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Baker, John (1813–1872)

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

John Baker (1813-1872), by unknown photographer, c1869

John Baker (1813-1872), by unknown photographer, c1869

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 22855

John Baker (1813-1872), pastoralist and parliamentarian, was born on 28 December 1813 at Ilminster, Somerset, England, the eldest son of Richard Chaffey Baker (1784-1821) and his wife Mary, née Anstice. Well educated, he went at 25 to Van Diemen's Land and at Launceston became connected with John Alexander Eddie, a young merchant who overreached himself in 1838; they were sustained for some time by George Allan, reputed 'a rich man'. On 7 June Baker married Allan's daughter, Isabella, thereby becoming a relation of Captain William Langdon who knew his family in Somerset and probably persuaded him to migrate.

Baker visited Adelaide briefly in October, liked the place and returned late in 1839 to settle. He arranged with the South Australian Co. to share in importing in its ships large numbers of sheep from Tasmania. By the end of 1840 his horses, cattle and four thousand sheep were grazing far afield in care of shepherds, and he was chairman of the Adelaide Auction Co. In 1843 with Jacob Hagen and John Hart he took over John Hack's whaling station at Encounter Bay; they sold it in 1846 when profits declined. In 1845 Baker was appointed a local director of the Bank of Australasia and in the copper boom was a director of the Adelaide Mining Co. which made fair profits from the Montacute mine. In 1850 he became a justice of the peace and special magistrate, a director of the Savings Bank and a founder and first chairman of the Chamber of Commerce. In the next decade his interests became increasingly pastoral. He shared in forming a company to import cart horses from England and helped to promote the improvement of livestock, especially horses for racing and for Indian army remounts. He also supported exploration with enthusiasm and took up many leases in new-found country. By 1860 he held some two thousand sq. miles (5180 km²), his runs ranging from Streaky Bay to Mount Hopeless and into New South Wales; on most of them he sank wells and made other improvements. He sold many of his leases and about 1863 bought Terlinga as his head station, paying 23s. a head for eight thousand sheep with the run thrown in. He then held five hundred sq. miles (1295 km²) and had 16,000 sheep, 10,000 cattle and ample horses for his hundred stockmen. In 1864-65 severe drought reduced his stock by more than two-thirds but his runs were revalued and with lower rents he continued to be a leading pastoralist.

In 1851-56 Baker represented Mount Barker in the first part-elective South Australian Legislative Council. Although disappointed by the abolition of state aid to churches he was determined that the colony should control its land revenue. In debates on the new constitution he fought resolutely for a limited franchise for the upper house to preserve the rights of property owners; only with this safeguard would he accept any semblance of democracy in the lower house. In the 1857 elections for the new Legislative Council he won the second largest vote. He was South Australia's second premier; his ministry lasted only twelve days but he was responsible for an important compact between both Houses on the amendment of money bills. He held his seat in the council until 1861 and in 1863-72. Although labelled 'a conservative with progressive tendencies' and 'spokesman for the pastoralists' he abhorred political parties and class legislation. Thoroughly independent he followed his own reason, was intensely loyal to the Crown and established English traditions, and spoke always with confidence and decision. His intellect, firmness and energy stimulated radicals and conservatives alike.

From his Tasmanian friends Baker had learnt to suspect and oppose the arbitrary powers of governors. He was a prominent critic of Governor (Sir) George Grey's drastic economies and with Hagen in 1844 charged him with 'extremely corrupt conduct' in rejecting their tender for mining land; although persona ingratissima at Government House, Baker complained to influential friends in England and Grey was transferred to New Zealand. In 1847 when Lieutenant-Governor Frederick Robe introduced agistment charges for livestock running on land occupied by licence, Baker refused to pay and won his case in the Supreme Court. He also opposed royalty charges on copper and persuaded the Adelaide Mining Co. not to pay; their test case in the Supreme Court was successful. He was prominent again in overcoming the reluctance of Governor Sir Henry Young to assent to the Bullion Act which brought much gold from Victorian fields to Adelaide. Baker's fiercest opposition was to Sir Richard MacDonnell. In 1855-57 as a member of the select committee on government departments he took pains to criticize the governor and later to have him condemned by the Legislative Council for expressing disapproval of the committee's progress reports. In 1858 Baker went to England deputed by the council to present a loyal address to the Queen. His hopes of a knighthood were thwarted by MacDonnell who also excluded him from the hospitalities of Government House on his return in 1859. Baker never yielded; he went to England in 1861 and next year MacDonnell left the colony.

Baker shared in selecting the site of the Botanic Gardens in Adelaide and later served as a trustee. Always active in the Agricultural and Horticultural Society he was its president three times. He was also a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, London, and corresponded with other overseas societies. In 1854 he helped to form a company of mounted rifles and later became lieutenant-colonel in the volunteer force, serving until it disbanded in 1868. He had built a mansion, Morialta, at Magill, in 1847 and was well known in the district for his generous support of the Church of England, school and mechanics' institute. He was also noted for his racing stud where he bred such successful sires as Abdel-Kader and Jupiter. In the 1860s he became interested in agriculture and shared in importing a steam plough. Proud of the colony he had helped to pioneer, he often proclaimed it 'the best spot on the face of the globe', specially ideal for family immigration. He remained active in politics and the management of his properties until his last illness. He died at Morialta on 19 May 1872, survived by his wife and seven of their twelve children. His eldest son, Richard Chaffey, had a distinguished career in the South Australian and Federal parliaments.

Select Bibliography

  • B. T. Finniss, The Constitutional History of South Australia (Adel, 1886)
  • G. D. Combe, Responsible Government in South Australia (Adel, 1957)
  • P. L. Brown, Clyde Company Papers, vol 4 (Lond, 1959)
  • D. Pike, Paradise of Dissent (Melb, 1967)
  • Select Committee on Northern Runs, Evidence, Votes and Proceedings (South Australia), 1867 (14)
  • B. C. Newland, ‘Blanchewater’, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia: South Australian Branch, vol 62, 1960-61, pp 9-26
  • Observer (Adelaide), 25 Sept 1859
  • Register (Adelaide), 21 May 1872 supplement.

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Citation details

'Baker, John (1813–1872)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/baker-john-2920/text4215, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 13 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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