Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Johns, Peter (1830–1899)

by Geoffrey Blainey

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

Peter Johns (1830-1899), engineer and businessman, was born on 19 April 1830 at Pembroke, Wales, son of Thomas Johns, builder, and his wife Elizabeth, née Tudor. The only record of his first twenty-five years is a testimonial that he worked in 1854-56 as a foreman in rebuilding the Crystal Palace at the London suburb of Sydenham.

Johns migrated from Liverpool as a steerage passenger in the Champion of the Seas and reached Melbourne in June 1856. In his first years in the city he assembled prefabricated-iron houses imported from England. When the demand for these houses waned, he built iron roofs, stores and verandahs. By 1862 he was more a manufacturer than a builder, and his small workshops in Flinders Lane made iron gates and verandahs, and shaped the structural iron for bridges and buildings. For at least a decade he was a working artisan as well as owner of the business.

About 1870 he engaged an excellent engineer, Thomas Pearce, who had served his time in the famous Birmingham workshops of Boulton & Watt. With Pearce as foreman, the new engineering shop made machines which bent, guillotined and corrugated sheet iron. It also manufactured hydraulic lifts which were increasingly used in wool stores and tall city buildings in the 1880s. By the height of the building boom in 1888 the blacksmith's and engineering shops rambled over two acres (.8 ha) of valuable city land and employed an average of 120 men.

Johns wisely floated his business into a public company, Johns' Hydraulic & General Engineering Co., in 1888. He received more than half of the issued shares, the first instalment of £25,000 cash and the post of managing director which he held until failing health made him resign. In 1892 his company became known as Johns & Waygood, after taking over the Australian business of the English elevator manufacturer, Richard Waygood & Co.

His was a quiet success story in the tradition of Samuel Smiles. In the kind of business which had a high risk of failure, he succeeded through a rare blend of caution and enterprise; in the booming 1880s he was outstripped by some competitors but in the depressed 1890s he outstripped them. He took pride and pains in his work and was generous to his employees, giving them nearly half of his own shares in the new public company. He was universally said to have been honourable in his dealings and meticulous in his workmanship. He superintended the Wesleyan Sunday school in Carlton for many years, and a high proportion of his employees and shareholders—and perhaps even clients—were Wesleyan. Nevertheless his association in later years with Thomas Bent must have pursed some Wesleyan lips; Bent was the first chairman of Johns's public company and was allowed to keep the chair after he had lost his power, money and reputation. The likely explanation for the liaison was simply Johns's loyalty to any man who had treated him well.

Johns had married Charlotte Eliza Barrett three months after reaching Melbourne. When he died at Hawthorn on 24 September 1899 he left eight children, of whom the best known was Alfred, a dashing playboy who toured England with the Australian cricketers in 1899. Descendants of Johns are still prominent in the firm he founded.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Blainey (ed), One Hundred Years: Johns & Waygood Limited, 1856-1956 (Melb, 1956)
  • Johns & Waygood Ltd papers (Australian National University Archives)
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Geoffrey Blainey, 'Johns, Peter (1830–1899)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/johns-peter-3860/text6141, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 2 September 2014.

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

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