging on revolution and, although Governor Bowen informed the ministry that he would go no further and obtained the reinstatement of certain judicial officers, political passion, frenzied agitation and even occasional mob violence, summed up by opponents as 'Berryism', now prevailed. The bitterness of his enemies almost intensified into hatred.

A compromise was eventually arranged in April and led to another bill for payment of members but left the council's powers intact. Berry then introduced a bill to reform the council. When that body rejected it and countered with a milder bill, Berry tried another method for carrying constitutional reform: an 'embassy' to Britain to seek an Act enabling the assembly to reform the council without its consent, and to combat the representations of the well-to-do and their London friends to the Colonial Office which had recalled Bowen for supporting the ministry in certain crisis measures the legality of which was suspect.

With Professor Charles Pearson Berry left in December 1878 and was away for six months. The Colonial Office, already convinced that the council had behaved unreasonably, did not rule out intervention, but Berry and Pearson failed to persuade the secretary of state that the possibility of a local settlement was exhausted. Although Berry claimed victory, it was only partial and he had to introduce another reform bill with different proposals probably designed to secure Colonial Office support if the council rejected it.

His return to Melbourne was deceptively tumultuous and triumphant. A depression, which his opponents blamed upon Black Wednesday and called the 'Berry Blight', was causing unemployment while drought, credit difficulties and the blunders of Francis Longmore, minister of lands, had alienated many farmers. The Opposition, now ably led by Service and Francis, was forming effective electoral associations while the National Reform League was rent by faction. Political Catholics, their hopes of state aid disappointed, were also organizing against him. Moreover his party was divided. Several had disliked the embassy. The 1879 budget, which proposed to increase maximum ad valorem duties to 25 per cent in face of the depression and falling revenue, provoked a revolt of mining and agricultural representatives who nearly defeated the government and forced it to compromise. The reform bill on its third reading failed by one vote to obtain the necessary absolute majority of the assembly.

At the general elections in February 1880 Berry's ministry was defeated and Service succeeded him. When Service's reform bill also failed in the assembly, a second dissolution in July gave Berry a narrow majority. His new cabinet was more moderate and his final reform bill abandoned the provisions for solving deadlocks which had caused most previous difficulties. The council, however, refused to accept property qualifications as low as he proposed and, although he was willing to attempt another agitation, his party would not agree. He therefore compromised enough to pass the bill at the cost of further alienating his left wing.

Immediately a successful motion of censure was moved by Berry's former attorney-general, Sir Bryan O'Loghlen, who had enough votes from assorted Berryite rebels to form a government which, promising 'practical legislation', was supported by Berry's opponents. The idea of a grand coalition then gradually took hold; Berry's ostentatious moderation and the lack of outstanding policy differences strengthened its grip. When the dissolution of 1883 gave neither major party a majority, an alliance was formed which was to rule until 1890. Service became premier and treasurer with Berry as chief secretary. Revenue was ample and much practical legislation was passed, notably to remove railways and the public service from political patronage, to settle the Mallee district and to promote irrigation; against these the discontent of left and right extremists was ineffectual.

The years of office and recent successful mining speculations had now given Berry an unaccustomed financial independence. He had long been on good terms with Service who had stood apart from the personal and political mud-slinging of the great agitations. Now with him and the young Alfred Deakin Berry found something which, for all the enthusiasm he had generated, he had perhaps lacked: the close and relaxed friendship of his political equals. It was probably their personal enthusiasm rather than simply the activity of France and Germany in the Pacific which now turned him from a lukewarm into an eager federationist, from a Victorian into an Australian patriot, a change which the next stage of his career was to confirm.

In 1886 the old men left the ministry. After attending the first session of the Federal Council in February, Berry became agent-general, apparently expecting that ease and dignity which Deakin said he so enjoyed. He was immediately appointed K.C.M.G. for his part in the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, but had little ease. The crisis over the French in the New Hebrides was at its height when he reached London and he threw himself with great energy and resource into applying to the British government a pressure which contributed substantially to a satisfactory conclusion. This pressure reached its peak at the 1887 Colonial Conference where his characteristically powerful impromptu reply to a condescending speech by Lord Salisbury had perhaps as great a clinching effect as Deakin's more famous assertion of Australian nationalism.

Thereafter the demanding routine of his office, public engagements, the oversight of loans and innumerable exhibitions allowed him little rest, but his dignity was further served when he was appointed commander of the Legion of Honour and of the Order of the Crown of Italy, and a director of the Mercantile Bank and the Freehold Investment and Banking Co. of Melbourne. Although he never penetrated high society, his younger children were receiving an education denied to him and to his elder children. His native climate agreed with him. His occasional grumbles therefore carry little conviction; as soon as he had leisure he set about reorganizing his office and having it rebuilt. The dispatch of business had become as central to his life now as political agitation had been before, and he gladly accepted a second term in 1889.

In 1891 James Munro, the new premier, wrote privately that he would support a third term. Berry was pleased and perhaps relieved since, he told Deakin, his daughters had grown up in English society, his salary had largely gone on maintaining his position and his investments had suffered in the depression. Then suddenly he was informed that despite general approval of his work he was to be replaced, because Munro's colleagues insisted, as the law intended, on Victoria's representation by an agent-general with recent experience of the colony's affairs. Worse, he then discovered that his successor was to be Munro himself whose financial affairs had also suffered.

Berry returned to a depressed Victoria on the eve of general elections where the respectable feared the new Labor Party and hoped that the aggrieved former demagogue would not join it. He immediately stressed, however, that Victoria's need to restore the confidence of London investors was paramount. Although Labor men derided his claim to be 'the Graham Berry of old' and opposed him at the polls, he was elected for East Bourke Boroughs. Then, perhaps from a sense of destiny or responsibility, he made the grand gesture and fatal error of becoming treasurer in William Shiels's reconstruction of the ministry which had recalled him. It was indeed liberal and protectionist but it was insecure. Worse, Berry's tried prescription of retrenchment and increased protection for financial and economic troubles was inadequate; its failure not only brought down the government in 1893 but also destroyed his precious asset of being the one established politician not associated with the extravagances of the boom years and the subsequent catastrophes. Nor did it help that he tended to harp on the achievements of his generation, so recently found wanting.

The years had taken their toll and his energies were failing. Although elected leader of the Opposition, he stood down in 1894 for younger and stronger men, and the Liberal Party which in 1894-99 presided over Victoria's recovery and her part in Federation was led by George Turner. Nor could Berry return to the agency-general. Shiels had recalled Munro, no longer suitable because his financial affairs had further deteriorated, but the ministry of James Patterson had replaced him with Berry's friend, Duncan Gillies. Although nobody suspected Berry, his directorship of the Mercantile Bank, now insolvent and facing charges against some of its officers, made him equally unsuitable.

The great partisan was therefore finally lifted above party to become Speaker; in 1897 he was popularly elected to the Federal Convention. By then, however, he was too frail to take any significant part. In that year he lost his seat and became dependent on an annuity of £500 bought by parliament. His mind remained clear, but his weakened body succumbed to pneumonia on 25 January 1904. Well attended by mourners he was buried at Boroondara cemetery with the rites of the Church of England. Lady Berry survived him with their seven children and eight of the eleven by his first marriage.

Berry was strongly built, although somewhat thin until prosperity filled him out into a handsome figure; his smile was pleasant and his manner usually restrained. When he was aroused, however, his face, hands and entire body expressed vehemence and determination. His political success was founded on a remarkable persistence, despite great difficulties and even disasters; it was derived partly from ambition but also from a consuming desire to serve others and relieve the afflicted, which amounted to a sense of mission. He had abundant nervous energy and an ability to arouse enthusiasm and loyalty by his impassioned oratory and warm personality which developed rapidly as he gained success and confidence in the 1870s. As a party leader and political organizer he was unequalled in his prime. His extreme sensitivity to the reactions of others, although it occasionally tempted him into rash and violent statements, made him a master of the heated impromptu reply and the 'rallying' speech. If it left him rather retiring, it also endowed him with a rare public courtesy. Shyness and consciousness of his powers finally produced in him a desire for 'ease and dignity' which became more apparent in the 1880s but never deprived him of his popular sympathies.

Select Bibliography

  • C. G. Duffy, My Life in Two Hemispheres, vol 2 (Lond, 1898)
  • A. Deakin, The Federal Story, H. Brookes ed (Melb, 1944)
  • A. Deakin, The Crisis in Victorian Politics, 1879-1881, J. A. La Nauze and R. M. Crawford eds (Melb, 1957)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • J. A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin, vol 1 (Melb, 1965)
  • J. M. Tregenza, Professor of Democracy: The Life of Charles Henry Pearson, 1830-1894 (Melb, 1968)
  • Imperial Review (Melbourne), June 1882, Oct 1886
  • Argus (Melbourne), 26 Jan 1904
  • Observer (Collingwood), 4 Feb 1904
  • S. M. Ingham, Some Aspects of Victorian Liberalism 1880-1900 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1950)
  • J. E. Parnaby, The Economic and Political Development of Victoria 1877-81 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1951)
  • M. J. Finlayson, Victorian Politics, 1889-94 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1964)
  • G. R. Bartlett, Political Organization and Society in Victoria, 1864-1883 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1964)
  • Graham Berry papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Geoffrey Bartlett, 'Berry, Sir Graham (1822–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Graham Berry (1822-1904), by unknown photographer, 1898

Graham Berry (1822-1904), by unknown photographer, 1898

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21399820-36

Life Summary [details]


28 August, 1822
London, Middlesex, England


25 January, 1904 (aged 81)
Victoria, Australia

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