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Ewing, John (1863–1933)

by Suzanne Edgar and Peter Ewing

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

John Ewing (1863-1933), politician and surveyor, was born on 6 October 1863 at Wollongong, New South Wales, son of Thomas Campbell Ewing, Anglican clergyman, and his wife Elizabeth, née Thomson. After attending The King's School, Parramatta, he was apprenticed to his brother, a surveyor, and practised at Wollongong. For about five years he organized the surveying of the Berry estate in southern New South Wales. On 28 July 1888 at Bowral, Ewing married Beatrice Maud Swinson.

He moved to Western Australia in 1896 where he worked at land and mining-surveying on the Murchison and eastern goldfields. Next year he went to Collie where the colony's first coalfield was being explored. Ewing made the early surveys of the town site and discovered and developed coal-seams. The first local justice of the peace to be appointed, he was also chairman of the progress association and of the health and road boards. In 1901 he won the South West Mining District seat in the Legislative Assembly with a large majority. An anti-ministerialist Liberal, he favoured old-age pensions, votes for women, government-subsidized workmen's insurance, free trade, taxation of unimproved land values, liberalizing of the land laws to encourage population and the breaking up of large landed estates, trade unionism and higher wages for railway workers. He saw the government as the greatest sweater in the colony.

In parliament Ewing vigorously urged improved working conditions in the coal-mines, a subject which he knew well. As a private member he introduced the Coal Mines Regulation bill, chaired a 1901 select committee on it, and saw its enactment next year. Also in 1902 he secured the appointment of a government inquiry into the need to stimulate the coal industry: the trade-unionists and other residents of Collie recorded their gratitude by presenting him with a gold watch.

Ewing soon became one of the most active of a small group working for wider acceptance of Collie coal, then regarded as inferior to that imported from Newcastle, New South Wales, and for economic incentives for its greater use. Largely through his promotion, in 1902 a railway-line, which considerably shortened the haul to the goldfields, was built from Collie to Narrogin. That year he gave evidence to a select committee on the Collie-Boulder line, and successfully repudiated accusations that he had used his parliamentary position to further his own financial interests. He was involved in the commercial development of the coalfield in the Griffin Coal Mining Co. and the Collie-Cardiff series of mines. Ewing lost his seat in 1904, regained it under its new name of Collie in 1905, and lost it again in 1908. He then became involved in the mapping and classifying of land, particularly as a contract surveyor for the Midland Railway Co., around the Carnamah lakes and along its route between Midland Junction and Walkaway.

Still a Liberal, Ewing entered the Legislative Council in 1916 as a member for South-West Province. He held the seat until his death and again used it to harry governments, both State and Federal, on the need to use Collie coal on their railways. He consistently criticized the management of the State railways for failure to modernize equipment in order to use the local coal. By 1920 he was successful. Next he pressed the Western Australian government to use Collie brown coal to establish 'a super power scheme at the source of supply', to generate electricity to power the whole State; 'it is a fetish of mine', he admitted in 1928.

Ewing had been chairman of committees in 1920-23 and minister for education, the North-West and justice in the Mitchell government in 1923-24. He introduced the Amendments Incorporation Act and a Friendly Societies Amendment Act. In this same period he was a member of the Senate of the University of Western Australia. Colleagues described Ewing as gentle and generous with a buoyant and optimistic outlook: his debating was never bitter and he made no enemies. A keen punter, Ewing was penniless when he died. He rarely sat in the council during his last three years, due to illness. This was compounded in his final months by partial blindness.

Survived by his wife, two daughters and two sons, Ewing died of cerebro-vascular disease on 30 November 1933 at Guildford and was buried in Upper Swan cemetery. His brothers (Sir) Thomas Thomson and Norman Kirkwood were also politicians. Between the three they served for sixty years in seven houses of four parliaments.

Select Bibliography

  • P. W. H. Thiel & Co., Twentieth Century Impressions of Western Australia (Perth, 1901)
  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1912)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Western Australia), 1902, 2 (A9)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Western Australia), 27 Sept 1916, 19 Feb 1918, 26 Sept 1918
  • Western Mail (Perth), 4 Nov 1905
  • University Studies in History and Economics, 3 (1957) no 1
  • Morning Herald (Perth), 24 Apr 1901
  • West Australian, 1, 6 Dec 1933.

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar and Peter Ewing, 'Ewing, John (1863–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ewing-john-6127/text10487, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 19 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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