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Blair, John (1857–1910)

by Lorna L. McDonald

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

John Blair (1857-1910), newspaper editor and proprietor, was born on 18 August 1857 at Ayr, Scotland, son of John Blair, watchmaker, and his wife Agnes, née Mitchell. He was educated at Ayr Academy and then apprenticed to his father. In 1886 he migrated to Queensland and established himself as a watchmaker in Mackay.

Blair's occasional press contributions in 1886-88 impressed editors by their simple but forceful literary style. He joined the staff of the Brisbane Telegraph about 1888, then went to Rockhampton in May 1889 as chief of staff of the Morning Bulletin; in 1896 he became its editor and part-owner with William McIlwraith. His political editorials, whether on Queensland, Australian or international affairs, created considerable interest in the eastern States. His views, nurtured in the Scottish Liberal Party, were stimulated by the colony's political climate. Rockhampton not only reflected the struggles surrounding the rise of the Labor Party, but was also divided on two local issues, Central Queensland Separation and the deepwater port site.

The Morning Bulletin's leading articles and reports of major election campaigns strongly urged the claims of William Kidston. Under this influence the Rockhampton electorate returned him as an endorsed Labor candidate in 1896-1904 and subsequently as an Independent. Kidston's famous 'gang forward' policy speech in 1907 illustrated his bid for independence from Labor, when Kidstonian candidates signed his personal pledge. Each policy plank had been introduced through Blair's editorials in the preceding weeks, while both Labor and the conservative (Sir) Robert Philp and his supporters were strategically attacked. When another election followed in 1908, he diplomatically prepared the way for Kidston's compromise with Labor: no socialism, but legislative support from Labor for approved bills. During the campaign a Rockhampton conservative candidate A. H. Feez referred to Blair as 'the kingmaker up the street'; another opponent attributed 'the deplorable result of the election' to the Morning Bulletin and wrote privately to another local editor: 'I known you can do much good in checkmating the dark and wily schemes of the Blair-Kidston combine'.

Blair's attitude to the Central Queensland Separation Movement and its dedicated apostle G. S. Curtis was possibly influenced by political expediency. He supported the separationists' anti-Federal campaign in 1899, but was careful to emphasize that the opposition of Curtis and Kidston 'arose exclusively from the insuperable obstacle which the constitution places in the path of Central Queensland ever obtaining self government'. After the Federation bill succeeded in Queensland, Blair unemotionally commented that it was a democratic vote and must be accepted. When Curtis opposed Kidston in the 1907 election, Blair scathingly attacked him for trying to revive the Separation issue which had been 'slain and buried by the people of Central Queensland themselves'.

The Rockhampton Harbour Board had been divided for years on the suitability of Broadmount as a deepwater port, so when Blair's skilful articles appeared in 1907 with apparently irrefutable arguments in favour of Port Alma, it was not long before the Kidston government agreed to build a rail-link with Rockhampton, provided the Harbour Board would guarantee its profitable operation. A board election was fought on the issue and won by the candidates supported by Blair. Significantly, at the turning of the first sod for the Port Alma railway in January 1910, Premier Kidston proposed a toast 'to the ablest and most unselfish public man in the district — John Blair'. When Kidston abandoned public life soon after Blair's death, the allegations of 'kingmaker' and the comparison drawn between the 'Blair-Kidston combine' and the association of David Syme and Alfred Deakin seemed confirmed.

Blair had married Elizabeth Riggall in Melbourne on 21 March 1893; they had four sons and one daughter. When he collapsed and died of a heart attack in Rockhampton's main street on 19 December 1910, local people were shocked and the Morning Bulletin staff was 'plunged into deep grief' by the loss of a brilliant colleague at the height of his career. His tombstone in Rockhampton cemetery carries two lines from Scott's 'Marmion':

But in close fight a champion grim,
In camps a leader sage.

Select Bibliography

  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Prelude to Power (Brisb, 1970)
  • Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 18, 30 Aug, 2 Sept 1899, 11 Feb, 13 Apr, 27 May 1907, 20 Jan, 6 Feb 1908, 20, 22, 28 Dec 1910, 7 Feb 1911, 9 July 1931, 8 July 1961
  • K. Allen, The City and District of Rockhampton (1923, Rockhampton District Historical Society)
  • P. F. MacDonald, letter book 1908 (Rockhampton Municipal Library)
  • private information.

Citation details

Lorna L. McDonald, 'Blair, John (1857–1910)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/blair-john-5267/text8877, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 16 November 2018.

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

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