Australian Dictionary of Biography

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David Temple (1862–1921)

by Clyde Cameron

This article was published:

David Temple (1862-1921), trade unionist, was born on 4 July 1862 at Bald Hills, Creswick, Victoria, one of six children of David Temple, a Scottish-born miner, and his English wife Ellen, née Ogle. Little is known of his early life except that he became a miner and part-time shearer. In April 1886 shearing rates were cut. Provoked by the forfeiture of his earnings, Temple placed notices in the Ballarat Courier and the Star, at his own expense, calling a meeting of shearers on 12 June at Fern's Hotel, Ballarat. He invited W. G. Spence to take the chair, but other meetings were abandoned and Temple's office was closed. Left to his own resources, Temple canvassed shearers on foot from house to house. He wrote regularly to local newspapers and, when shearing began, set off by train for Echuca. From there he carried his swag to Nyang station, owned by (Sir) Simon Fraser who did nothing to impede Temple's efforts to unionize his shed. Within five weeks Temple enrolled 1500 members; he engaged other organizers and, before shearing ended, the union had 8000 members.

In January 1887 the small shearers' unions of Wagga Wagga and Bourke, both in New South Wales, joined with Temple's union to become the Amalgamated Shearers' Union of Australasia (forerunner of the Australian Workers' Union). Temple was elected general secretary and Spence president. Within three years the union was the largest and most effective labour organization in Australia. Temple refused a £50 bonus voted him by a grateful membership in 1889.

Much against Spence's initial wishes, Temple threw the weight of the union behind the 1890 maritime strike. When it failed, he recognized the need for labour to establish its own newspapers and to form a political party. At the 1891 annual conference in Adelaide he moved the historic motion providing for union organization to return Labor candidates at the next general elections. In a call for a 'union of unions', not achieved until 1927, Temple used the example of the Roman fasces to explain the advantages of affiliation with the Victorian Trades and Labor Council.

He resigned the secretaryship in 1897. In 1900 Spence accused him of misappropriating union funds, but, when challenged by Temple, Spence admitted publicly that 'no shortage was ever found in Mr. Temple's account'.

With a deep understanding of the class struggle, Temple followed the endeavours of the Knights of Labor and other American activists. An avid reader of the classic social writers, from Henry George to Karl Marx, he owned a large library and—according to his daughter—occupied most of his spare time in reading. He was 6 ft 2 ins (188 cm) tall with a commanding presence. In retirement he kept a grocery business, but spent the last years of his life clearing postal boxes at Footscray. He regularly gave sweets to poor children in his locality.

Temple died of heart and kidney disease on 27 September 1921 and was buried in the Anglican section of Fawkner cemetery. On 8 April 1891 he had married Jane Bickley Dunn at Creswick. Two daughters survived him. The headquarters of the A.W.U.'s South Australian and New South Wales branches were named after him in 1986.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Merritt, The Making of the AWU (Melb, 1986)
  • Shearers' Record, 8 Mar 1889, 16 Feb 1891
  • Australasian, 12 Jan 1884, 3 Apr 1886
  • Daily Telegraph (Launceston), 23 Feb 1886
  • Tocsin, 17 Oct, 7, 21 Nov, 12 Dec 1901
  • Labor Call, 10 Nov 1910
  • Cameron-Fraser correspondence, 14 July 1980 (privately held)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Clyde Cameron, 'Temple, David (1862–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 23 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]


4 July, 1862
Creswick, Victoria, Australia


27 September, 1921 (aged 59)
Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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