Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Booth, John (1822–1898)

by G. P. Walsh

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

John Booth (1822-1898), timber merchant and politician, was born on 27 February 1822 at Bermondsey, London, son of Henry Booth, corn-factor, of Surbiton. He went to sea in 1833, reached Sydney in the barque Rajah in 1839 and in his own words 'stopped ashore in 1840 to learn shipwrighting'. He learned the trade at Kincumber, Brisbane Water, under Jonathan Piper and in 1846 turned master builder. Business grew and about 1854 Booth moved to a more central location at Balmain (later the 'containerization' terminal). After shipbuilding for a few years he entered the timber trade and opened mills at Balmain and on the Manning River. In 1870 Booth's Balmain Sawmill, together with his Sussex Street yards, had sixty employees and an output of 60,000 feet (18,288 m) a week. In that year Booth retired, leasing his business to Taylor, Kethel & Preddy, and sailed for England. In December 1874 the mills were destroyed by fire and, as they were only partly insured, Booth's loss was heavy. They were rebuilt on a larger scale and by 1885 John Booth & Co. Ltd had doubled its number of employees and increased production to 200,000 feet (60,960 m) of timber a week. Booth's residence, Surbiton House, Donnelly Street, Balmain, was next to his nine-acre (3.6 ha) establishment; he also owned many other houses at Balmain, a property at Cooma and 510 acres (206 ha) at Bundanoon.

Booth entered politics in February 1872, when he and Joseph Wearne, John Robertson and Joseph Raphael were elected for West Sydney. Standing as a representative of both capital and labour he claimed that he opposed injustice to the working classes and reduction of their salaries. He approved the eight-hour movement in principle and wanted more liberal land measures, 'something after the American system', as the government's land bill was in part 'very oppressive to the poor and favoured the better classes'. He was also opposed to border customs and wanted to see Sydney made a free port. He stood for the Glebe in December 1874 as a Public Schools League candidate but lost to (Sir) George Wigram Allen. He then stood in January 1875 for East Macquarie, advocating the extension of railways and new land and mining Acts, and was returned along with William Suttor junior. In 1877 he stood for the Williams electorate but was defeated by William Johnston by twenty-one votes.

Self-made and largely uneducated, Booth was an unsophisticated politician and his short parliamentary career was not very distinguished. A stocky and jovial figure, he was not in his own words 'a long-winded member in the House', where he usually sat on the cross benches; his chief interest with marine matters earned him the title 'the honourable member for the lighthouses'. In May 1874 he was examined by the select committee on wharf accommodation for the port of Sydney. He was also active in local government and other civic affairs; in 1867 he was the first mayor in Balmain and active in the School of Arts and the Working Men's Institute. Booth died at his country residence, Ferndale, Bundanoon, on 11 April 1898 and was buried in Waverley cemetery. He was survived by his wife Susannah, née Wetherall, whom he had married at Brisbane Water in 1850, and by four sons and six of their seven daughters. His wife died at Balmain on 27 November 1916. The eldest child, Emily Ann, married Norman Selfe.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Digby (ed), Australian Men of Mark, vol 1 (Syd, 1889)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Sept 1870, 13, 15, 20 Feb 1872, 10, 12 Dec 1874, 2, 7 Jan 1875, 25 Oct, 3 Nov 1877, 14 Apr 1893
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 23 Nov 1872, 11 July 1889
  • Town and Country Journal, 25 Apr 1885.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Booth, John (1822–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/booth-john-3024/text4431, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 25 July 2016.

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

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