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The Life and Times of Sir George Grey, K.C.B.

Chapter LV. — A Series Of Ovations

page 434

Chapter LV.
A Series Of Ovations.

"Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian knot of it he will unloose,
Familiar as his garter; that, when he speaks,
The-air, acharter'd libertine, is still,
And the mute wonder Inrketh in men's ears,
To steal his sweet and honey'd sentences."

After the dissolution of the Conference on the 9th of April, Sir George Grey spent two months travelling in Australia. His tour was a triumphal progress. Each city through which he passed welcomed him with manifestations of enthusiasm and veneration. He yielded to many of the requests made through influential deputations, and delivered addresses in various centres.

Thousands listened spell-bound to the pathetic vibration of his voice, inculcating the love of justice, the beauty of goodness, the grandeur of a noble life, and eloquently depicting the glorious possibilities which depended on the purposes and actions of the men to whom he spoke. Many of them will never forget his teachings. Some will doubtless follow in his steps, act in the way he has pointed out, and repeat in their lives the influence he exerted upon them.

Convinced that the Federal Bill as passed by the Convention was not calculated to provide for the highest liberty and well-being of the people, Sir George used all the weight of argument to prevent its acceptance. He urged that in proportion as they valued the page 435great privilege of framing their own Constitution held out to them by the Mother Country, so firmly should they resist any half measures. He pointed out that while other nations had only gained such an opportunity after ages and centuries of struggling, and after long and bloody wars, Australia enjoyed it as a free gift. Yet he would advise them to reject Federation, though it was the dearest wish of their hearts, unless it could be obtained under perfectly just and liberal provisions. They had a chance such as came but once in two or three centuries, and never more than once to any nation. Their longing for a Federal Constitution would only make their action more heroic in refusing to accept any form of government but the noblest.

The various deficiencies in the Bill, its conservative and aristocratic tendency, its unjust and unequal provisions for the expression of their views by the great mass of the people, the nominee character of its second legislative chamber, the hard and fast law which declared that the Bill must be accepted or rejected as a whole, were chiefly dwelt on by the "old man eloquent." Leaving the minor questions of commercial interests and expediency, he opposed the draft Constitution on great principles. If it were adopted "by the different states and became binding, he believed the Australian race would hamper itself with a yoke which it might require a century to cast off, during which time the national development would be arrested and dwarfed.

Sir George Grey's Australian tour roused the democratic feeling everywhere. His speeches were like sparks to tinder. The popular sentiments wanted a voice and found it in him. On one question, especially, his arguments carried conviction to the hearts of the majority, and consternation to those of more than one colonial ministry. That question was universal and equal suffrage—one man, one vote.

The constant allusion made by him to the necessity of reform in the voting powers of Australian colonists was severely criticised by many of the leading journals. It was said that he was always dragging in the "One man, one vote" theory, in season and out of season. Very little notice was taken of his arguments at the Convention, and it was asserted that no object would be gained by his advocacy of the movement. And yet, within a few months, the page 436Government of Victoria had the consideration of this question forced upon it, and that of New South Wales was upset upon it.

The marvellous effect which his addresses produced upon the people of Australia was well and graphically summarised by one of the Colonial journals: "In the course of a few short weeks this physically feeble old man, but morally powerful giant, has revolutionised public opinion from one end of Australia to the other. He has imbued a whole people with a vital principle, embodying the noble ideal of the equality of man, 80 deeply has he instilled, and so firmly has he implanted, the principle of 'one man, one vote,' in the sentiment and mind of the masses, that it must for the future be the only basis upon which Australian democracy will consent to any change in the institutions or constitutions of the country. Sir George Grey has advised, nay, ho has implored the people to subordinate every other question to the attainment of this one vital principle of the political equality of all men; and happily for Australia, signs are not wanting that, his advice is being accepted and acted upon."

Sir George Grey's seventy-ninth birthday was memorable. After. an absence of little short of fifty years, he was borne smoothly in a railway carriage into the heart of that beautiful city in South Australia which had been the seat of his government when he laid the foundations of prosperity in that colony. The leading citizens of Adelaide were on the platform to welcome him, some few among the oldest there being able to recall his previous coming among them. Thousands, with tumultuous cheers, thronged the roads by which he drove to the Town Hall.

As he looked upon the handsome buildings, the beautiful gardens, the whole aspect of the town—familiar, yet so changed; as he breathed the invigorating air, and rejoiced in the peculiar glory of the blue skies, what wonder that his heart was overflowing with emotion, that his brain was dizzy, both with the contrast and the likeness of the present to the past. He said he felt like a man who was dreaming, as though the glowing scenes were glorified visions suggested by memories of the past, which would presently fade away. On another occasion he described his feelings as similar to those of a man who had been dead for fifty years, and then had come to life and revisited the scenes of his youth.

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At the Town Hall a more formal welcome was tendered. The front seats in the hall were reserved for those colonists who had been in South Australia, during his government. Some of these old men were visibly affected by the return of their former Governor and the memories it recalled. As Sir George eagerly scanned their faces, and tried to discover the features of the young men he had known half a century before in the venerable countenances before him, his eyes also filled with tears, and his voice was scarcely audible. He spoke very few words, but those broken, unstudied utterances went straight to the hearts of his hearers. He was so overcome with emotion as to be unable to proceed.

In the evening a banquet was given by the Mayor of the city in his honour, at which about two hundred of the leading colonists were present. Sir George had in a great measure subdued the emotion which overmastered him at the function in the afternoon and responded at greater length to the kind and Mattering speeches made by the local magnates.

His address was mainly directed to the advocacy of a humane and philanthropic policy in the government of nations, as the highest wisdom and the surest guarantee of prosperity. He pointed to the results of the policy he had inaugurated among the natives of South Africa, as opposed to the bloodshed, the loss, and the failure which followed harsher and less just measures. And he asserted that the methods he had adopted in his several governments had been greatly owing to the teachings and influence of the men who had first settled in South Australia, whose descendants he saw that night around him.

His closing words (delivered with such impassioned eloquence that the youthful fire of the spirit gave the lie to the testimony of the eyes which saw the bowed shoulders, the silvery hair, the withered hands), will ring long in the ears of those who heard them. "It is my duty to tell yon these truths. It is my duty to tell you what I feel myself—that a time when men sink from old age is to me a period of the greatest joy and comfort that my life has known, in receiving welcomes wherever I go, and in knowing that rewards so far surpassing anything that mortal man could do have fallen upon me. That should satisfy men that these principles which your fore-fathers brought to this country, which they strove page 438to carry out, are the true principles which should animate all men, and which you, as their offspring, should adopt and do your utmost in carrying out, thus aiding and conducting the whole world, the Old and the New, through the troublesome times that are evidently before us. If you follow that course you will do your duty, the duty the greatest that for two or three centuries has fallen upon man to perform; you will bring out nobility and greatness amongst your fellow-men, such as in recent times there has been no opportunity of displaying. This great field is before you. Enter into it. Listen to one who knew your fore-fathers, and attend to his earnest request, and follow in the steps they would wish you to pursue, and which they pursued themselves while they remained here."

The following evening a great public meeting was held in the Town Hall. Nearly two thousand people were present. The effect when the veteran statesman appeared upon the platform was most impressive. The whole assemblage rose simultaneously, manifesting great enthusiasm. In the afternoon Sir George Grey had attended an even more interesting gathering. This was a meeting to wish success and bid farewell to an exploring party, headed by Mr. David Lindsay, the cost being borne by Sir Thomas Elder. This party was setting out to explore the only district of Central Australia yet untraversed. They were turning the last leaf in the volume whose earliest pages had been cut by Sir George and his contemporaries. Three members of Sturt's expedition were present, and received with hearty applause the remarks which the speaker made about their former leader. Grey said he had been in Adelaide when two earlier exploring parties had set out—one under Eyre and the other under Sturt. Now he was present at the departure of the last of these daring bands. After their return the world would contain but little unexplored territory. It was well that the nineteenth century should fulfil its peculiar mission, and even with its last years complete the task. He wished that the final effort might be crowned with greater glory and success than any of the previous ones.

The visit to Adelaide roused other memories, more personal and more pathetic. In the cemetery there Sir George Grey's only child was buried. Had he lived he would have been nearly fifty years page 439of age. During those long decades how often must the mind of the father have pictured that son by his side. The merry winsome child, the honest, healthy school-boy, the enthusiastic student

"Nourishing a youth sublime
With the fairy tales of science, and the long result of time,"

the man of generous impulses and sober judgment, all must in turn have been present to his imagination. A son to love, to train, to confide in, to study-—always a sympathetic companion, a kindred spirit—a character like his own in many ways, but with endearing traits of individuality. All these hopes were buried in the little grave at Adelaide, which the father visited from day to day, and beside which he stood in silent grief.

From Adelaide Sir George proceeded to Broken Hill where he met with a great reception. His next addresses were delivered in Melbourne before the Trades' Hall Council and at an immense public meeting. On his way thence to Sydney, every town through which he passed received him with demonstrations of welcome. In response to a cordial invitation from the Mayor, he broke his journey at Goulburn, Arriving on Saturday, May 23rd, he remained there over Sunday, leaving on Monday morning. In spite of the fatigues of the first day, which, commencing with an early disembarkation from the train, included a public welcome, a drive round the town, the reception of three deputations and many private friends, Sir George was present at a complimentary banquet, and made a speech at a thronged public meeting in the evening, as clear, as eloquent, and as impressive as any he had given in Australia. This was the fifth address he had delivered that day.

The coping-stone to the triumphal arch of his Australian reception was added at the tremendous meeting held on the following Tuesday in the vast Centennial Hall, which is the largest in any British colony south of the line. The ovation he received was a fitting close to his tour. The great hall—estimated to hold eight thousand persons—was crowded in every part long before eight o'clock, the people beginning to muster as early as half-past six. This was regarded as practically the opening of that grand room for the democratic purposes for which it was built by the people out of the national funds. Hundreds were standing in the galleries, hundreds of tickets for the ladies' gallery were refused prior to the meeting, page 440hundreds—even thousands—assembled outside the doors and in adjoining corridors. The effect was electrical when, on the entrance of the eagerly-expected statesman, the whole audience rose to their feet, waving hats and handkerchiefs, while the cheering was deafening. Those who were present at the receptions given to Mr. Gladstone during his campaign in Midlothian were witnesses of enthusiasm similar to that exhibited on this occasion. It was like the public rejoicing at the return of a victorious general, though unmarred by the tears of the bereaved. An English member of Parliament who was present declared that in all the great meetings he had attended in the Old World, he had never witnessed any equal in numbers, unanimity, or enthusiasm within the four walls of a building. He considered it "the most magnificent manifestation of the good-will of a people" he had ever seen. "Magnificent is a tame word with which to describe the reception Sir George Grey met with," said the Australian Star.

Another newspaper wrote: "The veteran Sir George Grey may be said to have had at the Centennial Hall the other evening as near an approach to what may be called a living apotheosis as ever fell to the lot of mortal."

An account of the scene, written by an eye-witness, presents it very vividly: "A noble spectacle! The grandest that has ever been seen in glorious young Australia! The spectacle of between seven and eight thousand free men and their intelligent wives held spellbound, carried out of themselves, by the magnificent eloquence of one great and good man…. Every seat was occupied inside of fifteen minutes from the opening of the doors, and then the wide aisles were packed with men well satisfied to stand for nearly three hours without room to move, so long as their ears could drink in the words of wisdom, sweet inspiring words, that they were certain would be spoken to them….

"Once filled, the scene presented to the eyes of the gazer from above was a curious and wonderful one. The long rows of chairs with their occupants were broken at each aisle by the standing throngs, the effect being flats and ridges, almost like the waves and levels of the sea, and like the sea was the incessant moaning, murmuring sound of many thousands of voices echoing through the vaulted dome; and like the surges breaking on a long, level strand, page 441were the intermittent, peculiar roars when the voices were raised in acclaim, and the "Kentish fire" from many feet hurled its thunderous echoes through the vast space and out into the wide galleries and corridors beyond. The sight and sound even at this time were unique, but what pen can describe the scene when the grey head and bowed form of the venerable orator appeared ascending the stairs in the centre of the platform? The people rose at him! and cheered again and again. The sound was tremendous, the sight one calculated to stir to its very depths the coldest heart. The mighty throng arose as one, and hats and handkerchiefs were waved in the air, while their owners gave voice to their admiration and affection in ringing cheers that shook the very atmosphere, and made the reeds of the noble and beautiful organ sound a responsive echo.

"After once bowing, and twice repeating it, Sir George sat down, but was compelled to rise twice to again and again acknowledge the ovation he received. And it was quite five minutes before the immense audience settled back into a calm. After the Chairman's introductory remarks he introduced the speaker of the evening, who on rising to begin his address had to stand with bowed head, evidently deeply moved, while another storm of cheering arose and subsided. Looking out over that vast sea of faces, all raised expectant, the thoughts that stirred that great mind must have been many and complex. Sir George says himself that the one paramount was the reflection, a sad one, of 'Alas! bow many of this vast multitude will have gone back to the earth from which they sprung without having had the blessing of reaping the benefits, of garnering the harvest, which will spring from the seed we are now sowing.' Then he began his speech in a voice which faltered and trembled, and his first few sentences were not audible far back in the hall. Warming to his subject, and overcoming his first emotion, however, his tones gained fulness and strength, and very little indeed of the subsequent magnificent oratorical effort was unheard, even in the furthest corners of the huge building. Throughout the whole address there was not one unfriendly sound from the front. The most rapt, respectful attention was exhibited throughout, while the applause which greeted each noble utterance was unanimous and tremendous. The audience was with the speaker throughout, and it may truly be said that the best of seed fell on the richest of soils. The mighty page 442throng felt and knew that the orator spoke words of wisdom and truth…. While swaying the crowd at will, he did not exert chat will to excite to incendiary thoughts and deeds, but left the minds of all who heard him purified and exalted, calmed and resolved, all in one. The ordinary demagogue excites and irritates, this grand democrat urges, yet soothes, and at the same time leads the straying feet of Demos into the easiest paths to follow to attain his ends.

"Such a hearing is rarely won for a speaker, such a speaker rarely is heard to so deserve it. The fact was clear that the venerable knight not only instructed the minds of his hearers, but he reached and won their hearts, and when he closed the grandest speech Australians have ever heard, he was applauded as no man has ever been before in this or any other Australian city. It is safe to say that not a single individual of the vast multitude which assembled within the walls of the Centennial Hall on Tuesday night will ever forget the privilege he or she enjoyed thereby."

During the course of his address, the appearance of one or two unpopular public men on the platform occasioned a great uproar in the hall. Sir George seized the opportunity to administer a gentle but just rebuke to those who refused to hear an opponent:

"One good plan," he said, "in our new Commonwealth would be to silence the opinions that you think wrong, or that I think wrong, by fair and open argument, and not by noise."

On the following Friday, Sir George spoke to a great meeting of over three thousand in Wallsend, and the night after to an equally large assembly in the Newcastle Skating Rink, being received on each occasion with the utmost enthusiasm. His last address in Australia was delivered on Monday, June 1st, to the largest audience that the Gaiety Theatre in Sydney had ever held.

Two days later the "Great Pro-Consul" embarked on the return voyage to New-Zealand, after a series of triumphs such as Australia had never yielded to one man before.

There are in the southern regions of Australia, away from the seaboard, vast plains, which stretch from the Murray across the Edwards River, the Murrumbidgee, the Lachlan, and the Darling, hundreds of miles to the west and north and east. After the scorching sun of summer has withered the herbage, they present page 443the appearance of an arid and waste desert, which, were it not for the scattered timber and salt bush, would seem after a period of drought almost as destitute of life as the great alkali plains between the Sierra Nevada and Salt Lake. But there are beneath the surface, waiting only for the reviving influences of moisture, the ever-living roots of various herbage. When the winter rains sweep over those plains, so level that there is no appreciable drainage—as level, in truth, as the sea—the whole scene changes as if by magic. From the hot earth the vapour arises as the soil drinks in greedily the life-giving stream, and almost in a few hours the dusty, yellow waste is tinged with ever-increasing greenness and verdure. In a few days the plains are brilliant with flowers and rich with herbage The whole land is changed from a wilderness into a vast field o pasture.

Such was the effect of Sir George Grey's visit to the principal cities of Australia.

There were indeed in the minds of the majority of the Australian people hopes and longings for a better state of things than that which in days gone by produced the Eureka Stockade, and in this day the Shearers' War in Queensland. Some stimulus was necessary to prompt these wishes into practical life. That stimulus was given by the presence and speeches of the ex-Governor of New Zealand. The masses of the people everywhere recognised the uselessness as well as the impropriety of force. Sir George taught them a wiser and a better way. He showed them how, by organisation and by the united use of their privileges as free subjects of the Crown, they might become a force in the Legislatures of their respective colonies potent enough to guide the main lines of legislation. As in New Zealand, in 1846, he had dared the anger of the Imperial Government and the clamours and animosity of New Zealand colonists by refusing to accept for New Zealand an imperfect and unjust Constitution, so in the Convention at Sydney he declined to accept the framework of the Federal Constitution unless it were built upon the broadest basis of popular representation in all parts of the Colonial Federation. Regarded angrily and with ill-disguised contempt by the members of the Convention, he went forth from it to the colonies which it represented.

When, on his departure, the leaders of the labour movement page 444came down to the wharf to bid Sir George good-bye, there were not a few whose eyes were moist with tears of genuine sympathy and affection. Within a few weeks of his departure the results appeared, and those results were marvellous. Australian politics had undergone a new birth.

The history of the New South Wales elections is typical of the altered state of affairs. Prior to Sir George Grey's arrival in Sydney, and during the sitting of the Convention, Sir Henry Parkes had reached the zenith of his power and popularity. Praise was lavished upon him from all quarters. He was one of the three "empire builders "of whom Mr. Stead made much. The Times, ever ready to ignore true genius and to applaud success, contrasted him with Sir George Grey in articles which spoke contemptuously of Grey, but alluded to Sir Henry Parkes in terms which would have been eulogistic if applied to Washington.

What is the position now? A few speeches from Sir George Grey revealing the true and oppressive nature of the proposed Government which they were asked to support, the tortuous and shameful course which they, being free men, were asked to tread, and dwelling upon the glorious future which awaited them if true to themselves and to their country, and Sir Henry Parkes was compelled to adapt his policy to that of his rival and opponent.

Australia is politically regenerated, and an example has been set to the labouring classes of the world which will never be forgotten. Without doubt the example will be followed in Great Britain, and a new force in Imperial politics will arise. The Parliament of New South Wales was dissolved. A new force—the Labour Party-came into existence, and its members were returned in sufficient numbers to hold the balance of power between political parties. Acting upon the instructions of the labour unions, Mr. E. J. Houghton, the Secretary of the Trades and Labour Councils of New South Wales, on June 30th, 1891, sent a letter to Sir George Grey containing the following paragraph: "I can hardly express the gratitude felt towards your noble self by the workers of this colony for the great amount of good which resulted from your timely visit, and the beautiful words of advice you spoke when about to step on board the steamer which carried you to New page 445Zealand. These words have been quoted by myself and others of the Labour candidates at many of our meetings, and I need scarcely add that their effect has been very marked…. Indeed, some of our men give you all the credit, and I am not by any means disposed to quarrel with those who hold that opinion."