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Johns, Frederick (Fred) (1868–1932)

by Suzanne Edgar

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

Frederick Johns (1868-1932), by unknown photographer

Frederick Johns (1868-1932), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6014

Frederick (Fred) Johns (1868-1932), journalist and biographer, was born on 22 March 1868 at Houghton, Michigan, United States of America, son of Ezekiel Johns. After his father's death, Fred was taken as an infant to West Cornwall, England. He was educated there before migrating at 16 to join an uncle at Mount Gambier, South Australia. He worked briefly on the Adelaide Advertiser and, from 1885, for thirty years on the South Australian Register where he became a sub-editor. In 1914 he was appointed to lead the newly established parliamentary Hansard staff where he remained for the rest of his life. He was sparing of copy paper: it was said he could inscribe the Lord's Prayer on paper the size of a sixpence. On 14 March 1894 at Mount Gambier Wesleyan Church he had married Florence Susanna Renfrey who had one daughter before her death two years later.

As a development from a monthly column in the Sydney Bulletin, in 1906 Johns compiled and published a biographical dictionary that was to become a national institution, Johns's Notable Australians. Three features characterized this and later editions: painstaking accuracy, information obtained directly from the individuals concerned, and apolitical, factual entries with no comment or eulogy. It was republished in 1908 and in 1912-14 appeared as Fred Johns's Annual. The series revived in 1922 as Who's Who in the Commonwealth of Australia and in 1927 as Who's Who in Australia.

In 1920 Johns had published a collection of his patriotic poems, In Remembrance, and two years later A Journalist's Jottings. This included ardent praise for the Anzacs and described significant Australian events and people; it was written in an intense, florid prose unlike that of the dictionaries whose dry brevity reflected Johns's reserved personality. He believed that difficulty helped 'to make the joy of life'. For biographical work he had 'a passion and a love' allied with 'persistent plodding'. His happiest times were spent in his well-stocked library, 'detached from the busy, bustling, worrying world, calm and refreshed'. In 1908 he became a fellow of the Institute of Journalists, London.

Johns was a devout Christian and a Freemason; in 1920-25 he also edited the South Australian Freemason and the Victorian Craftsman. His biographical books brought him influential contacts all over Australia but travel made him restless with the knowledge of all he had yet to do to complete his work. He was active in the Public Service Association and secretary of the South Australian branch of the Royal Society of Saint George (in 1919-32) and of the Flinders memorial statue committee.

In his eighteen years as Hansard reporter Johns never missed a parliamentary sitting. In 1926, perhaps conscious of overwork, he spent a month's leave at Hepburn Springs Sanatorium in Victoria. By 1928 he had lymphatic leukaemia which necessitated exhausting radium treatment. In 1931 he considered retirement: 'My billet, one of the most strenuous in the service, has been totally responsible for the shattering of my health'. Although his illness had drastically altered his appearance, Johns still hoped to finish his current dictionary; but on 3 December 1932 he died and was buried in Glen Osmond cemetery. His daughter helped to complete the very useful An Australian Biographical Dictionary (1934), which included entries on the dead as well as the living and one on Johns himself. He had left £1500 to the University of Adelaide to found the Fred Johns scholarship for biography. The Herald and Weekly Times Ltd, Melbourne, bought the rights to continue publication of Who's Who in Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • Newspaper News, 1 Dec 1932
  • Mail (Adelaide), 15 Apr 1916
  • Sun (Sydney), 3 June 1917
  • Bulletin, 27 May 1926, 27 May 1931, 7 Dec 1932
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 5 Dec 1932
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Dec 1932
  • private information.

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar, 'Johns, Frederick (Fred) (1868–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/johns-frederick-fred-6851/text11865, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 2 September 2014.

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

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