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Gillies, John (1844–1911)

by L. E. Fredman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

John Gillies (1844-1911), newspaperman and politician, was born on 6 March 1844 at Airdrie, Lanarkshire, Scotland, son of John Gillies, shepherd and later tailor, and his wife Janet, née Mathison. Arriving in Sydney in the General Hewett on 13 November 1848, the family settled at West Maitland, where Jack was educated by Rev. William McIntyre. At 13 he was apprenticed as a compositor on the Maitland Mercury, becoming so proficient at his trade that he won intercolonial speed contests. A part-owner and business manager of the paper from 1874, he made it a daily in 1893.

On 11 March 1865 Gillies had married Margaret Frost Mair with Primitive Methodist forms. An active sportsman and committee-member of the Northern Hunt Club in his youth, Gillies was for many years secretary and treasurer of the Maitland Volunteer Water Brigade, which operated during floods. By the late 1880s he held many public offices—including president of the Rowing Club and of the Maitland Rugby Football Club, vice-president of the Northumberland Football Club, committee-member of the hospital, the West Maitland School of Arts, the Northern Jockey Club, the Hunter River Agricultural and Horticultural Association, and a trustee of a building society and the Maitland branch of the Savings Bank of New South Wales. In 1883 he was appointed a justice of the peace and sat regularly on the bench. He served on the Maitland Municipal Council and was mayor in 1888-90; his name was carved on the corner-stone and over the porch (misspelled 'JONH') of the new Town Hall. He was an active Freemason and a teetotaller, a member of the Order of the Sons of Temperance.

Elected to the Legislative Assembly for West Maitland in 1891, Gillies easily held his seat until 1911 (Maitland from 1904). The key to his parliamentary career was popularity and service to the city; he secured several impressive public buildings—a court house, the hospital, technical college, the boys' high school, and a river embankment. In a period when conservative groups were consolidating a non-Labor party, Gillies's frank pursuit of local public works precluded ministerial office. Nominally a free trader in the 1890s, he also supported the Protectionist ministries of Sir George Dibbs and (Sir) William Lyne. After 1905 he supported the revived Liberal party under Sir Joseph Carruthers and in November 1910 declared himself a member of an independent third party.

In his maiden speech Gillies had drawn attention to the neglect by past governments of the floods that periodically ravaged the lower Hunter; flood mitigation was his perennial cause. Justifying his defection in 1899, with Alfred Edden and others, he attacked Reid's government for its neglect of Newcastle and Maitland—local folk, he said, would long remember the record flood of 1893.

Gillies died suddenly from heart disease at his Maitland home on 23 September 1911. In the impressive funeral cortège, his coffin was born by the flood-boat, the Jack Gillies, mounted on wheels and drawn by the Water Brigade in uniform. He was buried with Masonic rites and Presbyterian forms in West Maitland cemetery. His wife, a son and four daughters survived him. In 1968 his name was commemorated when the township of East Greta, near Maitland, became Gillieston Heights.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Digby (ed), Australian Men of Mark, vol 2 (Syd, 1889)
  • Maitland Mercury, 4 Mar 1890, 22 July 1904, 23 Sept 1911
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 25 Sept 1911
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Sept 1911.

Citation details

L. E. Fredman, 'Gillies, John (1844–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gillies-john-6387/text10915, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 22 April 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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