[Editor: An article about Peter Lalor, who died on 9 February 1889. Published in the “Current notes” section of the Melbourne Punch, 14 February 1889.]
The old lion of Victorian politics turned his face to the wall when the Hon. Peter Lalor died at Richmond on Saturday last.
Peter made more history than most men in a new country. He was a man who in his time played many parts, and most of them conspicuous ones.
He was what would be called in any department of life a strong man. He generally held strong views, and always felt it his duty to press those views, not languidly, as if they were of no importance, but with all the force in his power.
Lalor had very little idea of the shifts and expedients that would evade difficulty. His primary notion always was to crush opposition. It was this overmastering spirit of domination which caused him to walk through the last 35 years of his life shorn of an arm.
Everybody knows the story of the Ballarat Stockade and its tragedy. We can look back to it now and do justice to both sides. There were certainly wrongs and oppressions on the part of the Government; but there was just as certainly rank rebellion against the Queen’s flag in that senseless stockade. A wiser administration would have smoothed the asperities of those degrading “digger hunts.’’ A more patient people would have waited a little longer and gained their ends by constitutional and peaceful agitations. Lalor and his fiery mates “stood to arms,” swore themselves in as rebels, and fell “martyrs” to the cause of the people. It was a bad example to set in the beginning of a self-governing colony; but of course it expedited the reforms by a few years. The “heroes of the Stockade” can be excused, but never commended, by believers in Constitutional Government. They were stung to madness by the oppression of martinets, and they acted like madmen.
And to come down twenty-four years later, we find the same man who organised the rebellion of 1854 organising the violence of “Black Wednesday” in 1878. Peter Lalor was again the strong man for the strongest of measures. He was said to be author of the “suppressed Gazette” that was to have created a revolution by breaking down all the safeguards of order. Cooler heads and calmer counsels prevailed before the final promulgation of this measure, and the milder crime of “Black Wednesday” resulted. It was the dominating over-mastering spirit of the leader of the Ballarat diggers over again. It was an impatience that found it impossible to wait for remedies through constitutional channels. These were the more violent exploits of the hon. Lalor. But they are not those by which he will be thought to have achieved his best fame.
He won his best laurels as Speaker. He certainly brought to the chair of the First Commoner all the imperiousness and decision which had marked him in the two former episodes of his life. He was very much of a tyrant, grim, dangerous and sudden towards one who ventured to play antics in his presence; but he developed a rare impartiality which his enemies had never given him credit for; and which rendered his very despotism tolerable and even respectable.
He was elected in an excited House as a partisan Speaker. He became a rare example of sterling justice in holding the balance of the scales. He ruled a turbulent House with a rod of iron, and so gained the admiration of both sides that, when his time came to retire — compelled to it by the inroads of disease — he was unanimously voted a gratuity of £4000 to make the evening of his days free from the pinchings of poverty.
He has gone – gone on his last journey. The grave has closed over him. But his name and fame belong to the colony. The record of his life is fairer and brighter all through it, from the lustre of his Speakership. We are able to believe and understand, from the rigid rectitude of his rulings in the chair, that a similar purity of motive may have been allied with the actions of his more violent days.
Mr. Lalor’s name will live, and it will certainly live respected.
Melbourne Punch (Melbourne, Vic.), 14 February 1889, p. 97 (first page of that issue)