Alfred Deakin (1856–1919) was born in Melbourne and educated at Melbourne Grammar School and the University of Melbourne. He was admitted to the Victorian Bar, but achieved more success as a journalist, writing reviews and articles for the Age and editing the Leader. He was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly in 1879, promptly resigned because of doubts about the poll, but regained the seat of West Bourke in 1880. From 1883 to 1890 he held office in coalition governments. He became chief secretary in 1885 and with Duncan Gillies led the Government until its defeat in 1890. He was responsible for pioneering factories and shops legislation and the promotion of irrigation at Mildura. He represented Victoria at the 1887 Colonial Conference in London.

In opposition throughout the 1890s, Deakin became one of the leaders of the Federation movement. He attended all the Federation conventions and conferences between 1890 and 1898, was president of the Federation League of Victoria, and was the leading figure in the referenda campaigns of 1898–99. In 1900 he was a member of the delegation that visited London and secured the acceptance of the Constitution of Australia Bill by the British Government.

In the first Federal election in 1901, Deakin won the seat of Ballarat, which he held until his retirement in 1913. He was the Attorney-General in the ministry led by Edmund Barton and played a key role in establishing the High Court. When Barton retired from politics in 1903, Deakin became Prime Minister and Minister for External Affairs. He resigned in 1904, but returned to power in 1905. In the next three years, his government introduced legislation in a wide range of areas: tariff protection, immigration, the capital site, old age pensions, meteorology and copyright. Steps were taken towards the establishment of the Royal Australian Navy and the Commonwealth took over the administration of Papua. Deakin lost power when the Australian Labor Party withdrew its support in 1908. In the following year, he agreed to the fusion of the opposition parties and formed his third ministry. It was also remarkably active, but it was defeated at the 1910 election. Deakin was Leader of the Opposition until ill health forced his retirement from politics in 1913.

When Sir Robert Menzies accepted the Deakin papers in 1965, he said that Deakin’s powers as an orator tended to obscure his other talents. His influence, however, still affected Australians every day of their lives. ‘All the foundational policies, not only in the fiscal field, in the defence field, in the industrial field, the pattern of national policy which we have come to accept so much in Australia was laid down by this remarkable man. And of course, as one of the fathers of the Constitution, he has his monument all around him, particularly in this city.’


The Deakin papers were presented to the Library in 1965 by Ivy Brookes, the eldest daughter of Deakin.


Manuscripts and Personal Papers

Papers of Alfred Deakin MS 1540

The papers of Deakin (MS 1540) form one of the finest personal archives held in the Library and one of the most important political archives in Australia. While other political leaders have been adept at retaining official records, Deakin not only kept political papers but also private papers covering his whole adult life. They include a very wide correspondence and diaries, notebooks and manuscripts documenting his thoughts, ideas, religious meditations and emotional crises. The family papers extend back to 1804, while Deakin’s own papers cover the period 1880–1919 in great detail. They include correspondence, diaries, notebooks, literary manuscripts, official publications and documents, pamphlets, books, programs, menus, invitations, certificates, bills, receipts, photographs and tourist publications. Of special note is a large album containing almost all the letters written to the London newspaper, the Morning Post, by its anonymous Australian correspondent (Deakin) between 1901 and 1911.

The papers are arranged in the following series:

  • General correspondence, 1880–1919
  • Diaries, 1884–1916
  • Notebooks and general manuscripts
  • Literary interests
  • Religion and spiritualism
  • Law practice
  • Journalism
  • Victorian M.L.A., 1879–1900
  • Victorian Minister, 1883–90
  • Irrigation, 1885–1919
  • Federation delegate, 1880–1900
  • Imperial Federation League, 1885–1910
  • M.H.R. for Ballarat, 1901–13
  • Barton Government, 1901–03
  • Prime Minister, 1903–04, 1905–08, 1909–10
  • Leader of the Opposition, 1904–05, 1908–09, 1910–13
  • Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 1915
  • Post-retirement
  • Family papers
  • Miscellaneous personal papers
  • Books, journals and pamphlets
  • Press cuttings, 1871–1973
  • Tributes following Deakin’s death.

Letters of Deakin held in other Manuscript Collections

Deakin mostly wrote letters by hand. His papers contain thousands of incoming letters, but he did not often keep copies of his own letters. Fortunately, a number of his principal correspondents preserved his letters and they have been acquired by the Library. The following collections contain letters by Deakin, while many more contain references to Deakin:

MS 51 Papers of Sir Edmund Barton, politician and Prime Minister

MS 52 Papers of Arthur Atlee Hunt, public servant

MS 87 Papers of E. Morris Miller, writer and academic

MS 236 Papers of Sir Littleton Groom, politician

MS 296 Papers of Sir Walter James, politician

MS 339 Letters to Richard Jebb, British writer

MS 340 Letters to Fabian Ware, British journalist and imperialist

MS 451 Papers of J.C. Watson, politician and Prime Minister

MS 479 Papers of Baron Hallam Tennyson, Governor-General

MS 560 Papers of Sir Thomas Bavin, lawyer and politician

MS 601 Papers of James Hume Cook, politician

MS 696 Papers of Sir Ronald Craufurd Munro Ferguson, Governor-General

MS 743 Papers of Christopher Crisp, journalist

MS 882 Papers of E.L. Piesse, lawyer and public servant

MS 937 Papers of Hugh Mahon, politician

MS 1009 Papers of Sir John Latham, lawyer, politician and journalist

MS 1094 Papers of Katharine Susannah Prichard, novelist

MS 1709 Papers of Miles Staniforth Smith, politician and official

MS 1736 Papers of Sir Josiah Symon, politician

MS 1924 Papers of Herbert and Ivy Brookes, son-in-law and daughter of Deakin

MS 2503 Letters to Charles Pearson, politician (photocopies)

MS 2919 Papers of Andrew Fisher, politician and Prime Minister

MS 2987 Papers of Sir Walter Murdoch, journalist and academic

MS 4913 Papers of Catherine Deakin

MS 6305 Papers of James Drake, politician and journalist

MS 6335 Papers of Sir Timothy Coghlan, statistician and public servant

Letters of Deakin held on microfilm

A number of British manuscript collections containing letters by Deakin have been microfilmed by the Australian Joint Copying Project and are held in the Library:

mfm M 867–8 Papers of Joseph Chamberlain, politician (Birmingham University Library)

mfm M 936–7 Papers of Lord Hopetoun, Governor-General

mfm M 1122 Letters to Ralph Blumenfeld, editor (House of Lords Record Office)

mfm M 1123 Papers of Andrew Bonar Law, politician (House of Lords Record Office)

mfm M 1678–81 Papers of Arthur Berriedale Keith, civil servant, writer (University of Edinburgh Library)

mfm M 1954 Papers of Leopold Maxse, editor (West Sussex Record Office)

mfm M 2241–53 Papers of Richard Jebb, writer (Institute of Commonwealth Studies)

mfm M 2594 Papers of Lord Crewe, politician (Cambridge University Library).

Papers of the Biographer of Deakin

The Library holds the extensive papers of John La Nauze, whose biography of Deakin was published in 1965. The collection (MS 5248) contains correspondence, research notes, drafts and secondary sources on the life of Deakin.

Pictorial Materials and Memorabilia

The Library holds a large collection of photographic portraits of Deakin, extending from his childhood to his last years, as well as photographs showing Deakin with political colleagues or as a member of Cabinet and political conventions. There are also many caricatures and cartoons depicting Deakin. The cartoonists include Livingston Hopkins, Claude Marquet and Leslie Ward.

The Library has a number of briefcases that belonged to Deakin and the commemorative medal awarded to him at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

Published Materials

Writings by Alfred Deakin

The Crisis in Victorian Politics, 1879–1881, edited by J.A. La Nauze and R.M. Crawford,Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1957.

The Federal Story: The Inner History of the Federal Cause, edited by Herbert Brookes, Robertson & Mullens, Melbourne, 1944 (later editions edited by J.A. La Nauze [1963] and Stuart Macintyre [1995]).

Federated Australia: Selections from Letters to the Morning Post 1900–1910, edited by J.A. La Nauze, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1968.

Irrigated India: An Australian View of India and Ceylon, Their Irrigation and Agriculture, W. Thacker & Co., London, 1893.

Irrigation in Western America, so Far as it has Relation to the Circumstances of Victoria, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1885.

A New Pilgrim’s Progress, Terry, Melbourne, 1877.

Quentin Massys: A Drama in Five Acts, J.P. Donaldson, Melbourne, 1875.

Temple and Tomb in India, Melville, Mullen and Slade, Melbourne, 1893.

Walter Murdoch and Alfred Deakin on ‘Books and Men’: Letters and Comments, 1900–1918, edited by J.A. La Nauze and Elizabeth Nurser, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1974.

Biographies of Deakin and related works

Brett, Judith, The enigmatic Mr Deakin, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2017.

Crisp, L. F. and Hart, John, Federation Fathers, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1990.

Gabay, Al, The Mystic Life of Alfred Deakin, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992.

La Nauze, J.A., Alfred Deakin, 2 vols, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1965.

La Nauze, J.A., The Making of the Australian Constitution, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1972.

Meaney, N.K., A History of Australian Defence and Foreign Policy, 1901–23, vol. 1, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1976.

Murdoch, Walter, Alfred Deakin: A Sketch, Constable, London, 1923.

Norris, Ronald, The Emergent Commonwealth: Australian Federation, Expectations and Fulfilment 1889–1910, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1975.

Souter, Gavin, Lion & Kangaroo: Australia 1901–1919—The Rise of a Nation, Collins, Sydney, 1978.

Rickard, John, A Family Romance: The Deakins at Home, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1996.


The Deakin papers are held in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 1540. A finding aid is available online at The papers have been microfilmed and the 49 reels are held at Mfm G 28063–28111. In addition, series 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 14, 15, 16 and 19 have been digitised and are accessible online.

The photographs and cartoons are held in the Pictures Collection. Many of them have been digitised and are accessible online.

Related Collection

The Alfred Deakin Prime Ministerial Library has been established at Deakin University in Geelong. It features a reconstruction of the study at Deakin’s home, with books from his library and furniture and household items that belonged to the Deakin family. This Library holds many photographs of Deakin.


Cochrane, Peter, and others, Oral history interview with Jessie Clarke, grand-daughter of Alfred Deakin, 1996–2001, ORAL TRC 3465.

McKnight, Sue, The Alfred Deakin Prime Ministerial Library, Australian Academic and Research Libraries, vol. 36 (1), March 2005, pp. 25–36.

Norris, R., Alfred Deakin (1856–1919), Australian Dictionary of Biography Online.

Powell, Graeme, Modes of Acquisition: The Growth of the Manuscript Collection of the National Library of Australia, in Peter Biskup and Margaret Henty (eds), Library for the Nation, Australian Academic and Research Libraries, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1991, pp. 74–80.

Powell, Graeme, Prime Ministers as Record Keepers: British Models and Australian Practice, in Sue McKemmish and Michael Piggott (eds), The Records Continuum: Ian Maclean and Australian Archives First Fifty Years, Ancora Press, Melbourne, 1994.

Powell, Graeme, The literary statesman: Alfred Deakin and his papers, National Library Magazine, vol. 1 (3), Sept. 2009, pp. 18-20.

First posted 2008 (revised 2019)