Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Humffray, John Basson (1824–1891)

by Diane Langmore

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

John Basson Humffray (1824-1891), by Thomas F. Flintoff, 1859

John Basson Humffray (1824-1891), by Thomas F. Flintoff, 1859

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H325

John Basson Humffray (1824-1891), politician, was born in Newtown, Montgomeryshire, Wales, son of John Humffray, master weaver, and his wife Jane, née Basson. After a liberal education he was articled to a solicitor but abandoned his studies and went to the Victorian goldfields. He arrived at Melbourne in the Star of the East on 19 September 1853.

Humffray soon settled at Ballarat and made his first public speech in November 1854. He saw the diggers' grievances as symptomatic of an essentially unrepresentative political system for which he demanded reform by moral suasion. As secretary of the Ballarat Reform League he worked tirelessly to bring the diggers' needs before the governor, the public and an official inquiry. When the league was influenced by advocates of physical force he withdrew after pleading before a sullen and armed crowd to revert to constitutional agitation. Humffray dissociated himself from the Eureka rebellion but soon resumed his 'moral force' campaign. His popularity was little impaired; elected the first of three miners' representatives, he appeared before the commission of inquiry into discontent on the goldfields, citing maladministration, lack of political representation and difficulty in obtaining land as the diggers' grievances.

In 1855 Humffray initiated the Victorian Reform League with little success but with Peter Lalor he was elected unopposed to represent Ballarat in the Legislative Council. In 1856 he was elected with a large majority for North Grant to the new Legislative Assembly. As an independent democrat he joined the opposition to the Haines ministry. He was minister for mines under Richard Heales from November 1860 to November 1861 and chairman of the royal commission on mining in 1863. Defeated at the polls in 1864 he remained outside parliament until 1868 when he was returned for Ballarat East. Defeated again in 1871 and 1874 he retired from politics. He had supported himself before 1859 by running a book-store in Ballarat and he also owned the Buck's Head Hotel until it was sold by creditors in 1868. In 1872 parliament voted him £300 in payment of his claim to a pension for having held office as a minister.

In parliament Humffray had zealously represented Ballarat's mining and commercial interests, introducing legislation on civic development, goldfields administration, land surveying and mining on private property. At first he lent his magnificent voice and powerful rhetoric to the Chartist cause but in later controversies remained silent or evasive. In support of schools he swung from the National system to the dual system and remained undecided about compulsory education. After supporting the Land Convention in 1857 he angered his constituents by voting in 1862 for a ten-year extension of squatting leases. His inconsistencies, together with his withdrawal from Eureka, led to bitter accusations of self-interested opportunism, though to some contemporaries he was a shrewd but sincere politician.

Humffray lost money in mining speculations and in his last years was dependent on charity. After a long illness he died aged 66 on 18 March 1891, survived by his wife Elizabeth, née Phillips, daughter of a Shropshire lawyer, and by one son. His funeral address was given by a Congregationalist minister and at his own request he was buried near the diggers who fell at Eureka. His only publication was a small booklet, Ballaratiana (1881).

A crayon portrait by T. Flintoff is in the State Library of Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • W. B. Withers, The History of Ballarat (Ballarat, 1870)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, Victoria), 1854-55, 2 (A76)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 16 Dec 1887
  • Ballarat Courier, 21 Mar 1891
  • G. R. Quaife, The Nature of Political Conflict in Victoria 1856-57 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1964).

Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'Humffray, John Basson (1824–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/humffray-john-basson-3818/text6055, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 22 September 2017.

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

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