Australian Dictionary of Biography

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David Gaunson (1846–1909)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published:

David Gaunson (1846-1909), solicitor and politician, was born on 19 January 1846 at Sydney, son of Francis Gaunson, grocer and tea dealer and elder in Rev. John Dunmore Lang's Scots Church, and his wife Elizabeth, née Wakeman. He was educated at schools in Sydney and, after the family moved to Melbourne in the 1850s, at Brighton. In 1862 he was articled to his brother-in-law, James Macpherson Grant and in 1869 was admitted an attorney. After three vain attempts in 1871-72 to enter the Legislative Assembly, Gaunson was elected for Ararat at a by-election in May 1875. Under the patronage of Grant and Graham Berry, he quickly won repute as the leading young native-born Liberal and was a conspicuous 'stonewaller' against the McCulloch government. He was prominent as a jingoist speaker at the Melbourne demonstration in support of Disraeli in July 1878. During his term as chairman of committees of the assembly in 1880-81, Gaunson was engaged as counsel in defence of Ned Kelly and was prominent in arranging the mass meeting and petition in support of clemency. In July 1881 when he was appointed minister of lands in the stopgap O'Loghlen-Bent government, his outraged constituents rejected him in the ministerial election.

'Endowed with a musical voice, good presence, fine flow of language, great quickness of mind, readiness of retort and a good deal of industry, ability and humour, he was only disqualified from marked successes by his utter instability, egregious egotism, want of consistency and violence of temper'. Deakin's description appears to be, for him, unusually charitable. As member for Emerald Hill from October 1883 to March 1889, Gaunson made an appalling reputation for himself as the most unruly member and was regarded with pity or contempt by most members. He allied himself with the small opposition group led by Bent in which Charles Jones was also conspicuous for almost constant obstructionism. In the 1887 session Gaunson spoke 308 times, often for several hours. He was legal adviser to Madame Brussels, keeper of Melbourne's most famous brothel, and to the Licensed Victuallers' Association. As one of the liquor industry's chief parliamentary spokesmen he appeared to overdo his maxim that a man should get drunk once a month for his health's sake. He was accused of accepting money to represent the interests of private individuals in parliament. He also had links with the railwaymen's trade union and often made vicious attacks on Richard Speight, chairman of the railways commission.

From 1889 Gaunson formed legal partnerships in turn with J. Wallace, Francis Cumbrae-Stewart and A. McG. Lonie. In the mid-1890s John Wren, financier and gambling entrepreneur, became one of his clients. The association is depicted in Frank Hardy's novel, Power without Glory, in which 'Garside' shows much similarity to Gaunson. He once boasted that he had cheated Pentridge of more deserving tenants than any other practitioner in Victoria. In 1903 he presided over a public meeting in Melbourne addressed by the visiting John Norton. In June 1904 Gaunson returned to politics and was successful as Labor candidate for the public servants who briefly had separate representation. He had not been a member of the Labor Party but signed the platform; almost immediately he left the party in order to support his old friend Bent, who was premier.

On 28 July 1875 Gaunson married Margaret McLeod Scott; they had two sons and two daughters. His brother William, who survived him, had been prominent in the 1870s in the Australian Natives' Association and in politics, although he was never elected to parliament. Gaunson had been a church organist in his youth, but he abandoned churchgoing and stated that he worshipped God according to his conscience. He died at Camberwell on 2 January 1909. Bent and Wren were among his pallbearers.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Deakin, The Crisis in Victorian Politics, 1879-1881, J. A. La Nauze and R. M. Crawford eds (Melb, 1957)
  • K. Dunstan, Wowsers (Melb, 1968)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1884, 523, 1886, 494
  • Leader (Melbourne), 26 Sept 1888
  • Argus (Melbourne), 2 Mar 1889
  • Bulletin, 7 Jan 1909
  • Labor Call, 7 Jan 1909.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Gaunson, David (1846–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 13 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


19 January, 1846
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


2 January, 1909 (aged 62)
Camberwell, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.