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Bice, Sir John George (1853–1923)

by Maryanne McGill

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

John George Bice (1853-1923), by unknown photographer

John George Bice (1853-1923), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 4527

Sir John George Bice (1853-1923), blacksmith and politician, was born on 25 June 1853 at Callington, Cornwall, England, son of Samuel Sandoe Bice, mine agent, and his wife Elizabeth, née Rowe. He attended a local school and migrated to South Australia with his parents in the Eastern Empire, arriving on 20 June 1864. They settled at Moonta where, aged 11, he began working in the copper-mines for the Moonta Mining Co. He soon became a blacksmith's apprentice, and the company's superintendent described him when he left after eleven years as, 'a competent smith, a careful and intelligent workman'.

On 30 December 1875 at Moonta Bice married Elizabeth Jane Trewenack. Next year he moved to Wilmington in the newly opened up north, to manage a blacksmithing firm for his father-in-law. Two years later he transferred to Port Augusta and in 1881 opened his own agricultural machinery business. A student at night classes, he joined the local literary and debating society and helped found the Masonic Lodge. A member of the town council for eight years, from 1887 he was on the board of advice for the Port Augusta school district, a justice of the peace and a member of the northern district's licensing bench. In 1888-89 he was mayor of the town which he later described as 'the Liverpool of South Australia'.

In 1894-1923 Bice represented the Northern District in the Legislative Council. His early policy was liberal and included support for income taxation, female suffrage and nationalizing water-systems. In parliament his upright character, alertness in debate, and the fact that he could be relied on not to waste time or words, were appreciated. Minister for the Northern Territory and water-supply in 1908-09, he was chief secretary in four later non-Labor governments and several times acting premier. Sir Henry Barwell, with whom he served in 1920-23, considered Bice would have been premier if he had been in the Lower House. He was proud of his role in the 1897 lands commission which was partly responsible for the 1899 Pastoral Lands Act; and he chaired an interstate royal commission on border railways in 1911-12.

Big, burly and bearded, Bice was 'a politician of the old school', full of 'strong common sense and rugged honesty'. In 1905 he had been elected by the Institutes Association to a committee to guard their interests in parliament. He assisted in the establishment of several country hospitals and in improvements to facilities and working conditions at the Adelaide Hospital and the Magill Homes. He had been on the board of governors of the Botanic Garden from 1896 and on the council of the School of Mines and Industries from 1898. At home he cultivated a private library; he also enjoyed fishing.

In 1923 when Bice was appointed K.C.M.G. he was enthusiastically arranging Commonwealth participation in the 1924 British Empire Exhibition in England at which he was to represent Australia; but he died of pneumonia on 9 November that year. He was accorded a state funeral and was buried in West Terrace cemetery. Thousands of citizens mourned this 'most able and lovable statesman' who had served parliament continuously for twenty-nine years. Bice's wife had predeceased him and he was survived by two daughters, and by a son John Leonard Sandoe Bice, who followed his father into the Legislative Council in 1941. His estate was sworn for probate at £2560.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1908)
  • S. H. Roberts, History of Australian Land Settlement, 1788-1920 (Melb, 1924)
  • D. W. Meinig, On the Margins of the Good Earth (Chicago, 1962)
  • South Australia Institutes Journal, 24 Sept 1905
  • Pictorial Australian, 1894
  • Observer (Adelaide), 20 July 1895, 9 June, 17 Nov 1923
  • Sydney Mail, 5 July 1913
  • Register (Adelaide), 10 Nov 1923
  • Bulletin, 15 Nov 1923
  • J. G. Bice, A398 A3, 522 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Maryanne McGill, 'Bice, Sir John George (1853–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bice-sir-john-george-5229/text8801, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 28 November 2014.

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

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