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Dow, John Lamont (1837–1923)

by Hume Dow

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

John Lamont Dow (1837-1923), by unknown photographer

John Lamont Dow (1837-1923), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H32497

John Lamont Dow (1837-1923), politician and journalist, was born on 8 December 1837 at Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland, son of David Hill Dow (1818-1884), weaver, and his wife Agnes, née Lamont. In 1848 the family migrated to the Geelong district, where his father became a station overseer and Barrabool shire councillor. John was brought up to farming and stock-raising near Geelong; he claimed to have shorn in one season 'a daily average of 98 big wethers, not bare-bellied ewes'. In 1862 he joined a group sponsored by a pastoral company to explore Gulf of Carpentaria country, was among the founders of Burketown and became an early pastoralist on the Herbert River tableland. Ill from gulf-fever, he returned to Victoria in 1868 and worked on the land and as a miner until he joined the Age in 1873. He soon became agricultural editor of the Leader, a post he held until 1886 and again in 1892-1915.

On 15 September 1876 Dow addressed Ballarat's National Reform League on 'Our Land Acts and a Land Tax', using a giant map showing the vast areas held by squatters partly through dummies; he was later accused of 'Barnumising himself' into parliament. Adopting the 1860 'Unlock the Lands' slogan, he advocated a leasing system and was the first to propose taxes on land graduated by amount and quality alone, irrespective of improvements. The lecture was printed and widely distributed. In six months Dow addressed twenty-two country centres, helping to bring the selector vote behind (Sir) Graham Berry in the defeat of (Sir) James McCulloch in 1877. Elected for the new Kara Kara seat, Dow moved the address-in-reply on 26 June, pressing his radical liberal views. He held Kara Kara until 1893, often by walkover, nursing his electorate by helping selectors to peg out claims.

A 'Berryite' backbencher for nine years, he actively advocated land legislation, establishment of agricultural colleges, David Syme's protectionism and temperance legislation. As a Wesleyan, he was a founding vice-president of the Victorian Alliance in 1881. In 1883 the Australasian sent his brother, Thomas Kirkland, to America and the Leader sent John; their articles on agricultural developments, later published as Thomas's A Tour in America and John's The Australian in America, were important in popularizing irrigation in Victoria. The Age deputed John to accompany Alfred Deakin, chairman of the royal commission on water supply and irrigation, which Dow later joined, on his 1885 mission to America: one result was the founding of Mildura.

In the 1886-90 Gillies-Deakin coalition government Dow was minister of lands, agriculture and mines, but soon relinquished the mines portfolio because of claims that it and agriculture were antagonistic. As lands minister he tripled forest reserves, reserved Wilson's Promontory as a national park and founded the Forests Department; more importantly his extensions of Albert Tucker's 1884 Land Act expanded wheat and pastoral development in the Mallee. Dow's most significant effect on Victoria, however, was as minister for agriculture: in 1888 he sponsored large government bonuses to encourage agricultural, dairying, fruit and wine development. The bonus scheme led to the establishment of co-operative butter factories with an export worth £1 million by 1895 and made dairying a major Victorian industry. His political opponent Thomas Bent once said, 'Whenever I visit a dairying district, I raise my hat to the cow and to J. L. Dow'.

Dow's ministerial career was interrupted in May 1890 when he and the other directors of the Premier Permanent Building Society, of whom he had been one, were charged with fraud. In Dow's case, however, the charge was merely 'of a technical nature' and he was the only director not committed for trial. He rejoined the cabinet soon before it fell and was re-elected unopposed. Nevertheless, Dow had been involved in speculation, especially in Maitland coal through Felix Kabat, and forfeited his seat in 1893 when declared bankrupt. He admitted that he had speculated in mining 'all his life', and told the Insolvency Court, 'The next man that comes to you with a good thing, hit him with a club'.

His last parliamentary speech on 18 January 1893 helped to bring down the Shiels-Berry government that day; as 'an old, indurated and thick-skinned politician', he attacked his former leader, Berry, for compromising his liberal principles by joining Shiels. Dow re-entered politics only to contest the first Senate election in 1901 as 'a Syme candidate' and was narrowly defeated. In the Leader he had campaigned against bank foreclosures on farmers in 1895 and continued to write prolifically on land, stock-breeding, conservation and irrigation until his retirement in 1915. He died in Melbourne on 16 July 1923.

Dow saw his whole career in both politics and journalism as one lived in the farmers' interest: all his public work was dominated by the view that a balanced development of Victoria demanded rapid expansion of agriculture between the growing metropolis and the squatters' runs. His contributions to land legislation, dairying, irrigation and conservation justify this view. His belief from 1879 that 'without the mutual give-and-take of a reasonable compromise practical legislation is impossible' made him a skilled parliamentarian as well as Victoria's leading agricultural journalist for forty years. It was his misfortune, and possibly Victoria's, that his compulsive and careless mining speculations put him out of politics when his experience, political nous and abundant energy were combining to best effect. Naive in business—'honest, but takes it for granted that all others are honest too', said James Purves who prosecuted him—yet shrewd in political controversy and something of a showman, his humour and rough-and-ready repartee made him a formidable but good-tempered opponent. Despite ill health from his Queensland pioneering and a game leg, he had a genial temperament; Deakin called him 'the best raconteur he had heard'.

In 1869 Dow married Marion Jane, daughter of William A. Orr of Toorak; they had three sons and five daughters. The eldest, David McKenzie (1870-1953), was official secretary for Australia in America in 1924-31 and acting commissioner-general in 1931-38.

His brother, Thomas Kirkland, agricultural journalist, was born on 4 July 1848 at Glasgow; after teaching in a State school near Ballarat in 1870-77 he joined the Leader but worked for the Australasian in 1881-90. He served on the first Council of Agricultural Education in 1884-90, was principal of Longerenong Agricultural College in 1890-96 and went overseas for the Age in 1898. He married Margaret Campbell, née Keith; they had two sons and three daughters. Thomas died at Tresco on 2 March 1918.

Select Bibliography

  • J. A. Alexander, The Life of George Chaffey (Melb, 1928)
  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melb, 1966)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 26 June, 4 Sept 1877, 25 June 1885, 7 Aug 1889, 18 Jan 1893
  • Age (Melbourne), 16 Sept 1876, 12, 20 Aug 1890, 13, 20 Apr 1893, 17 July 1923
  • Victorian Review, 1 Dec 1879
  • S. M. Ingham, Some Aspects of Victorian Liberalism 1880-1900 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1950)
  • J. E. Parnaby, The Economic and Political Development of Victoria, 1877-1881 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1951)
  • A. M. Mitchell, Temperance and the Liquor Question in Later 19th century Victoria (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1966)
  • private information.

Citation details

Hume Dow, 'Dow, John Lamont (1837–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dow-john-lamont-3433/text5227, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 21 September 2014.

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

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