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Poynton, Alexander (Alec) (1853–1935)

by Rob Van Den Hoorn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Alexander Poynton, by T. Humphrey & Co., 1908

Alexander Poynton, by T. Humphrey & Co., 1908

National Library of Australia, 23366724

Alexander Poynton (1853-1935), miner, shearer, stock and station agent and politician, was born on 8 August 1853 at Castlemaine, Victoria, son of Alexander Poynton from Liverpool, England, miner and farmer, and his Irish wife Rosanna, née McFadden. His father took some part in the Eureka rebellion at Ballarat. Educated at Carngham and Captain Kay's schools he left at 14 and worked as miner, shearer and station-hand. On 15 July 1880 he married 17-year-old Harriet Brown at the Free Church of England, Ballarat. He was president of the Amalgamated Miners' Association at Creswick, foundation treasurer of the Amalgamated Shearers' Union in 1886 and afterwards of the Australian Workers' Union.

In 1887 Poynton moved to Port Augusta, South Australia, as A.S.U. organizer and for several years was branch secretary there. This position prepared the way for his entry into politics. In 1890 he stood unsuccessfully for the House of Assembly seat of Newcastle, but in 1893 was elected to the adjacent seat of Flinders which he held until 1901. As an Independent Labor member he attended the United Labor Party caucus meetings without being bound by its decisions, but supported it in divisions. Though his platform was that of the U.L.P., he emphasized local issues such as irrigation, a land tax exempting farmers, the extension of pastoral settlement and a poll-tax on camels.

While a strong advocate of many of Premier Kingston's programmes, he quickly developed an intense interest in pastoral issues. His position on land-settlement reforms did not always endear him to his Labor colleagues, and his arguments for giving pastoralists secure tenure at a nominal rent were a signal to those who thought his 'independence' a mere label. By 1899, however, disaffection with Kingston led him to cross the floor with four others to defeat his ministry, citing Kingston's overbearing nature and his tardiness in implementing adequate land reforms as motives. His actions earned him a place in the Solomon government, which lasted only eight days, as commissioner of crown lands.

Poynton's decisive role in ousting Kingston lost him many friends in the U.L.P. and he was expelled from the A.W.U. When he was returned in the block vote for South Australia to the Federal House of Representatives in 1901 it was as a candidate for the conservative Australasian National League. But in 1902 he became a pledged Labor member, and in 1903 was the candidate for the huge electorate of Grey which he held until 1922. His interest in pastoral matters continued and he was a member of the royal commission on stripper harvesters in 1909. In 1910-13 Poynton was chairman of committees. From 1903 he had been a partner in the Adelaide land agency, Poynton & Claxton.

In 1911 Poynton travelled with colleagues Batchelor, Fisher and Pearce on a fact-finding tour of Canada, the United States of America and England. He later published a small collection of letters to his wife during this trip. My Travels Around the World (Adelaide, 1912) is an entertaining, albeit earnest, account of his impressions of workers' conditions and the fortunes of labour in politics that confirms his genuine concern for the condition of working people.

During World War I Poynton was a strong supporter of W. M. Hughes's campaign for conscription, using the analogy of the success of Labor's other compulsory elements, such as the pledge. The death of a son, who had fought in the South African War, and another in World War I, no doubt strengthened his belief that 'other men's sons' should go. In November 1916, in agreement with his old A.M.A. and A.S.U. colleague W. G. Spence, he followed Hughes out of the caucus meeting that split the party over the issue. In 1917-18 he was a member of the Federal parliamentary recruiting committee.

Poynton was treasurer for two months in Hughes's brief National Labor government, resigning in favour of Sir John Forrest on the formation of the National Party government. He was then acting minister for the navy (1918-19), minister in charge of shipping (1918-20), and assistant minister for repatriation (1919). In 1920-21 he was minister for home and territories, then postmaster general from December 1921 to February 1923. He was defeated at the December 1922 election. He had been appointed O.B.E. in 1920.

Stocky and red-cheeked, Poynton was a formidable veteran politician, able and well-prepared as a minister, and frequently a 'fiery, snappy individual'. He died on 9 January 1935 at Toorak Gardens, Adelaide, and was buried in North Road cemetery. His wife, a son and four daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess, Cyclopedia of South Australia (Adel, 1907, 1909)
  • J. B. Hirst, Adelaide and the Country, 1870-1917 (Melb, 1973)
  • P. Loveday et al (eds), The Emergence of the Australian Party System (Syd, 1977)
  • British Australasian, 18 Jan 1917
  • Punch (Melbourne), 11 Aug 1910
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 7 Aug 1914, 10 Jan 1935
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Jan 1935.

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Citation details

Rob Van Den Hoorn, 'Poynton, Alexander (Alec) (1853–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 18 May 2021.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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