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Laurens, John (1821–1894)

by Margaret Corris

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

John Laurens (1821-1894), grocer and politician, was born on 23 April 1821 in St Heliers, Jersey, son of Jean Laurens and his wife Elizabeth, née Le Riche. At 19 he went to Canada where he worked as a blacksmith for most of thirteen years. In August 1853 he sailed from Nova Scotia for Melbourne, arriving in December with a store and dwelling house, which he erected in Spencer Street, West Melbourne. Six weeks later he opened a grocery business which proved so prosperous that by 1865 he was able to retire. He moved to the suburb of Hotham where he pursued a successful, if unspectacular, political career.

In 1870 Laurens was admitted to the Hotham Borough Council; he served on it until 1891 and was elected mayor in 1872 and in 1873. In 1877 as a fervent protectionist he contested the general election as a nominee of Berry's National Reform and Protection League and was returned for Hotham to the Victorian Legislative Assembly; thus the retired grocer joined the 'new men' controlling the Lower House and remained a loyal Berryite for the whole of his political career. He took his parliamentary duties seriously. He spoke often in the assembly, dividing his attention between major state or national issues and those pertaining more directly to his electorate. The attempts of the Berry government to reform the Upper House and to impose a land tax to break up the accumulation of large estates received Laurens's staunch support. He rose often to speak on the wider issue of electoral reform and to support payment of members. He was particularly concerned with public finances, and the lengthy speeches he devoted to the subject earned him repute as 'a man of facts and figures'. In 1887 he served on the royal commissions on banking laws and Melbourne's westward extension. Although most of his addresses were monumentally dull, they sometimes had effect: for instance, his careful and detailed investigation into the handling of the finances of the Victorian railways helped to bring about the suspension of the railways commissioners in 1891 and their subsequent dismissal.

While Laurens was an unwavering 'party man', he also saw himself as a true representative of his electorate. Hotham (its name was changed to North Melbourne in 1887 largely as a result of Laurens's urgings) was a populous inner suburb of Melbourne, largely working class in composition. Laurens defended its 'interests' with characteristic doggedness but in the particular causes that he championed he demonstrated not so much a radical espousal of the working class and its aspirations as a concern for property values and the prosperous state of municipal finances. It was largely because he remained 'a consistent liberal', failing to respond to the new radical forces in his electorate, that he was defeated at the polls in 1892 by a Labor candidate, D. R. Wyllie.

Laurens had served his adopted land earnestly and consistently. His public and private life was unblemished by scandal or corruption. A Methodist, he supported churches and philanthropic bodies in his electorate and was a most involved member of the Melbourne Hospital Committee for over fourteen years. He died at his home in North Melbourne on 31 March 1894, predeceased by his wife Elizabeth Ann Spinks, née de la Cour, and survived by his adopted daughter Jane Helina.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Humphreys (ed), Men of the Time in Australia: Victorian series, 1st ed (Melb, 1878)
  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Victoria), 1877-92
  • North Melbourne Advertiser, 25 Mar, 8, 23 Apr, 20 May 1892, 6 Apr 1894
  • Age (Melbourne), 2 Apr 1894
  • Argus (Melbourne), 2 Apr 1894
  • Table Talk, 6 Apr, 1 June 1894
  • Williamstown Advertiser, 6 Apr 1894
  • J. E. Parnaby, The Economic and Political Development of Victoria, 1877-1881 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1951).

Citation details

Margaret Corris, 'Laurens, John (1821–1894)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/laurens-john-3998/text6327, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 17 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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