Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bray, Sir John Cox (1842–1894)

by J. J. Bray

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

John Cox Bray (1842-1894), by unknown photographer (after William Light)

John Cox Bray (1842-1894), by unknown photographer (after William Light)

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 507

Sir John Cox Bray (1842-1894), legal practitioner and politician, was born on 31 May 1842 at Adelaide, son of Tom Cox Bray, a bootmaker and early South Australian settler, and his wife Sarah, née Pink. Educated in England and at the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide, he was admitted in November 1870 to the South Australian Bar. He practised mainly as a solicitor and in December 1871 was elected to the House of Assembly as one of the two members for East Adelaide, an electorate he represented continuously until 1892. In March 1875 he was appointed minister of justice and minister of education in the Blyth ministry. However, he held office for only eighty days before the government resigned after a vote of no confidence, largely based on disapproval of the acceptance of office by Bray who in the previous session had been an opponent of the government. As attorney-general in the Colton government in 1876-77 he was responsible for introducing the Act to provide for the formation and registration of trade unions (1876 no. 41), the first of its kind in Australia. He was prominent in Opposition during the Morgan government and, after that ministry resigned and unsuccessful attempts had been made to form a government, Bray became premier on 24 June 1881; he retained office for 2 years and 358 days, the longest consecutive term for any South Australian premier up to that date. While premier he was first chief secretary and later treasurer.

Well-defined parties had not appeared in South Australia in Bray's time and ministries to a large extent rose and fell because of personal combinations. His term of office was, not unusually for South Australia, marked by attempts to alter the constitution and power of the Legislative Council. The Constitution Further Amendment Act of 1881 provided for the election of councillors in four separate electoral districts instead of by the province as a whole: at the same time the number of councillors was increased and their term of office shortened. An attempt by the cabinet, however, to provide in the same measure for the resolution of deadlocks by a two-thirds majority of the members of both Houses at a joint sitting failed in the council and in its place was substituted the provision, which still prevails, empowering the governor, in the event of a deadlock reaching a certain stage, either to dissolve both Houses or issue a writ for the election of not more than two new members for each Legislative Council district. Other important measures passed in Bray's premiership were a Mining Companies Act with no-liability provisions, a Crown Lands Act granting concessions to selectors, a Married Women's Property Act and an Act increasing the number of members of the House of Assembly.

Before the election in 1883 a bill to impose land and income tax was defeated in the council; after the election the Bray ministry was defeated on a no-confidence motion by J. Colton in June 1884. The main charges made against the government on this motion were over-liberal administration of the Crown Lands Act and unnecessary provocation of the council. During Bray's premiership the preliminary steps were taken for holding the International Jubilee Exhibition in Adelaide in 1887 and he was prominently associated with the exhibition itself.

Bray was never premier again but he held office in later ministries. In the first Downer ministry he was chief secretary in 1885-86 and treasurer in 1886-87. While Downer was in England Bray acted as premier but resigned in June 1887 after a successful vote of no confidence amendment to the address-in-reply. From May 1888 to June 1890 he was Speaker of the House of Assembly and in the New Year Honours, 1890, he was appointed K.C.M.G., an honour he had previously declined. He stepped down from the chair to become chief secretary in the second Playford cabinet in 1890-92. In this period he was one of seven South Australian representatives at the first Federal Convention in Sydney. He had previously attended the Sydney intercolonial conference of 1883 and was president of the board of directors of the South Australian branch of the Australian Natives' Association. In 1892 he was appointed agent-general for South Australia in London. His health broke down and he was forced to retire prematurely. He died near Colombo on the return journey on 12 June 1894 and was buried at sea. He was an Anglican. In Adelaide on 13 January 1870 he had married Alice Maud, daughter of John Hornabrook. He was survived by two sons and a daughter; another son died in childhood.

In his letter of congratulation on the knighthood, Alfred Deakin assured Bray that Queen Victoria had conferred the honour on the most popular of her South Australian subjects; in the Legislative Council after his death the chief secretary, (Sir) John Gordon, said that he 'bore about him always the note of serenity' and showed the world how to be 'earnest without being acrimonious: ambitious without being unjust: and successful without becoming arrogant'. Even after appropriate discounts for congratulation and panegyric it would seem that Bray was notable for geniality, tact, persuasiveness and administrative skill. His general popularity and his ability to disarm opposition were attested in the speeches and notices after his death. He was the first native-born South Australian premier, Speaker and agent-general.

A portrait by A. MacCormac is in the House of Assembly, Adelaide.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Hodder, The History of South Australia, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1893)
  • G. D. Combe, Responsible Government in South Australia (Adel, 1957)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 18 June 1894.

Citation details

J. J. Bray, 'Bray, Sir John Cox (1842–1894)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bray-sir-john-cox-3045/text4477, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 25 November 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

John Cox Bray (1842-1894), by unknown photographer (after William Light)

John Cox Bray (1842-1894), by unknown photographer (after William Light)

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 507