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Bonython, Sir John Langdon (1848–1939)

by W. B. Pitcher

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

John Langdon Bonython (1848-1939), by Lafayette Studios, 1915

John Langdon Bonython (1848-1939), by Lafayette Studios, 1915

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23251662

Sir John Langdon Bonython (1848-1939), editor, newspaper proprietor and philanthropist, was born in London on 15 October 1848, second son of George Langdon Bonython, carpenter and builder, and his wife Ann, née McBain. The family arrived in South Australia in July 1854. Bonython attended Brougham School, North Adelaide, and in 1864 joined the Advertiser as a reporter. His abilities were recognized by J. H. Barrow, the editor, who soon put him in charge of the literary staff. On 24 December 1870 Bonython married Mary Louisa Fredericka Balthasar in Adelaide; they had eight children of whom three daughters and three sons survived infancy.

Successful speculation in mining shares helped Bonython to buy into the business in 1879 and when he was only 36 he became editor, a post he held for forty-five years. He became sole proprietor in 1893 and began to amass a personal fortune, which at the time of his death was one of the largest in Australia. The business remained under his direct control until 1929 when it was sold for £1,250,000 and turned into a public company.

Bonython had an unswerving ambition to excel. He possessed good health, abundant self-confidence, an unusual capacity for hard work and an ability to disengage himself in private from business worries. These attributes, together with his journalistic ability, sure business acumen and shrewd appreciation of public taste, were the basis of his remarkable success. Under his direction the Advertiser became a prominent Australian daily newspaper, addressing itself less to the conservative pastoral interests than to the small businessman and landholder. It reflected the aspirations of the growing middle class and its pride in the developing State and came to be identified with South Australia's progress. Through this the Advertiser prospered, although its financial success can also be attributed to the prominence given to the small advertisement. Above all, Bonython stressed that a newspaper should be full of news and its coverage as complete as possible. He was no friend of the Australian Journalists' Association.

Bonython maintained an independence from the ruling political and social elite and in fact did not join the Adelaide Club until his retirement at 81. However he exerted great influence. He expounded a liberal progressive policy, which in the 1890s had much in common with that of C. C. Kingston, the radical premier. He was the confidant of many men in political and economic affairs at home, interstate and abroad and his aid was often enlisted in particular causes. In 1895 he assisted Chief Justice Sir Samuel Way to obtain a seat on the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. He prevailed on Kingston to back Way's nomination despite a feud between the two, and got David Syme of the Age to secure the support of (Sir) George Turner, the Victorian premier. Finally, he persuaded Kingston to visit Turner to clinch the matter. During these negotiations he abrogated his rule never to visit the office of a politician even though his own door was open to all-comers. Apart from Way, Bonython numbered Sir James Penn Boucaut, Alfred Deakin, Sir John Forrest and Sir John Cockburn among his friends.

Early in his career the cause of universal elementary education interested Bonython and the Advertiser commented fully on the developments which followed the Education Act, 1875. He was chairman of the board of advice for the school district of Adelaide in 1883-1901 and became particularly interested in technical education, considering it 'the master-key to that efficiency without which there can be no industrial or commercial success'. In 1886 he was appointed to a board to inquire into technical education and as a result of its report the South Australian School of Mines and Industries was established; from 1888 until his death he was a member, and for fifty years president, of its council. He was chairman of Roseworthy Agricultural college in 1895-1902, and a member of the Council of the University of Adelaide in 1916-39. He was knighted in 1898; that year he and (Sir) J. R. Fairfax of the Sydney Morning Herald became the first Australian newspaper proprietors to be so honoured.

Through the Advertiser Bonython advocated Federation, but he wanted the rights of the smaller States to be more explicitly safeguarded than was proposed. In 1901 he was elected to the House of Representatives, being second to Kingston in a State-wide poll. He was re-elected unopposed in 1903 for the division of Barker. In the House he favoured protection, retrenchment, and the White Australia policy. He advanced the interests of South Australian local industry and urged the Commonwealth to take over the Northern Territory. He became a follower of Alfred Deakin, who wanted him to give his full time to politics; their friendship survived a sharp disagreement over the composition of Deakin's ministry of July 1905 and his disappointment that Deakin's recommendation of him for a K.C.M.G. in 1908 was not accepted. Bonython did not contest the 1906 election although the Labor Party proposed to grant him, and other Protectionists, immunity from opposition; he suspected that his party would soon be out of power and travelling to Melbourne for parliamentary sittings was becoming irksome.

Bonython was a member of the royal commission on old-age pensions in 1905-06 and helped to establish the Commonwealth Literary Fund, serving as chairman in 1908-29. He was a trustee and one of seven commissioners appointed under the Australian Soldiers' Repatriation Acts of 1916 and 1917. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1908 and K.C.M.G. in 1919 for his services to the Commonwealth.

To some he seemed parsimonious, but most found him more than generous. Bonython made many important public benefactions, mostly to educational institutions. In 1902-37 he gave £22,750 to the School of Mines and Industries, £20,000 to the University of Adelaide in 1926 to endow a chair of law, and £50,000 in 1930-34 for the erection of the Bonython Hall. His largest benefaction was made in 1934, when he gave £100,000 towards the cost of completing Parliament House. He distributed meal tickets to the needy in bad times, guaranteed the account of a printing firm, Mail Newspapers Ltd, for £2500 during a difficult period, and helped the government pay the salaries of the civil service during a financial crisis in the Depression. Bonython contributed to a variety of causes and institutions during his lifetime and beneficiaries under his will included the Pirie Street Methodist Church, where he always worshipped and of which he was a trustee; St Peter's Cathedral, to which he donated the cost of the canons' and choir stalls in 1925 in memory of his wife who had died the previous year; and the Salvation Army.

Bonython was descended from an old Cornish family and, inspired by his grandmother, took an interest in his heritage. He had a fine library of books on Cornish history and was patron of the South Australian Cornish Association and a member of the English Royal Institution of Cornwall. Although he acquired some family relics, he deeply regretted that he could not buy back Bonython, the family seat in Cornwall. He was proud of the honours bestowed on him though, towards the end of his life, he desired an hereditary title, a baronetcy or a barony, but it was not forthcoming.

Bonython was a short, distinguished-looking man who could be stern and was strict with his children. His family were somewhat awed by his achievements and his expectation that his male descendants at least should strive to follow his example. Personally fastidious, and suspicious of anything that might harbour germs, he enjoyed good health until the end of his life. He died on 22 October 1939, aged 91, and after a service in St Peter's Anglican Cathedral and state funeral he was buried in West Terrace cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at over £4 million. Portraits hang in Parliament House, Adelaide, the board room of Advertiser Newspapers Ltd and Bonython Hall; others are held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • A. J. Hannan, The Life of Chief Justice Way (Syd, 1960)
  • D. Green (ed), An Age of Technology 1889-1964 (Adel, 1964)
  • J. A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin (Melb, 1965)
  • E. G. Bonython, History of the Families of Bonython … (Adel, 1966)
  • T. T. Reed, A History of the Cathedral Church of St Peter (Adel, 1969)
  • P. M. Weller (ed), Caucus Minutes, vols 1-3 (Melb, 1975)
  • ‘The great Australasian dailies’, Review of Reviews (Australasian ed), 1892
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 24 Feb 1903, 15 Oct 1928, 26 Sept 1934, 23 Oct 1939, Mail (Adelaide), 12 Oct 1918
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 15 Oct 1938
  • R. L. Butler papers (State Records of South Australia)
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

W. B. Pitcher, 'Bonython, Sir John Langdon (1848–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bonython-sir-john-langdon-5286/text8915, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 30 September 2014.

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

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