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Duffy, John Gavan (1844–1917)

by J. R. J. Grigsby

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

John Gavan Duffy (1844-1917), solicitor and politician, was born on 15 October 1844 at Dublin, Ireland, the only surviving son of Sir Charles Gavan Duffy and his first wife Emily, née McLauglin. John Gavan Duffy was educated at St Laurence O'Toole's Seminary in Dublin and Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, England. Some time after his arrival at Victoria in the Morning Light on 30 August 1859 he took up land north of the Lachlan River and then bought and leased land with his father at Sorrento. In March 1871 he matriculated at the University of Melbourne and next year took the English essay prize. However, he allowed his considerable literary ability to remain dormant, apart from contributions to the Australasian under the pen-name of Aulus. Duffy did not complete his university course but was articled to J. G. Duffett, a well-known solicitor, and practised with W. J. Wilkinson from 1876 until the latter's death in 1891.

As a successor to his father, John represented the safe Catholic seat of Dalhousie in the Legislative Assembly in 1874-86 and in 1887-1904. In James Service's first ministry from 5 March to 3 August 1880 he was president of the board of land and works, commissioner of crown lands and survey and minister of agriculture. In 1890 he was postmaster-general in the Munro government until February 1892 when in the newly formed Shiels ministry he was again appointed postmaster-general and also attorney-general. In April 1892 he resigned from these posts to stand for the Speakership but was defeated and returned to the cabinet as a minister without portfolio until the fall of the Shiels government in January 1893. In 1894-99 he was postmaster-general in the George Turner ministry and represented Australia at the Universal Postal Congress at Washington in 1897. He attended the Federal Council of Australasia in 1893 when he was chairman of the Standing Committee and was also a delegate at the Intercolonial Conference of Ministers in Sydney in 1896.

As a member of the Catholic group in parliament Duffy was a frequent spokesman on the education issue; in particular, he opposed non-denominational Christian teaching in schools. His cabinet post recognized the help that he and other Catholics had given Berry in 1877 and Service in 1880. From then on he remained friendly with the Constitutionalist free traders and for a time was the only Catholic attending their caucuses. He was prominent also in the Home Rule movement. In 1875 he brought down and carried a bill to enable women to take university degrees; however it was rejected by the Legislative Council. Charles Pearson described him as 'a popular and genial gentleman, above the average as a speaker and an administrator'.

In the 1880s Duffy helped to promote the idea of Australian exploration in the Antarctic and introduced the proposal to parliament in December 1885. When the first Australian Antarctic Exploration Committee was inaugurated in June 1886, he was a member and became a spokesman for the cause in parliament after his re-election in 1887.

After 1904 he settled down to his law practice and, in partnership with T. E. King, conducted most of the legal business for the Catholic Church. He was a prominent layman of the Church and in 1909 was made a knight of St Gregory. Duffy had married Margaret Mary, daughter of Dr J. B. Callan, on 20 June 1874. He died on 8 March 1917 at his home in East St Kilda survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • Australasian, 13 Mar 1886, 6 Oct 1894, 17 Mar 1917
  • Table Talk, 19 Feb 1892
  • Speaker (London), 23 July 1892
  • Argus (Melbourne), 9 Mar 1917.

Citation details

J. R. J. Grigsby, 'Duffy, John Gavan (1844–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/duffy-john-gavan-3451/text5267, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 15 December 2017.

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

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