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William Shiels (1847–1904)

by Geoffrey Serle

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William Shiels (1848-1904), by unknown engraver, 1892

William Shiels (1848-1904), by unknown engraver, 1892

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN01/03/92/17

William Shiels (1848-1904), premier and lawyer, was born on 2 December 1847 at Maghera, Derry, Ireland, son of Robert Shiels, farmer, and his wife Patricia Sarah, née Kelly. The family migrated to Melbourne late in 1854 but Robert died five weeks after arrival and in 1857 Patricia married William Dickens. Later in life Shiels warmly acknowledged the 'life-long sacrifices and devotion' of his mother. From 1862 he attended Scotch College, where he was 'a great reader and admirer of Parliamentary oratory', and matriculated in 1866. At the University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1873), in his second year he won first-class honours and the exhibition in law and history, and in later years prizes for an essay on 'The crown of Demosthenes' and for a translation of a poem by Goethe. His final years were academically undistinguished, but the ill health which dogged his life had led him to delay his course overall for three years. He was admitted to the Bar in 1873.

Shiels was considerably influenced by the teaching of W. E. Hearn and the liberal Charles Pearson and by the example of George Higinbotham. He had also spent considerable time over the South Australian border as a tutor, a period he considered the happiest of his life, exulting in riding and playing cricket. He became closely attached to John Robertson (1809-1880), a pastoralist of Struan House, Naracoorte, whose 27-year-old daughter Jane he was to marry there on 6 May 1885; they settled at Summerland House, St Kilda. Shiels's practice of law had been sporadic but he came to specialize as an executor of estates, including Robertson's, in the border districts; his wife had an independent income.

In 1877 Shiels stood unsuccessfully for pastoral Normanby (the Hamilton, Coleraine and Casterton district) in the Legislative Assembly as a 'Constitutionalist' supporter of James Service. He was elected in 1880 and in his maiden speech pleaded for an end to the bitterness of the previous session. He increasingly allied himself with Robert Murray Smith, warmly aided Pearson in the campaign to open the Public Library of Victoria and the museums on Sundays, and supported Rev. Charles Strong in his conflict with the Presbyterian Church.

Shiels made his mark as a proponent of women's rights. In 1883, supported by Pearson and Hearn, as a private member he carried an amendment to the Marriage and Matrimonial Causes Act providing, in cases of divorce, for mothers' custody of the children. His exhaustive analysis, while still a bachelor, of the married condition caused some ribaldry; he was clearly acting on behalf of an unidentified group of women. Harriet Dugdale commented: 'It is fortunate for manhood's honour that such men … are endeavouring … to raise woman to the position of a human being'. With Hearn again, he drafted liberal amendments to the Married Women's Property Act which the government adopted (1884). In 1887 he carried an amendment to the law of slander to cover accusations of adultery against married, or of unchastity against single, women. He supported equal pay for female teachers.

He rose to fame as the sponsor of divorce reform. In 1887 the New South Wales parliament passed a bill which greatly widened the grounds for divorce; the Imperial government refused its assent. That year as a private member Shiels took a similar bill past the second-reading stage but, for tactical reasons, did not proceed further. The governments of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia then agreed to make the issue one of self-government and to make a test case of a Victorian bill. In 1889 Shiels carried his bill—he would have liked to go much further—through both Houses, with large majorities despite bitter opposition from the Churches. Backed vehemently by colonial leaders, especially Sir Alfred Stephen and Pearson, early in 1890 he visited London to press the cause. The Imperial cabinet reluctantly gave way and 'the Shiels Divorce Act' was proclaimed, clearing the way for the other colonies.

An old-fashioned orator, Shiels wrote out and memorized eloquent speeches of great length, with frequent literary allusions and occasional use of Greek as well as Latin. He was a good and amusing enough speaker to maintain general interest and popularity in the assembly, especially as he enjoyed provoking good-humoured conflict. (Sir) Frederic Eggleston described him as 'a really great Parliamentary orator, but just a little too florid … full of fine phrases and happy epigrams, but his voice was harsh, his delivery awkward … But he could make a budget exciting, and he had a strain of patriotism … his speeches thrill anyone who loves Australia'.

In 1886 Shiels had immediately placed himself in opposition to the reconstituted coalition Gillies-Deakin ministry. Over the next four years he was a constant critic of boom extravagance, especially railway building; his attack on Gillies' 1889 budget was scathing. His visit to England and his tact as a negotiator increased his stature as did his criticism in August 1890 of the government's crazy proposals for further railway extensions, to which Deakin replied—an oratorical duel on which they congratulated each other.

Thus when the government finally collapsed on 30 October and James Munro, at the command of David Syme of the Age, became premier, Shiels was a natural choice as attorney-general and minister of railways. In March 1891 he briefly attended the National Australasian Convention in Sydney as a substitute for (Sir) Henry Wrixon. His time as minister was largely occupied in conflict with the defiant Richard Speight and the other railway commissioners, especially over the railways deficit. By September Shiels was exhausted and took a break for several weeks. His amendments to the Railways Act, passed in December, marked some shift back to political control.

By then it was clear that Munro had to go—both his colleagues and Syme had had enough of him—and Shiels became premier on 16 February 1892. The railway commissioners were suspended on 17 March for refusal to accept ministerial direction. At Casterton he made a famous policy speech in which the oratory did not outweigh the reasoning. The election on 20 April was a triumph: Shiels won 58 seats, the conservatives 28 and Labor (which had been supporting the government) only 11 at its first sustained attempt. Sir Graham Berry, the senior statesman, was called in as treasurer to restore the colony's tottering finances, but his budget was weak and futile. The energy and long hours Shiels put in (he was a 5.30 riser, usually at his desk by 7.30) could not arrest decline into deep economic depression. It was only a matter of time before a combination was found to remove him. By November he had decided to resign, but hung on into 1893. He had been strongly criticized, as attorney-general, for not bringing charges of scandalous fraud against many of the boomers, but he insisted on Munro returning from London to face charges and in the last days of the ministry, after a series of cabinet meetings, brought to trial the directors of the Mercantile Bank. Almost his last action as premier was to provide a post for his impoverished mentor Pearson as secretary to the agent-general in London. On 18 January 1893 a vote of no confidence was carried and (Sir) James Patterson was given the hopeless task of government.

About 1893 a heart condition—aneurysm of the aorta—was diagnosed and for several years Shiels attended parliament irregularly. In September 1896 his symptoms were such that he believed he was on the point of dying.

Shiels always referred to himself as a liberal—but a liberal free trader had a hard row to hoe in Victorian politics. He was a standard traditional liberal in his fear of 'despotic power being lodged in the hands of any individual or any Government', in his aversion to 'mollycoddling' by the state and his zeal to protect the Chinese in Australia from tyranny. However, he approximated to the 'Continental anti-clerical Liberal' in his views on ecclesiasticism and divorce. He had a touch also of a more modern intellectual liberalism in his contempt for the 'caste of wealth', his fears of plutocracy, his distaste for the 'abominable snobbism' associated with Government House and for the 'slobber' in J. A. Froude's Oceania. He rejoiced in the 'gloriously happy lot' of the working class and supported 'a wider distribution of wealth'; on his return from England in 1890 he was 'prouder than ever [of] the general affluence of all classes here' contrasted with the bitter struggle for existence of millions in Britain.

In 1893, sobered, he remarked: 'We are our brother's keeper, and the State … owes a duty to those whom … we have shut out from their natural opportunities'; he was glad liberalism was getting away from laissez-faire and quoted Tolstoy's remark about doing anything to help the poor except getting off their backs. He had opposed 'one man, one vote' in 1888, but supported it throughout the 1890s as well as the female suffrage. Yet his final political flurry was of a pronouncedly conservative kind.

Regarded as a 'back number', Shiels surprised many when late in 1899, with other disaffected liberals, he worked closely with Allan McLean to overthrow the Turner ministry. 'Equal in all things' with McLean, he became treasurer for a year from 5 December, making a four-hour budget speech. The government produced little important legislation and was thrashed by Turner's Liberals at the November 1900 election.

Under pressure of severe drought and the Kyabram reform movement demanding basic economies, Turner's successor Sir Alexander Peacock foundered in June 1902. (Sir) William 'Iceberg' Irvine, whom Shiels had gathered for the McLean ministry, took office with Shiels as treasurer, minister of railways and chief confidant. He made his long budget speech sitting, fortified by a flask of whisky and a bottle of champagne: the government won a sweeping electoral victory on 1 October on the basis of drastic proposals for economy. It then easily forced through major salary-cuts and retrenchments for public servants, including railwaymen, and increased income taxation, thereby greatly strengthening State finances and preserving funds for development. It also reduced the number of members of both Houses, while foolishly confining public servants to separate electorates (repealed 1906), but failed to persuade the Legislative Council to accept any but cosmetic reform of its constitution or to allow female suffrage. Irvine and Shiels then ruthlessly suppressed the desperate railways strike of May 1903. Shiels retired as treasurer on 21 July but remained minister of railways.

For much of the last year of his life Shiels was laid up with angina at Struan House, often in a wheelchair, often in agony. He left the ministry on 16 February 1904 (when Irvine also retired in ill health) and did not contest the June election. Survived by his wife, two daughters and a son, he died on 17 December 1904 and was buried at Struan House.

Shiels was tall, lean, prematurely bald and grey. Chivalrous, cordial, widely popular, he led an impeccable private and family life. His erratic political career never came to creative fruition, for he was premier and treasurer only in times of financial crisis. He is an interesting example of the intellectual in politics, comparable with Higinbotham, Pearson and Deakin. Eggleston considered him brilliant, with 'every intellectual gift, but … no command of men … a little too good and not quite strong enough for men who would never let him lead them'. Shiels's protégé Irvine must be allowed the last word. He was courageous, kindly and just; incomparable as a financier, he could make figures live and move before an audience.

Too proud to sue for any man's good opinion, he sometimes permitted a misunderstanding to continue … when he could have removed it by a few words of explanation. If this was a fault, it was the fault of a lofty mind, impatient of mean motives and of suspicious natures. He had enemies, as was inevitable for such a man; but [he made] the most liberal of allowances for the conduct and attitudes of those most bitterly opposed to him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis (Melb, 1888)
  • H. G. Turner, A History of the Colony of Victoria (Lond, 1904)
  • History of Scotch College, Melbourne, 1851-1925 (Melb, 1926)
  • B. Hoare, Looking Back Gaily (Melb, 1927)
  • E. H. Sugden and F. W. Eggleston, George Swinburne (Syd, 1931)
  • T. Waters, Much Besides Music (Melb, 1951)
  • J. M. Tregenza, Professor of Democracy (Melb, 1968)
  • M. Cannon (ed), Victoria's Representative Men at Home (Melb, 1977)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1883, p 716, 1887, p 2147, 1890, p 1196, 1891, p 504
  • Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1891, 1 (16), Correspondence between minister of railways and the railways commissioners
  • Age (Melbourne), 10 Sept 1883, 21 Mar 1892, 19 Dec 1904
  • Argus (Melbourne), 26 Apr, 22 Aug 1890, 21 Mar, 21 Apr 1892, 19 Dec 1904
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 17 July 1891
  • Naracoorte Herald, 20 Dec 1904
  • S. M. Ingham, Some Aspects of Victorian Liberalism (M.A. thesis, 1950)
  • M. Rutledge, Sir Alfred Stephen and Divorce Law Reform in New South Wales, 1886-1892 (M.A. thesis, Australian National University, 1966)
  • K. Rollison, Groups and Attitudes in the Victorian Legislative Assembly 1900-1909 (Ph.D. thesis, La Trobe University, 1972)
  • Premier's telegram book and private letter book, 1892 (Public Record Office Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Shiels, William (1847–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Shiels (1848-1904), by unknown engraver, 1892

William Shiels (1848-1904), by unknown engraver, 1892

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN01/03/92/17

Life Summary [details]


2 December, 1847
Maghera, Londonderry, Ireland


17 December, 1904 (aged 57)

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