Was born in the Orkney
Islands in 1846, and was brought to Victoria in 1853. His family went to
the country and at an early age Spence was helping to earn his living. At
12 years of age he was with a co-operative party of miners, and at 17 he
was employed as a butcher. In later years he worked in the mines at
Ballarat, and in 1878 was one of the organizers and secretary of a miners'
union at Creswick. He was engaged in organizing miners' unions throughout
Australia for some years, and in 1882 became general secretary of the
Amalgamated Miners' Association. In 1886 an attempt by station owners to
reduce the amount paid for shearing sheep from £1 to 17/6 a hundred led to
the organization of the Amalgamated Shearers' Union. Spence became
treasurer of the new movement and insisted that the union must ignore all
political boundaries. Organizers were sent out and in 1887 the struggle
began between the owners and the shearers which was to last many years.
Spence afterwards claimed that the policy of the union from its inception
was conciliation. Certainly the circular sent to the station owners in
February 1888, could hardly have been more reasonable. It was asked that a
conference should be held between representatives of the union and of the
owners, but very few of the latter took any notice of the circular and
none attended the proposed conference. The struggle went on with varying
fortunes but at a conference held with the New South Wales owners in
August 1891 the shearers practically succeeded in obtaining their terms.
In the maritime strike of
1890 and the Queensland shearers' strike of 1891 Spence was a prominent
figure, and though the financial depression which followed increased the
difficulties of the unions on account of the large number of unemployed,
some progress was made. He was president of the Australian Workers' Union
for many years, and in 1898 was elected a member of the New South Wales
legislative assembly for Cobar. In 1901 he was elected for Darling in the
federal house of representatives and held the seat until 1917. He was a
member of the select committee on shipping services in 1905, was
postmaster-general in the third Fisher (q.v.) ministry from September 1914
to October 1915, and vice-president of the executive council in W. M.
Hughes's ministry from November 1916 to February 1917. With Hughes and
others he was ejected from the Labour party in 1916 on the conscription
issue. He was a Nationalist candidate at the 1917 general election and was
defeated, but came in for Darwin, Tasmania, at a by-election in the
following June. He retired from that seat in 1919, and stood for Batman,
Victoria, but was defeated. He died at Terang, Victoria, on 13 December
1926. He married and was survived by his wife and several children. He was
the author of two books, Australia's Awakening--Thirty Years in the
Life of an Australian Agitator (1909), and History of the A.W.U.
(1911). Both give an interesting, but somewhat one-sided view of social
conditions in Australia at the end of the nineteenth century.
Spence has been called the
"mildest-mannered man that ever ran a strike". It was ironical that one
who had worked so hard and done so much for the Labour movement should
have been cast out of it, but Spence was comparatively philosophical
because he considered that the battle had practically been won.