SHIELS, William (1849-1904)


SHIELS, William (1849-1904)
premier of Victoria
was born in Ireland in 1849. He came to Australia with his parents when about four years old, and was educated at the Scotch College, Melbourne, and the university of Melbourne.. He had a brilliant course at the university, graduated LL.B. in 1873, and after a short period as a private tutor in South Australia, was called to the Victorian bar in the same year. He practised for about 10 years, but though a capable lawyer had only moderate success. He stood for the Normanby division of the Victorian legislative assembly in 1877 but was defeated. He, however, won this seat in 1880, and held it until his retirement from politics about a year before his death. In his first parliament he was selected to move the address in reply, and made the most brilliant maiden speech that had been heard for many years. From the beginning he advocated economy and moderation in national expenditure and taxation, and while in opposition to the Service (q.v.) and Gillies (q.v.) ministries made vigorous and forceful speeches against the extravagant expenditure of the times. In 1889 as a private member he brought in a bill to amend the divorce laws, afterwards known as the Shiels divorce act, and in spite of great opposition succeeded in carrying it. The royal assent had been refused to a somewhat similar act passed in New South Wales, and Shiels therefore went to London and succeeded in getting the Salisbury government to recommend that assent should be given.
On 5 November 1890 Shiels became attorney-general and minister of railways in the Munro (q.v.) ministry, and when Munro went to London as agent-general, Shiels became premier and treasurer in the reconstructed government on 16 February 1892. He made a remarkable policy speech, but the colony was in the midst of a financial crisis, and Shiels's health, which had never been good, felt the strain. He transferred the treasurership to Berry (q.v.) at the end of April, and became attorney-general. Shiels retrenched and did what was possible to keep the government going on sound financial lines, but it was beset with difficulties and was defeated in January 1893. Shiels was in opposition until December 1899, when he joined the McLean (q.v.) ministry as treasurer and held office until November 1900. His health compelled his frequent absence from debates, but he was still a power in the house, and his speech against the proposal of the Peacock (q.v.) government that there should be a convention to consider the reform of the Victorian parliament, was largely responsible for it being laid aside. On 10 June 1902 he became treasurer in the Irvine government, but a few weeks later gave up this portfolio to become minister of railways. When this government resigned in February 1904 Shiels's health had become so bad that he was compelled to retire from politics. He went to live in the country in South Australia and died on 17 December 1904. He married Jennie, daughter of John Robertson, who survived him with three daughters and a son.
Shiels suffered from an affection of the heart and was often in much pain. It was only by exercising great care that he was able to be in political life for so long, and he was frequently obliged to make his speeches while sitting down. He was one of the most interesting figures in the house, able, high-minded and chivalrous, but possibly more often winning the respect rather than the affection of other members. The last of the old school of orators, a coiner of picturesque phrases, a master of literary allusion, his speeches were singularly effective and had much influence on the legislation of his time.
The Argus, The Age and The Herald, Melbourne, 19 December 1904; H. G. Turner, A History of the Colony of Victoria.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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