This unremarkable cover was a surprise to me, in that the prefix ‘Hon.’ before Shiels’ name suggested that he may have been a member of the South Australian Parliament, in view of the postmark, Naracoorte and the address of Struan House, in South Australia.. Attempts to confirm his membership of the S.A. Parliament were unrewarding, but I found that he had been a significant member of the Victorian Parliament, for many years. The cover was simply addressed to Hon.Wm Shiels, Struan House and the 2d orange red S.A. stamp was clearly franked with the squared circle postmark of NARACOORTE/ JY 4/ (18)97/ S.A (Figure 1).

Struan House is described in several Naracoorte websites (although it is in Struan some 15 km south east of the former and very close to the Victorian border). It is one of the most gracious houses in South Australia. It was designed by W.T. Gore and built by Henry Smith and Thomas Agar, between the years 1873-75 for John Robertson (born 1808) and it is a fine example of a Victorian mansion and most of the rooms have beautiful marble mantelpieces. It is now part of the Regional Veterinary Laboratory, the South Australian Department of Agriculture (Figure 2).

John and his brother William Robertson ‘squatted’ in 1843 in the south-east corner of S.A. and William Shiels’ association with the Robertson family was initially as a tutor in the late 1870s to the children of John Robertson, the occupant of Struan House. One of the children, the eldest girl Jane, married William in 1885. William Shiels was born 3 December 1848, in Ireland and died 17 December 1904 at Struan, S.A. His father was Robert Shiels an accountant, and William and Jane Shiels had 1 son and 3 daughters.

Long after John Robertson died in 1880, William Shiels’ name appears on business papers as an executor and trustee for the former’s extensive properties. Thus the association of Shiels’ name with Struan House is well documented over many years, both prior to his marriage and up to his death, when he went back to Struan from Melbourne in order to recuperate, and he died there from heart disease.

The first breakthrough in researching the cover came by chance when I accessed a website showing a list of 26 people that were buried in the Struan S.A. cemetery which provided a short entry for William Shiels (which I have corrected for typo errors): “SHIELS, William. Here and thus by his own wish, this plain stone is placed to mark the grave of William Shiels, the beloved husband of Jeannie (Jane) Shiels, at one time Premier and Treasurer of Victoria, and for 24 years Member for Normanby, Victoria. Born at Maghera, Londonderry, Ireland 3 December 1848, died at Struan 17 December 1904. In religious belief he died as he lived, and without fear.”

He arrived in Melbourne from Ireland ca. 1853 and was educated at Scots College, Melbourne and he received his BA in 1882 and LL.M. in 1885, both at the University of Melbourne. He was called to the Bar and practiced in Melbourne till ca. 1885. From that time onwards he devoted his life to politics. He was famous for his oratory and for his successful campaign for divorce reform. The latter has been documented in the first edition of Michael Cannon’s The Land Boomers (1966): “(he) courageously tried in the 1880’s to extend grounds for divorce to cases of systematic cruelty, desertion and grave felony, (but) was bitterly denounced by Anglican and Catholic clergy. Even after the Shiel’s reforms were watered down, there was a remarkable increase in divorce cases from 35 in 1887 to 159 in 1890. Shiels was definitely in the forefront of divorce reform, well before his time.”

He was the member for the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for the electorate of Normanby, with a start date of May 1880 and an end date of May 1904. During those 24 years he held the positions of Attorney-General, Minister for Railways, Vice-President of the Board for Land & Works, Treasurer, and was Premier of Victoria for a period of 343 days from 16 February 1892 until 23 January 1893. He was involved in a Royal Commission for Constitutional Reform in 1894. A photo of William Shiels is shown in Figure 3.

Additional paragraphs can be found in Cannon’s book on pages 37, 41, 75, 99, 123, 162, 170 and 206, all mentioning Shiels’ actions whilst performing his parliamentary duties, mainly as Premier, Attorney-General and Treasurer. Most of the incidents cited do not do Shiels great credit for he tended to avoid launching official prosecutions in the financial scandals which were then sweeping Melbourne.

I am indebted to Paula Turner, Library Manager, Naracoorte Public Library who introduced me to Anne McArthur who is writing a book on the Robertsons of Struan House. Anne tied all the loose ends together which showed that William Shiels had a very close association with Struan House and the Robertson family.

Categories: Political