Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bonython, John Langdon (1905–1992)

by Martin Shanahan

This article was published online in 2016

John Langdon Bonython (1905–1992), resources entrepreneur and company director, was born on 13 January 1905 in Adelaide, son of South Australian-born parents (Sir) John Lavington Bonython, journalist, and his wife Blanche Ada, née Bray. The Bonython family was one of South Australia’s wealthiest and most famous; Sir John Langdon Bonython, the proprietor of the Adelaide Advertiser, was the boy’s grandfather. His maternal grandfather was Sir John Bray, a former premier of the State. John (Jack to the family) was the eldest child, with two younger sisters, Elizabeth (Betty) and Ada. His mother died soon after giving birth to Ada, when he was three. In 1912 his father married Jean Warren, the union producing three more siblings, Warren, Katherine, and Hugh Reskymer (Kym).

The reputation of Bonython’s paternal grandfather, the work demands of his own father, the early loss of his birth mother, and the social activities of his step-mother were critical in shaping his outlook on life. Recollections of being alone at night as a young child with both parents away gave him strong and enduring empathy with the underdog. At the Collegiate School of St Peter (1913–23), he won prizes for English, history, economics, and physics. Although he qualified for matriculation at fifteen, he remained at school and completed additional subjects because of his youth. He attended King’s College, Cambridge, where he studied law (BA, 1927). Exposure to the views of J. M. (Baron) Keynes at university, and those of Friedrich Hayek years afterwards, confirmed his view that capitalism and free enterprise needed an intellectual, if not an ideological, basis to compete with socialism.

A keen sportsman, Bonython had captained his school’s tennis team and gained a Blue for Australian Rules football. At Cambridge he captained the university’s lacrosse team against Oxford and was awarded a half-Blue. Later golf would become his main adult sporting interest. Physically fearless, he did not hesitate to assist strangers in trouble. While still a student, he went to London to act as a special constable during the British general strike of May 1926. He spent the university’s summer break that year in Adelaide and on 4 September at St John’s Anglican Church married Minnie Hope Rutherford, granddaughter of the New Zealand pastoralist and politician Andrew Rutherford. The wedding was a major event in the city’s social calendar.

On 20 June 1928 Bonython was called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn, London. He returned to Adelaide in 1929 expecting to have a newspaper career, only to find that his grandfather had just sold his controlling interest in Advertiser Newspapers Ltd to the Melbourne-based Herald & Weekly Times Ltd. Instead he practised law with the firm of Baker, McEwin, Ligertwood & Millhouse. Active in public affairs, he nominated, unsuccessfully, for Liberal Federation preselection for Alexandra in 1929, while a member of the Political Reform League. He served as president (1937–39) of the Taxpayers Association of South Australia and, following a six-month overseas trip in 1937, he was interviewed for an article about his impressions of the tax system of the United States of America (Advertiser 1938, 25). The Roosevelt administration, he believed, was creating confusion and impeding business by imposing, and then wavering over, novel forms of taxation. Between August 1939 and January 1942 he served part time in the Citizen Military Forces, performing regimental and legal duties in Adelaide and rising to captain.

From the late 1930s Bonython’s business interests had expanded. He lectured on the virtues of enterprise to Adelaide audiences. Although well known for his long-term directorships of National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Ltd, Eagle Star Insurance Co. Ltd, Argo Investments Ltd, Executor Trustee & Agency Co. of South Australia Ltd, and the Herald and Weekly Times Ltd, he also directed less-established ventures such as Alaska Ice Cream and Produce Co. Ltd and Currie Gold Mines NL. Appointed a director of Advertiser Newspapers Ltd in 1942, he became chairman in 1971. He brought to the role his grandfather’s perfectionism, especially regarding grammatical precision and accurate headlines. A leading journalist, Stewart Cockburn, reminisced: ‘He always loved, and was proud of, the paper. No other director in memory took such pains, in his heyday, to get to know staff personally’ (Cockburn 1983, 59). The business had changed, however, from when his father was vice-chairman and, by the time of his retirement in 1980, some directors viewed him as overly pedantic.

Bonython’s strong entrepreneurial drive and desire to make his own mark had led him and a school acquaintance, Robert Bristowe, to launch South Australian and Northern Territory Oil Search (Santos) Ltd in March 1954, with Bonython as chairman. They secured exploration licences for much of South Australia but lacked capital and expertise until, accompanied by a government geologist, Reginald Sprigg, they spotted droplets of oil surfacing on a water bore at Wilkatana, north of Port Augusta. The first well the company drilled was barren. Others drilled further north in a joint venture with Delhi Australian Petroleum Ltd also proved disappointing, until the consortium discovered natural gas in commercial quantities at Gidgealpa in 1963 and at Moomba in 1966.

Without Bonython’s ‘unyielding faith and pertinacity it is doubtful whether [Santos] would have got off the ground’ (Cockburn 1983, 60). The enterprise grew under his leadership from a ‘belief’ into one of the largest ten companies in Australia (Field 1981, 1). As a consequence of continuing ill-health after a slight stroke, he announced his retirement from the board in an ‘at times emotional’ shareholders’ meeting on 21 April 1981 (Field 1981, 1); he remained an emeritus director. Port Bonython, near Whyalla, was named in his honour.

Having been divorced by Hope in March 1950, Bonython married Shirley Joan Smith, a nursing sister, at the Pirie Street Methodist Church, Adelaide, on 29 November that year. A member of Adelaide’s business and social elite by birth, throughout his life he exhibited characteristics of conservatism, modesty, and determination; he was also shy and something of a loner. In 1980 he was appointed AO for his services to the media and industry. He was a member of the Naval, Military and Air Force Club of South Australia. On 17 April 1992 he died in Adelaide, his wife, their son and daughter, and the son and two daughters of his first marriage, surviving him. As he had been in life, his passing was discreet; following a private service, he was cremated. An annual John Bonython lecture was initiated to commemorate his important early support of the Centre for Independent Studies, an organisation fostering ideas of free enterprise and capitalism.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Advertiser (Adelaide). 'Financial Trend Abroad: Impressions of Mr. John Bonython: Enquiries in U.S.: Criticism of Mr. Roosevelt.’ 8 January 1938, 25
  • Advertiser (Adelaide).  'The Modest Man Who Made Santos.’ 20 April 1992, 11
  • Cockburn, Stewart. The Patriarchs. Glen Osmond, SA: Ferguson Publications, 1983
  • Field, John. 'Santos Founder Calls It a Day.’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 22 April 1981, 1
  • Gibbs, R. M. Bulls, Bears and Wildcats: A Centenary History of the Stock Exchange of Adelaide. Norwood, SA: Peacock Publications, 1988
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, S17232

Additional Resources

Citation details

Martin Shanahan, 'Bonython, John Langdon (1905–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bonython-john-langdon-18069/text29646, published online 2016, accessed online 16 November 2018.

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