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Adamson, John (1857–1922)

by Martin Sullivan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

John Adamson, by J. S. Wiley, c1919

John Adamson, by J. S. Wiley, c1919

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an22392002

John Adamson (1857-1922), clergyman and politician, was born on 18 February 1857 at Tudhoe Durham, England, son of Robert Adamson, shoemaker, and his wife Dorothy, née English. After leaving school at 10 he was apprenticed to his drunken father. Becoming a blacksmith and a total abstainer, he was prominent from 1877 in a local branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Employees. A converted Christian before he was 20, Adamson studied for four years at night-school to become a Primitive Methodist lay preacher, then in 1883 married Caroline Jones and migrated to Queensland. They reached Cooktown as bounty passengers in the Duke of Buckingham on 21 January 1884. He became Primitive Methodist minister at Stanwell near Rockhampton and served later at Mount Morgan, Georgetown, Maryborough, Ipswich and Boonah.

Adamson was received as a minister of the Presbyterian Church in 1906 but was never posted, probably because he was elected on 18 May 1907 to the Legislative Assembly as Labor member for Maryborough. 'Utterly disgusted with [the] inner workings' of political life, he did not seek re-election in 1909 and subsequently took temporary charges for the Presbyterian Church. In February 1911 he was persuaded to stand again and won Rockhampton at a by-election by sixteen votes.

When Labor won the government benches in May 1915, Adamson was elected to the cabinet and was appointed secretary for railways. Soon afterwards he became vice-president of the Universal Service League, a vigorous conscriptionist organization which denounced Labor's policy of voluntary military service. Though pressed, he refused to withdraw from the league and was forced to resign from the ministry and the Labor Party on 2 October 1916. The conservative Brisbane Courier responded by sponsoring the Adamson Loyalty Testimonial Fund and £309 10s. 1d. was subscribed and presented to him in cash and gifts. With understandable optimism he resigned his Rockhampton seat in April 1917, hoping to contest the Senate election for the Nationalists. He was bitterly disappointed when he was omitted from the Nationalist ticket that included Harry Foll, his former private secretary, and indecisively left his name on the ballot-paper, then belatedly announced his withdrawal. At the State election in March 1918 Adamson unsuccessfully stood as an Independent Democrat against J. A. Fihelly, a cabinet minister, Irish Catholic and vehement anti-conscriptionist.

On 13 December 1919, as first-named Nationalist candidate for the Senate, Adamson was elected. In June he had been appointed C.B.E. Neither of these distinctions greatly improved his health: his years in the Senate were punctuated with absences through illness. On 2 May 1922 he was killed by a suburban train at Hendra, Brisbane. Daily newspapers suggested suicide; his chronic ill health and the circumstances surrounding his fall leave some doubt. Survived by his wife, four daughters and two sons, he was given a state funeral and was buried in Toowong cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £915.

Adamson's death reflected the tragedy of his parliamentary decline from visionary to broken senator. His speeches, homiletic in delivery, were models of careful preparation with arguments supported by contemporary giants such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb and Philip Snowden; they were monuments to his self-education. Genuinely committed to advocating the emancipation of women, Adamson was never confined within the Labor platform. He was parliamentary spokesman for the Central Queensland New State movement, and also bitterly opposed the introduction of Bible teaching in state schools. Yet political life gradually crushed him. Saddened and puzzled by the loss of William Kidston, Peter Airey and others from the Labor Party, he was further demoralized when, for opposing measures aimed at liberalizing the sale and consumption of alcohol, he was taunted, ridiculed and labelled a wowser — a term he abhorred. He believed that socialism was 'the golden rule applied to every phase of life', but attempts to apply this code led to his political emasculation. His admiration for men such as E. G. Theodore and his friendship with T. J. Ryan were undermined by his leaving the Labor Party, and his isolation was completed by the temporary rebuff of the Nationalists in 1917. He fell into depths of mental depression and never completely recovered.

Select Bibliography

  • E. G. Theodore, The Labour Government of Queensland (Brisb, 1915)
  • D. J. Murphy, T. J. Ryan (Brisb, 1975)
  • D. J. Murphy (ed), Labor in Politics (Brisb, 1975)
  • Maryborough Chronicle, 2 Sept 1909, 3 May 1922
  • Brisbane Courier, 24 Aug, 6 Oct 1916, 3 Feb, 22 Mar, 9 Apr 1917
  • Daily Standard (Brisbane), 2 May 1922.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Martin Sullivan, 'Adamson, John (1857–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/adamson-john-4970/text8249, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 23 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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