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Samuel Merrifield (1904–1982)

by Peter Love

This article was published:

Samuel Merrifield, 1951

Samuel Merrifield, 1951

State Library of Victoria, H27874

Samuel Merrifield (1904-1982), surveyor and politician, was born on 6 February 1904 at Moonee Ponds, Melbourne, third child of Victorian-born parents William Merrifield, carpenter, and his wife Sarah, née Semmens.  Sam’s education at Moonee Ponds West Primary and Essendon High schools was impeded by hearing difficulties, for which he compensated with voracious, attentive reading.  His self-discipline helped him through a surveying apprenticeship as well as evening classes at Taylor’s College and the Working Men’s College, Melbourne.  Having secured a surveyor’s licence in 1925, he worked as a draftsman and surveyor for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board, the Victorian Forests Commission and the Country Roads Board until his retrenchment in 1931, a casualty of the Depression.

Political radicalism had featured in Merrifield’s family since his grandfather’s involvement in agitation on the Victorian goldfields in 1854.  Sam attended Australian Labor and Socialist party functions in his youth, and at 18 he had joined the Moonee Ponds branch of the ALP.  His bout of unemployment hardened his political resolve, deepening his sympathy for people fallen on hard times.  Always an enthusiastic sportsman, he immersed himself more widely in the sporting and civic affairs of his local community.

After living off his wits, including a period raising poultry, Merrifield returned to paid employment for the Tramways Board (1935-39), the State Electricity Commission (1940), and from 1940 the Commonwealth Department of the Interior, where he applied his drafting, surveying and broad engineering skills with customary precision and diligence.  On 7 March 1936 at the Ascot Vale Congregational Church he married Margaret Lillian (Lil) Smith, a typist.  They had no children.

In June 1943 Merrifield won the Victorian Legislative Assembly seat of Essendon for the ALP and, after an electoral redistribution, successfully contested that of Moonee Ponds in 1945-52.  He gave assiduous attention to his electorate and served on numerous parliamentary committees.  He was vice-president (1947-49) of the State Schools Committees’ Association of Victoria.  Appointed minister for public works in 1952, he tackled increasing demands for the renewal and expansion of public infrastructure.  Facing overcrowding in state schools, for instance, he oversaw the introduction of portable classrooms.

Sparsely-built and quietly-spoken, Merrifield nonetheless was drawn into controversy in 1949 when he was named during the Lowe royal commission into communism in Victoria as a Communist Party of Australia contact in the ALP.  He vigorously denied these allegations, which were never proved, but remained a figure of suspicion for anti-communist campaigners in the ALP.  The flow of preferences to the Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist) saw him defeated in the election that followed the split in the Cain government in April 1955.

Infuriated but outwardly calm, Merrifield was then employed as a surveyor by the Keilor City Council:  he had retained close ties with his profession as president (1946) and fellow (1947-64) of the Victorian Institute of Surveyors.  He also set about rebuilding his political career.  In June 1958 he was elected to the Victorian Legislative Council as the member for Doutta Galla.  As deputy-leader of the Opposition in the council from 1960 until his retirement in 1970, he won respect for his courteous demeanour and punctilious attention to parliamentary duties.  His favourite appointment was to the Parliamentary Library committee, which allowed him to indulge a long-standing passion for reading, particularly history.

Always committed to representing 'the underdog', in the early 1960s Merrifield joined Brian Fitzpatrick and others in establishing the Melbourne branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History.  Building on his substantial and constantly growing collection of historical material on the Australian labour movement, in 1964 he launched the Recordera newsletter that became the starting point for many researchers who found their way to his increasingly cluttered house and garage at Moonee Ponds.  After his retirement it became his principal interest, along with his founding membership of the Essendon Historical Society and service to the local library.  In 1971 the ASSLH conferred on him its second life membership (Fitzpatrick was the first) and in 1973 Monash University awarded him an honorary doctorate of letters, recognising his contribution to the field.

Lil Merrifield, who had devotedly supported her husband, died in 1978; Sam soon commenced donating his library and papers to the La Trobe Library.  His dedication to his community, including fifteen years as president of the Essendon District Football League and twenty-six years on the Essendon Hospital committee, was widely recognised.  He died on 24 August 1982 at Parkville, Melbourne, and was cremated.  In 1983 the Essendon Public Library was named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Murray, The Split (1970)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 7 September 1982, p 2
  • Labour History, no 20, 1971, p 74, no 44, 1983, p 113
  • Australian Builder, April 1955, p 249
  • Herald (Melbourne), 15 May 1973, p 42
  • Essendon Gazette, 30 June 1982, p 6, 1 September 1982, p 1, 23 February 1983, p 10

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Love, 'Merrifield, Samuel (1904–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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