Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas Edward Spencer (1845–1911)

by David Headon

This article was published:

Thomas Edward Spencer (1845-1911), building contractor, industrial arbitrator and writer, was born on 30 December 1845 at Hoxton Old Town, London, son of Daniel O'Brien, cabinetmaker, and his wife Ann, née Coulthard. In 1863 Thomas visited the Victorian goldfields with a brother, only to return disappointed to London a year later. He had shed his patronymic by the time he married Jane Harriett Strew on 21 November 1869 in the parish church, Hackney. A stonemason by trade, at 24 he became vice-president of the Stonemasons' Society of London; he helped its president Henry Broadhurst to settle industrial disputes.

Migrating to Sydney in 1875, Spencer set up as a building contractor. As a skilled and reliable craftsman, he won government contracts for work on Goulburn gaol, the University of Sydney's physics laboratory and the sewerage system in Sydney. His wife died in 1880, leaving a 7-year-old son; on 6 April 1882 at Goulburn Spencer married Sarah Ann Christie with Wesleyan forms.

Defeated for the Legislative Assembly seat of Ashburnham in 1894, Spencer entered the tough political arena of industrial arbitration. In 1907 he was appointed employers' representative in the Court of Arbitration under Judge C. G. Heydon and, after the court's reorganization in 1909, presided over some thirty wages boards. Spencer's services were sought by both sides owing to his 'ever-wakeful instinct for fair play'. An active Freemason and a member of Leinster Marine Lodge, he helped to negotiate the formation of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales in 1888. Deputy grand master in 1894-96, he was a complimentary past grand master and a leading member of Leinster Marine Royal Arch Chapter of Ireland and of the New South Wales Masonic Club.

In his leisure Spencer 'reeled off a large amount of prose and verse of wildly humorous order'. He began contributing to the Bulletin in 1891. J. F. Archibald told him: 'Your verses blew into the office like a whiff from the bush. It was a pleasure to read some lines which did not contain wattle and dead men'. Spencer published two collections of verse, How McDougall Topped the Score (1906) and Budgeree Ballads (1908): the ballads were reprinted in 1910 as Why Doherty Died because people 'associated the word “Budgeree” with a swear word'. His collections of humorous sketches mostly involved the garrulous Irish-Australian Mrs Bridget McSweeney: The Surprising Adventures of Mrs. Bridget McSweeney (1906), A Spring Cleaning and Other Stories (1908), The Haunted Shanty (1910) and That Droll Lady (1911). Spencer's novel, Bindawalla (1912), was published posthumously. All his books appeared in A. C. Rowlandson's New South Wales Bookstall Co.'s shilling series, went through many impressions and sold extremely well.

In more serious vein he exposed preachers of 'socialistic rot' ('Latter day patriots'), pragmatic politicians ('The political dead-beat') and dishonest builders ('Suburban Simplicity'). A few of his breezy, rollicking ballads ('How McDougall Topped the Score' and 'O'Toole and McSharry') are still popular school recitation pieces. Spencer died on 6 May 1911 of heart disease and chronic bronchitis at his Glebe Point home and was buried with full Masonic rites in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery. His wife and their two sons and two daughters survived him, as did the son of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 8 May 1911
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8, 9 May 1911
  • Town and Country Journal, 10 May 1911
  • Australian Worker, 11 May 1911
  • Bulletin, 11, 18, 25 May 1911.

Citation details

David Headon, 'Spencer, Thomas Edward (1845–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • O'Brien, Thomas Edward

30 December, 1845
London, Middlesex, England


6 May, 1911 (aged 65)
Glebe, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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