Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Danks, John (1828–1902)

by J. Ann Hone

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

John Danks (1828-1902), businessman, was born in January 1828 at Wednesbury, Staffordshire, England, son of John Danks, a wrought iron and gas tube manufacturer, and his wife Hannah, née Hickman. At 8 he was apprenticed to his father but finished his training with another firm and then joined his brothers, Samuel and Thomas, in starting an iron and tube works in Wednesbury. In 1857 the brothers and their families arrived in the Shaftesbury at Melbourne. After several unsuccessful ventures the brothers became hardware manufacturers, dealing 'in nearly everything suitable for plumbers, engineers, gasfitters and water supply'; one of their first jobs was the manufacture of pipe connexions for the Yan Yean water supply.

In 1860 Thomas retired and the firm continued as J. & S. Danks until 1871 when Samuel retired. The next twenty years brought rapid expansion: branch shops were established in Sydney and in Christchurch, New Zealand; John's son, Aaron, became a partner and in 1885 started a brassfoundry in England; Danks won prizes at the Philadelphia, Sydney and Melbourne International Exhibitions. The number of his employees grew from 35 to 150 and his contemporaries attributed his success to his being 'just the man for the time', one 'whose business was continually enlarged by the demands of a growing city'. Danks believed more in his own ability and in the beneficial effects of the tariff which he had forcefully advocated when the question was vital to manufacturers. In September 1874 he had helped to form the Manufacturers' Association and next year called the meeting from which the Protection League developed; Danks became president of the Emerald Hill (South Melbourne) branch.

The first serious check to Danks's success was the depression of the 1890s; by the end of 1892 the sheet lead mill was idle and 1894 brought a £1503 deficit. Danks was severely shocked but his son could soon write, 'my father has quite pulled himself together again and looks as well as ever'. Indeed, in that year manufacturing was started in Sydney, to the annoyance of their Melbourne rival, John McIlwraith, with whom, however, they reached an agreement. In 1896 Danks won the contract for the City of Melbourne sewerage and two years later it was still making up for the decline in ordinary business. By 1900 he had 200 employees and a capital of £300,000.

Danks was a member of the Emerald Hill Council in 1871-80 and as mayor in 1874-76 was painstaking in his efforts for the ratepayers. In 1877 he unsuccessfully contested the Emerald Hill seat in the Legislative Assembly. He was a founder and director of the Australian and European Bank and a commissioner at the 1888 Paris Exhibition. Deeply religious, he was active in the Methodist Church and a Sunday school-teacher for thirty years. He gave £3000 to the Cecil Street Wesleyan Church, supported many charities and hospitals, and towards the end of his life marked each birthday by giving away £100.

A charming man of slight build, Danks was little changed by success. In his few years of semi-retirement he was happiest at his turning lathe, explaining 'I was always a mechanic and all my people before me were mechanics . . . [there are] few better mechanics here than myself'. He loved his garden and enjoyed music, being able to 'knock out a tune on almost any instrument'. He filled his house with paintings (he gave £100 to the Wednesbury Art Gallery) and his fine library included many books on art, science and metal-work. He continued to own land in Staffordshire but had no wish to return there because 'an Australian can never get used to the English climate'. He died after a short illness at his home, Vermont, Merton Crescent, South Melbourne, on 28 February 1902; he was survived by his wife Ann, née Turner, and by one daughter and one son of their eight children.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Humphreys (ed), Men of the Time in Australia: Victorian Series (Melbourne, 1878)
  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melbourne, 1888)
  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melbourne, 1903)
  • Australasian Trade Review, 15 Feb 1882
  • Table Talk, 26 Sept 1901
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 Mar 1902
  • Danks papers (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

J. Ann Hone, 'Danks, John (1828–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/danks-john-3363/text5077, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 21 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

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