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Wallace Alexander Nelson (1856–1943)

by Jill Roe

This article was published:

Wallace Alexander Nelson (1856-1943), journalist, rationalist and politician, was born on 29 April 1856 at Aberdeen, Scotland, son of John Nelson, comb-factory manager, and his wife Jean, née Dow. Self-education rather than schooling seems to have shaped his lively mind. He ran away to London and at 15 contributed republican verse to Reynold's Weekly Newspaper. Revelling in the writings of Darwin, Huxley, Spencer and Bain, he delivered his first lecture, on utilitarianism, in his teens. On 28 December 1877, a journeyman comb-maker, he married Ann Middleton at Aberdeen. In 1880 they went to Sheffield, where the diminutive Nelson (4 ft 8 ins (142 cm) tall) was an energetic freethought lecturer from 1883. A member of the Radical Party he associated with socialist luminaries, including William Morris and Edward Carpenter.

Fearing himself 'a dying man', Nelson arrived at Brisbane early in 1888. He was an instant success on Australasian freethought platforms alongside Joseph Symes, Thomas Walker and W. W. Collins, lecturing regularly at Brisbane's Gaiety Theatre and debating with all-comers. Restored to health, he became editor of the Stockwhip in 1890, encouraged perhaps by William Lane whom he admired but opposed.

After bungled attempts at parliamentary candidature for Gregory (1893) and Musgrave (1896), Nelson succeeded James Charles Stewart in 1896 as editor of the Rockhampton crusading weekly, the People's Newspaper, of which William Kidston was a proprietor. Having opposed Federation, Nelson became its ardent advocate, contesting the Federal seat of Capricornia for Labor in 1901. Zeal and wit brought the pro-Boer 'fearless Freedom fighter', campaigning against Kanaka labour, to within 160 votes of return.

In July 1901 he arrived at Kalgoorlie to succeed Thomas Henry Bath as editor of the Westralian Worker. Finding employment by trade unionists less than 'unsullied joy', he resigned in December 1902, editing thereafter the Kalgoorlie Sun and the unsuccessful Labor-backed Figaro. In June 1904–October 1905 Nelson represented the new goldfields constituency of Hannans while the first Western Australian Labor government was in office. His gifts were appreciated in parliament, but political life proved uncongenial and he did not seek re-election. In association with Bath he edited the short-lived Perth Democrat (1905), then was leader-writer for the Perth Daily News. On 19 May 1908 he was declared bankrupt. Undaunted, he vigorously defended his adopted land, 'the freest democracy in the world', in Foster Fraser's Fallacies and Other Australian Essays (Sydney, 1910), and contributed to the Perth literary journal, Leeuwin. Appointed official immigration lecturer by the Western Australian government, Nelson while in England in 1914-16 represented several Australian newspapers.

He returned to Sydney, an anti-conscriptionist, as founding editor of the Australasian Manufacturer until 1943, ably assisted by his journalist second wife Nora Claire, née Cleary, a 29-year-old Catholic from Beechworth, Victoria, whom he married in Sydney on 21 January 1918. The paper, later subtitled 'A Weekly Newspaper devoted to Industrial Science and Efficiency', urged organization and modernization. The themes of protection and harmony between capital and labour were elaborated in Letters to John Workman (Sydney, 1919), and in his favourite column, 'After Business Hours', Nelson added literary whimsy to trade information. By the 1920s he felt Labor had lost its way, and his late-Victorian evolutionary optimism focused on ability. This progression was far from atypical, and it seems to have earned him few enemies.

Supporting economic nationalism as vigorously as he had once supported political nationalism, Nelson co-founded the Australia-Made Preference League (1924) and was official lecturer on the 'Great White Train' which toured New South Wales between November 1925 and May 1926. He contributed frequent articles to the Sydney Morning Herald after 1926.

Survived by his wife and two children of his first marriage, Nelson died on 5 May 1943 at Wollstonecraft, and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at £862. 'Known and admired throughout the whole of Australia', Nelson was saluted by the Rationalist as the last of a band of stalwarts who 'never wavered in opposition to superstition'.

Select Bibliography

  • H. J. Gibbney (compiler), Labor in Print (Canb, 1975)
  • E. Royle, Radicals, Secularists and Republicans (Manchester, Eng, 1980)
  • Australian Manufacturer, 15, 22 May, 10 July 1943
  • Rationalist, 19, no 10, June 1943
  • Australian Worker, 6 Apr 1901
  • Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 6 Sept 1957.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jill Roe, 'Nelson, Wallace Alexander (1856–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


29 April, 1856
Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scotland


5 May, 1943 (aged 87)
Wollstonecraft, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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