William Guthrie Spence
William Guthrie Spence, born in Scotland 1846, from the Island of Eday, Orkney, arrived in Creswick with his parents in 1853 at approximately 6 years of age. Spence recalled that as a child he witnessed the Eureke Rebellion and it had a profound impact on him, being a deeply influential experience in his life. Spence was employed as butcher, and part-time shearer. At 14 years of age Spence became a miner. As quoted in the book written by Spence in 1909, "Australia's Awakening, Thirty Years in the Life of an Australian Agitator". Spence states that "there was no life more free and independent than that of the gold digger." Whilst in the mining industry he became dissatisfied with miners working conditions and pay. In 1874 he organised the Creswick Miners' Association, becoming its first secretary, and became secretary of the Amalgamated Shearers' Union of Australasia.
Spence was an active member in the communities of Cresiwck and Clunes. As a man of strong evangelical Christian faith Spence was heavily involved in the Creswick Presbyterian Church and other protestant churches. During the 1880's Spence was a preacher with the Primitive Methodists and the Bible Christians. It has been purported that Spence's involvement in public service and union activities originated from his Christian faith. Spence participated in numerous Creswick community activities. He was a prominent in the debating society, a borough councilor from 1884 and a justice of the peace from 1888. Spence was a member of the militia and a leading temperance advocate.
Unionism and Politics
William Guthrie Spence was the principal founder in 1894 of the colony-wide Australian Workers' Union (AWU), of which he was the general secretary from 1894 to 1898 and president from 1898 to 1917. Spence moved from Creswick to Sydney in 1895, and worked for The Labor Party. Spence was elected to the Federal Parliament.
He died at Terang, Vic, not far from Creswick, on 13 December 1926.
"Spence is best known as the greatest union organiser in Australian history"
In the News
- AUSTRALIA'S oldest and largest union was born in a Ballarat pub in 1886. Union organiser William Spence and firebrand shearer David Temple, 24, mounted a campaign against pastoralists who had cut the shearers' pay from 20 shillings per 100 sheep to 17 shillings and sixpence. Responding to an advertisement in the local paper, 40 shearers signed up for the new shearers' union, which was to become the Australian Workers Union.
- Two other AWU members, Beaconsfield miners Todd Russell and Brant Webb, have become the focus of a new union campaign, 120 years later.
- From Beaconsfield to Eureka, via New York, they came to Ballarat yesterday to lead a rally of more than 100 union members celebrating the AWU's anniversary.
- Behind them was the Ballarat University pipe band and a crowd holding aloft scores of blue-and-gold AWU flags.
- As the sun momentarily broke through the overcast sky, the march moved from Ballarat's gold rush-era railway station to the Eight Hour Monument in Sturt Street, passing the site of the now-demolished Fern's Hotel where the union was founded.
- National secretary Bill Shorten told the rally that the AWU had seen off many conservative governments in its 120-year history, and the Howard Government would be next. "We'll be celebrating on election night when there's a change of government and these unfair industrial relations laws are consigned to the dustbin of history," he said.
- Premier Steve Bracks helped unveil a plaque commemorating the anniversary, which includes Henry Lawson's poem about the Eureka Stockade, with the famous line: "If blood should stain the wattle."
- Mr Bracks said the AWU was a cornerstone of Australia's egalitarian way of life and for values that Canberra's workplace laws were now attacking, he said.
- Opposition Leader Kim Beazley said last night that the union's history echoed the story of Australia — "born in struggle and raised to face big challenges".
- ... Vance Palmer in his fascinating "National Portraits" reveals , that one of the first men to see the possibilities of "unionism was W. C. Spence, a young miner of Creswick. As a .mall boy he had listened to Peter Lalor on Bakery Hill and had watched the red coats assemble for their assault on the Stockade.
- Spence subsequently became one of the most prominent union leaders in Australia being responsible for the formation of the Amalgamated Miners' Association and, later, the Amalgamated Shearers' Union.
- It is not too much to suggest that the memory of that, fateful December morning in 1854, which saw the death of 22 diggers and 6 soldiers, had a considerable influence on W. G. Spence and sparked off some of the crusading zeal which carried him through as a great union leader to the equally dynamic period of the 1890's dominated, as they were, by a new surge of social unrest culminating in the big strikes of that decade.
Robert D. Linder, SPENCE, William Guthrie (1846-1926), webjournals.alphacrucis.edu.au, Electronic Version © Southern Cross College, 2004.
Coral Lansbury & Bede Nairn, Australian Dictionary of Biography, accessed 25 November 2011.
William Guthrie Spence, Australia's Awakening, Thirty Years in the Life of an Australian Agitator, The Worker Newspaper Propriety Limited, Brisbane, 1942.