convict parents on 15 July 1846 at Launceston, Tasmania the son of William
Trenwith, a shoemaker and Beatrice née McBarrett; he followed his
father’s trade and by his late teens was unschooled, barely literate and
handicapped with atrocious eyesight. But Trenwith possessed two remarkable
gifts that was to make for a remarkable life: a flair for organising and a sharp oratory tongue. With a loose
coalition of groups that made up the National Reform League he agitated for
protective tariff, a land tax and reform of the Legislative Council; he
fiercely defended the action of (Sir) Graham Berry (Boroondara
Cemetery) in the ‘Black Wednesday’ troubles of January 1878 that saw many
public servants dismissed without distinction including
H. Byron Moore (q.v.). The
following year he founded the Bootmakers’ Union later serving as its
secretary (from 1883) where he gained a reputation as a militant organiser
during the great 1884-85 lockout; he fought for the abolition of out-work to
eliminate cheap labour. By 1886, he was president of the Victorian Trades
Hall Council and a hero in the labour movement but friction remained within
the Executive that would threaten his relationship with the rank and file
members. Later during the 1892 maritime strike he proved a shrewd
strategist but much of the radicalism had gone and he argued for compulsory
arbitration over violence. After a number of attempts to enter the
political arena, Trenwith was elected in May 1889 with George Bennett
(Boroondara Cemetery) to the double-member seat of Richmond (1889-1903)
where he championed the cause of the working class seeking reforms in
education, unemployment and tariff protection that would remain his abiding
obsession throughout his political career. But as the lone labour
representative until April 1892 when an additional thirteen labour-aligned
members were elected, his reforms were ineffective and attempts to introduce
bills for an eight-hour working day were easily defeated; in (Sir) George
Turner’s (St. Kilda Cemetery) Liberal ministry, Trenwith aligned the
support of the labour members and served on royal commissions on
constitutional reform (1894) and factory legislation (1900). But Trenwith’s shift to the
left alienated him from the radicals within the Trades Hall and from the mid
1890s he could no longer rely on the support of the labour movement.
Nonetheless, he served as Minister for Railways, commissioner for Public
Works and vice-president of the Board of Land and Works (Nov 1900-Feb 1901)
in the (Sir Alexander) Peacock (Creswick Cemetery) ministry and
briefly as Chief Secretary (1901-02). Trenwith is best remembered as being
the only Labour representative at the Federal Constitutional Convention
(1897-98) that led to the Federation of the six Australian colonies in
1901. As the sole representative of the working class, Trenwith’s support
of Federation much to the outrage of the labour movement was considered
crucial to the success of the subsequent referendum against the charge by
the powerful Age newspaper that the Bill had been “wholly shaped in a
conservative direction”; he argued passionately at the Convention on the benefits of protection, adult
suffrage, and proportional representation. Alfred Deakin (St. Kilda
Cemetery) wrote of Trenwith: “master of a sledge-hammer style of oratory,
very loud, very forcible and very logical, he softened away its excrescences
of violence, watched and studied the temper of the House and gradually
allowed his way through its crowd of speakers into the front rank of its
debaters”. Trenwith later went on to become an Independent Federal Senator
(1903-10) but committed the fatal sin of withdrawing his support from Andrew
Fischer’s (1862-1928) Labour government and was defeated at the next
election. Residing at Tamar - Staughton Road, South Camberwell he
died on 26 July 1925 survived by his third wife, Helen née Sinclair.
(above) William Trenwith
(By permission of the
Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21399820-35)
ADB Volume 12 1891-1939 (Smy-Z).
Lahey, J., “Faces of Federation. An
Illustrated History” (2000).
Lumsden, D. (ed), “Sands & McDougall’s
Victorian Parliamentary Companion” (1889).
Sayers, C., “David Syme. A Life” (1965).
Deakin, A., “The Federal Story. The Inner
History of the Federal Cause 1880-1900” (1963).
The Argus 26 March 1910, 28 & 29 July 1925.
The Herald 29 July 1925.
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