PRICE, Thomas (1852-1909)


PRICE, Thomas (1852-1909)
first Labour premier of South Australia
son of a stone mason, was born at Brymbo near Wrexham, North Wales, on 19 January 1852. The family moved to Liverpool where he was educated at the St George's Church of England penny school. At nine years of age he began to work at his father's trade, and at 10 was practically supporting himself. At 16 he was a Sunday-school teacher and a political student. Three years later he completed his apprenticeship, and soon afterwards joined his father in contracting for work on their own account. The family had passed through hard times but was now, comparatively speaking, prosperous. Price married Anne Lloyd on 14 April 1881 and found a worthy helpmate. He was now as a contractor paying £60 a week in wages and was beginning to save money. But his health unfortunately broke down, and being advised to seek a warmer climate, he sailed for Australia with his wife and child and arrived at Port Adelaide in May 1883.
Price had paid the passages out himself and when he arrived found that there was a good deal of unemployment in Adelaide and comparatively little of his money remained. When he did obtain work he quickly showed his ability as a workman, and not the least interesting thing was that he cut many of the stones for the parliament house in which he was subsequently premier. He became clerk of works and foreman at the workshops built at Islington for the railway department, and was able to show that it was possible to do work of this kind by day labour cheaper than by tender. In private life he continued his church work, took up temperance reform, joined literary and debating societies, and was particularly active in connexion with the newly-forming trade unions. In 1891, during the election campaign, he made a most successful speech in place of the advertised speaker who by some accident was unable to appear. Two years later he was selected as a Labour candidate for parliament. He had the advantage of living in the district and headed the poll by the narrow margin of one vote.
In his early days in parliament Price was looked upon by his opponents as a dangerous man. He then had little finesse, he was full of the wrongs of downtrodden people, and no doubt appeared to some as merely a dangerous demagogue. That was far from his real character, and in later years, while in no way sacrificing his principles, he became more temperate in the expression of them. Early in his career in parliament he had a great triumph. The Kingston government had introduced a factories bill and parties were so equally divided that one vote would turn the scale. When Price spoke he exhibited samples of work done by women, and spoke with such feeling of their hours of work and miserable pay, that immediately he finished his speech the minister in charge had the question put, G. C. Hawker (q.v.) crossed the floor from the opposition, and the bill was passed. In 1901 he became leader of the Labour party, then very small in number, and in July 1905 premier of a coalition government with a majority of Labour members, taking also the portfolios of commissioner of public works and minister of education. He was never afraid to tackle difficult problems and used much tact and skill in passing a tramway bill and in advancing the principle of wages boards. He grappled with the Murray waters difficulty and set in train the transfer to the Commonwealth of the Northern Territory, long a burden to South Australia. In 1908 he visited England, and had a remarkable send off. In England he met many important people including the royal family and politicians of all parties, and lost no opportunity of forwarding the cause of Australia. Soon after his return he showed signs of ill-health and died on 31 May 1909 amid universal regret. He was survived by his wife, four sons and three daughters.
Price was a man of medium height and build, keen-eyed and strong chinned. He was simple in manner, fond of a joke, and had great common sense, sagacity and energy. As a speaker, in spite of occasional slight lapses in grammar and pronunciation, he was most effective, and the stress of his emotion and sincerity grew into real eloquence. In his early days necessarily partisan, and often impetuous, he afterwards became a leader with the outlook of a statesman, thoroughly realizing that legislation must aim at the good of the whole community.
Price's eldest son, John Lloyd Price (1882-1941) educated at Adelaide, was in the South Australian public service from 1898 to 1915. He was M.H.A. for Port Adelaide from 1915 to 1925, agent-general for South Australia in London, 1925 to 1928, and M.H.R. for Boothby from 1928 until his death on 22 April 1941. He was secretary to the federal parliamentary Labour party from October 1929 to March 1931, when he resigned and followed Lyons (q.v.) when he left the Scullin ministry. Price then became secretary to the Independent Australian party, and later secretary of the United Australia party. He was survived by a son and a daughter.
T. H. Smeaton, From Stone Cutter to Premier; The Register, Adelaide, 1 June 1909; The Herald, Melbourne, 23 April 1941; Commonwealth Parliamentary Handbook, 1938.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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