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Douglas, John (1828–1904)

by R. B. Joyce

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

John Douglas (1828-1904), by unknown engraver, 1877

John Douglas (1828-1904), by unknown engraver, 1877

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S29/09/77/100

John Douglas (1828-1904), politician and administrator, was born on 6 March 1828 in London, the seventh son of Henry Alexander Douglas and his wife Elizabeth Dalzell, daughter of the Earl of Carnwarth. His grandfather was Sir William Douglas of Kelhead and his uncle the famous marquess of Queensberry. When his parents died in 1837, his aunts took him to their home near Lockerbie, Dumfriesshire. He was educated at the Edinburgh Academy, Rugby in 1843-47 and the University of Durham (B.A., 1850). Entries from December 1848 to September 1850 in a diary suggest a not unusual youth: he worried about examinations, attended church regularly and with much conviction, and was closely attached to his family particularly his brothers Hugh and Edward and his sister Eliza. With a passion for walking he spent some time after graduation in the Lakes District and the Cheviots. In contemplation of entering the Church of England, he may have tutored in 1850 at Abbotsley, Huntingdonshire. He dabbled in geology, read Lyall's text and looked for 'specimens of epidote and chlorite'.

His interest in minerals possibly contributed to his decision to migrate with Edward to Australia. Certainly he had earlier expressed interest in the California gold rush. He had also been crossed in love. With £2000 for acquiring land, the brothers sailed for Sydney as cabin passengers in the Malacca and arrived in August 1851. Next March John was appointed sub-commissioner of the southern goldfields at a salary of £200. He was stationed at Major's Creek near Araluen but resigned in September and November took control of the police at Tuena goldfield. His salary was £300 in 1853 but on 21 June he resigned to join Edward on the land, possibly with Thomas Hood Hood who in 1852-53 held a depasturing licence for the 16,000-acre (6475 ha) run Boree near Wellington. In 1854 with Hood they went to the Darling Downs and bought, reputedly for £50,000, the 64,000-acre (25,900 ha) station Talgai which in 1853 ran 20,900 sheep. Hood was elected in 1855 to the New South Wales Legislative Council for the pastoral districts of Clarence and Darling Downs and sat in the reconsituted council until 1861. The Douglas brothers found other congenial acquaintances among the squatters, many of them newly arrived from Scotland. Nehemiah Bartley described John as a 'young, tall, well-made, slim swell … in his velvet coat, Bedford cords and boots', and he raced at local meetings. He also helped to establish the Darling Downs Gazette in 1858 and soon decided to enter politics 'as a kind of relaxation'.

Douglas represented the Darling Downs in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly from July to December 1859; 'As a liberal in heart as well as in principle' he generally supported the premier, Charles Cowper, and claimed that 'his interests were identified' with those of the Downs. He also spoke on such matters as expenditure on roads and bridges in his electorate in comparison with receipts from land sales, and voted against Queensland inheriting on separation part of the public debt of New South Wales. In December 1860 he re-entered politics, holding the second seat for Camden until he resigned on 17 July 1861. He denied standing as 'Mr Cowper's nominee' and told Sir William Macarthur of his hopes to live near Sydney and to reconcile political opponents. The Sydney Morning Herald classified him as an obvious ministerialist and his nomination speech supported Cowper's associate, (Sir) John Robertson, who was advocating free selection before survey. Meanwhile Douglas, besides holding Talgai until 1862, may have had an interest in another Hood property, Langton Downs near Clermont; on 13 July 1860 he bought in the Port Curtis district six pastoral runs, Tivoli, Borenia, Dundee, Montrose, Panuco and Tooloombah, sometimes collectively known as Tooloombah. When Douglas mortgaged them in 1860 to Gilchrist, Watt & Co. to raise £5000, they ran 1991 cattle. He had probably over-stocked and the evidence suggests that the Douglas brothers had not made the profits they expected from squatting. In 1861 Edward returned to Scotland; in Sydney John married Mary Ann Howe, the widowed daughter of Rev. William West Simpson.

Douglas moved to Brisbane in 1863 and was elected for Port Curtis to the Queensland Legislative Assembly where he remained independent of the Herbert ministry. When Arthur Macalister became premier in 1866 Douglas accepted office as a minister without portfolio from 1 to 28 February and postmaster-general from 1 March to 20 July and leader of the government in the Legislative Council. In 1867 he was elected for the Eastern Downs. He was treasurer from 19 December 1866 to 21 May 1867 and then secretary for public works until 15 August. He clashed, however, with Macalister and later opposed the squatter ministry of (Sir) Robert Mackenzie. As an ardent advocate of the pro-agriculturist provisions in the land bill of 1867, he strongly attacked squatters for their practice of dummying on the Darling Downs, and was appointed chairman of a select committee. Although the majority found his allegations unproven, Douglas refused to accept this verdict. Despite his attitudes he was returned for the Eastern Downs in 1868 and when the liberal (Sir) Charles Lilley became premier Douglas held office as postmaster-general from 12 December to 13 November 1869 and moved into the Legislative Council as leader of the government on the understanding that he would be appointed Queensland's emigration agent and agent-general in England at £1000 a year. In these posts from 15 September 1869 to 29 December 1870 he vigorously advocated migration to Queensland, tried vainly to promote a cable from Java to Queensland, made useful contacts with the Colonial Office but resigned after disagreements with the Palmer ministry. Later criticism of his work, doubts about his appointment and an alleged overcharge of £1320 which had 'lapsed in consequence of insolvency' led him to petition parliament. With (Sir) Samuel Griffith's support a select committee of inquiry was appointed; its report on 30 July 1872 mainly exonerated Douglas. Meanwhile he had become insolvent on his own petition on 23 February 1872, owing £6767 15s. 9d. to Gilchrist, Watt & Co. for moneys advanced in 1860 and 1869.

After his return from England Douglas was easily defeated for East Moreton in November 1871, narrowly lost the Brisbane seat in November 1873 and was just beaten for Darling Downs in March 1875 in a campaign marked by sectarian bitterness. On 23 April he was returned for Maryborough and in the Thorn ministry as secretary for public lands from 5 June 1876 to 8 March 1877 introduced two minor bills which became the Crown Lands Alienation Act and the Settled Districts Pastoral Leases Act. He was also vice-president of the Executive Council. He replaced Thorn as premier in 1877, combining this position with lands from 8 March to 7 November and with the colonial secretaryship from 7 November 1877 to 21 January 1879. As leader of the Liberals against the Nationalists Douglas could do little while his party was losing popular support. He had alienated some voters by his desire to use land sale revenue to extend railways as far as the Gulf of Carpentaria. He found more support for his anti-Chinese legislation, keeping many of these unwanted migrants out of Queensland by quarantine regulations while his bill awaited royal assent. Always obstinate Douglas was found guilty of 'a very extraordinary breach of privilege' in 1880. He sent to the Brisbane Courier information given to a select committee despite standing orders which forbade publication before evidence was reported to parliament. Douglas had acted because he disliked 'any secret Legislative Committee, except when very weighty public considerations and the cause of morality demands secrecy', and he refused to apologize even after the assembly had voted that he was guilty of contempt. His parliamentary career was ended, though in 1883 he contested Brisbane without success.

During his political career and later he was a regular leader writer for the Courier and other colonial papers, winning praise from the journalist, Spencer Browne, for expounding in a 'bright and scholarly' way a variety of political, literary, scientific and educational issues. He had sat on the royal commission which in 1875 recommended the introduction of free, compulsory and secular education. He was a trustee of Brisbane Grammar School in 1874-77, the foundation president of the Spring Hill Mechanics' Institute in May 1864, and president of the influential North Brisbane School of Arts in 1872-85. His support of knowledge for its own sake and as a source of social and moral benefit was combined with more utilitarian arguments for technical education. 'The mechanic', he said, 'will certainly be no worse a mechanic, and he will undoubtedly be an infinitely better man and a more useful citizen if he knows something of the laws which govern the universe, and which surround him with the most inexhaustible beneficence'. He joined the Johnsonian Club founded in 1878 and was its president in 1880. His scientific and literary ideas were compatible with his religion; always a sincere Anglican, he was warden of All Saints and a member of the Diocesan Church Society in Brisbane. He was also a Freemason and district grand master. In 1877 he was appointed C.M.G.

In 1884 Douglas visited England where on 30 April he applied to the Colonial Office for appointment to the imperial service. (Sir) John Bramston thought his age was against him, but Herbert minuted that as 'a man of ability and high character' he should be considered. On 16 May he was assured that his name would be 'borne in mind' though 'few appointments' seemed suitable. Back in Queensland he resumed his journalism and sought through Griffith 'some form of administration'. In April 1885 he was offered the post of government resident and police magistrate at Thursday Island. In July he visited most of the islands of Torres Strait in his charge, and accompanied Captain Everill's expedition for the Geographical Society of Australasia up the Fly River in New Guinea. After Sir Peter Scratchley died in December 1885 Douglas was appointed special commissioner of the protectorate of British New Guinea; he remained in charge until its annexation in September 1888. As a commissioner with few defined powers Douglas realized that he could not achieve much, and hoped in 1887 that 'something [would soon be] settled—the present position is an absurd one'. His general lines of policy followed those of Scratchley and the spirit of J. E. Erskine's proclamation: to protect the Papuans yet to develop the island for Europeans. His long crusade for financial support from the Australian colonies was fruitless, since few Australian politicians had any interest in New Guinea despite the furore over the 1883 'annexation'. His 1887 diary shows that he spent the first three and last two months in Australia, often travelling to Sydney and Melbourne to interview politicians. He found time to walk with his sons in the Blue Mountains and near the family homes at Tenterfield and Sandgate, and in Thursday Island and New Guinea he patrolled regularly. Douglas was not chosen for the permanent appointment partly because the Colonial Office thought his wife 'unpresentable', but mainly because other candidates were preferred. In 1888 he returned to Thursday Island where, apart from a visit to Britain in 1902, he remained in charge until his death on 23 July 1904. He was survived by his second wife Sarah, née Hickey, whom he had married with Catholic rites in 1877, and by their four sons of whom the two eldest, despite his reservations, had completed their education at a Benedictine school in Scotland.

As a politician Douglas exemplified the independent local liberal member, uneasy in any party structure. He was not forceful enough to be a factional leader for long; in 1871 he was described as 'the d—est ass in the House', and others thought him vacillating. To William Coote in 1877, although Douglas was 'not an orator, not epigrammatic, not really argumentative nor imaginative … he has in fact a combination of talents each of which approaches to average excellence, and just falls short of the summit … a pleasant gentlemanly person of moderate acquirements'. Lewis Bernays claimed that he was more successful as a clever political wire-puller behind the scenes than on the floor of the House, but he was outmanoeuvred by Griffith. More clearly he was a leader in Brisbane's intellectual, literary and religious circles. As a conscientious administrator he had a sincere interest in his indigenous charges and the economic development of the islands. He wrote copious analyses of the problems of the area, particularly in his annual reports where he always supported transfer of some islands to New Guinea's control. In 1895 he warned that 'it looks as if these Japs, most indefatigable, persevering little fellows will before long possess themselves of the fishery' and he compared the position with that faced when in the Queensland government he sought to stem 'the first great Chinese invasion of Queensland'. In 1897 he sought 'to encourage the exercise of authority through Headmen … in all the Islands of any importance', who control 'their countrymen, partly in virtue of hereditary descent, and partly because they exercise a certain personal ascendancy'. He was also concerned in wider national problems. An ardent supporter of White Australia, he believed 'we must through the length and breadth of Australia, be commandingly European', and he constantly advocated Federation, lecturing in its support as early as 1875 at Toowoomba and writing such articles as 'An Australian Nation' for the Melbourne Review in 1880; his Past and Present of Thursday Island and Torres Straits (Brisbane, 1900) ended with a plea for a 'yes' vote for the 'triumphant consummation of our Australian Constitutional Commonwealth'. His long rule at Thursday Island had been plagued by domestic and financial worries but he found compensation in his achievements, his intense religious beliefs and the progress of his sons. Port Douglas, in northern Queensland, was named while he was premier and a memorial chapel was built in the cathedral on Thursday Island.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Goodman, Secondary Education in Queensland (Canberra, 1968)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1863-80
  • Annual Reports for British New Guinea and Thursday Island, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1863-1904: W. Coote, ‘The Hon. John Douglas’, Week (Brisbane), 19 May 1877
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1859-61
  • Brisbane Courier, 25 July 1904
  • Thursday Island Pilot, 30 July 1904
  • J. X. Jobson, Sir Arthur Hunter Palmer (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1961)
  • J. T. Cleary, The North Brisbane School of Arts (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1967)
  • Eve Douglas, The Hon. John Douglas, 1828-1904 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CSO, Land, Shipping, Treasury and Gold Commissioners, records, 1851-54 (State Records New South Wales)
  • land, mortgage and insolvency records, 1859-1904 (Queensland State Archives)
  • Colonial Office dispatches 1859-1904 (Queensland State Archives)
  • Palmer papers (State Library of Queensland)
  • manuscript catalogue under John Douglas (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 234/44-45, 422/1-4.

Citation details

R. B. Joyce, 'Douglas, John (1828–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/douglas-john-3430/text5221, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 24 November 2017.

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

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