Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Robert Clark (1841–1883)

by David Potts

This article was published:

Robert Clark (1841-1883), trade union leader and politician, was born on 8 November 1841 in Northumberland, England, son of Joseph Clark, a Newcastle coal-miner and quarryman, and his wife Catherine Burden, née Pearson. His father died and at 12 Clark left England with his mother, brother and stepfather to join the Ballarat gold rushes. Soon afterwards he moved to Sandhurst (Bendigo) where he worked in company mines. He received no formal schooling, except for two weeks at night school in Ballarat, but read widely in the politics and literature of his time. From early 1861 he tried his luck in the Otago gold rushes in New Zealand, but returned to Sandhurst empty-handed. There, on 26 June 1862 at the Wesleyan parsonage he married Sarah Jane Kernaghan, which proved a more productive enterprise; they had eleven children.

Clark deplored the drudgery and hardships of life for miners. In 1864 he began to campaign for an eight-hour day. He gave up mining in 1870 to become a part-time journalist and a mining agent. By 1872 he had formed the Bendigo Miners' Association, which won for its members a reduction in working hours, and in 1874 he helped to form the Amalgamated Miners' Association of Victoria, of which he became president. His abiding faiths as a unionist were that miners need strength through unity and that owners and miners have a common interest which can be revealed by negotiation; faiths which were perhaps implicitly contradictory but which in practice led to many successes.

In 1872 Clark was elected to the City Council where he badgered the entrenched elders into improving water supplies and assisting local education. He became a justice of the peace in 1873, mayor of Sandhurst in 1875-76 and president of the Sandhurst Mechanics' Institute in 1877.

Clark's political career began in 1867 when he joined the Bendigo Liberal Association, of which he became vice-president in 1870. He entered the Legislative Assembly for Sandhurst in 1877, and announced his support for (Sir) Graham Berry's Liberal ministry. Immediately, he succeeded in amending a mines bill to make an eight-hour day compulsory for all miners. He supported bills to permit mining on private property and payment of members, opposed the teaching of religion in state schools, and advocated property taxes. He also fought for specific local benefits for the Sandhurst district. Above all Clark defended the assembly as the supreme legislative body in parliament. When Berry failed in his clash with the propertied interests of the Legislative Council, particularly in an embassy that he sent to London to appeal for help, Clark withdrew his support from the government.

Clark's local popularity received a fillip in 1879 when he successfully led a Bendigo miners' strike against wage reductions. By his careful attention to public relations and his readiness to negotiate he won general support for the miners, even from the government and several newspapers. Both in parliament and outside Clark paid great respect to the press and always sought its sympathy. In the 1880 elections he was returned to the assembly with an increased majority, despite his desertion of Berry.

The Service government took office in March 1880, and Clark became minister of mines and water supply. However, nothing was achieved. Within five months Berry toppled Service from power. Clark returned to the Opposition. In long and relentlessly logical speeches he condemned Berry's ambivalence over reform. Otherwise he spoke mainly against the Chinese, and in favour of a bill to legalize trade unionism.

In his prime Clark fell suddenly ill. He died at Sandhurst on 24 April 1883. Five hundred miners, marching four abreast, led the funeral procession of 160 vehicles. At the graveside the Wesleyan minister lamented: 'Robert Clark had a moral warfare to wage … The social customs of conviviality had crippled his right arm for the fight'. The Bendigo Advertiser more charitably stressed the credit side of his pioneering work, as a working-class politician and union leader, in a tribute to his 'keen perception of the wants of his fellow men'.

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne), 15 Apr 1883
  • Bendigo Advertiser, 24, 26, 28 Apr 1883
  • Argus (Melbourne), 26 Apr 1883
  • J. E. Parnaby, The Economic and Political Development of Victoria 1877-81 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1951)
  • J. Philipp, Trade Union Organization in New South Wales and Victoria, 1870-90 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1954).

Citation details

David Potts, 'Clark, Robert (1841–1883)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 20 July 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

Life Summary [details]


8 November, 1841
Northumberland, England


24 April, 1883 (aged 41)
Bendigo, Victoria, Australia

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