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Liston, John James (1872–1944)

by David Dunstan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

John James Liston (1872-1944), civic leader and liquor trades spokesman, was born on 21 September 1872 at Granny, Roscommon, Ireland, son of John Haire Liston, constable, and his wife Mary Ann, née McNamany. The family migrated to Victoria about 1882 and settled at Williamstown where, after education at St Mary's Parish School, young Liston became a hairdresser. A member of the Catholic Young Men's Society, he was an outstanding debater and a keen sportsman; he played for Williamstown Football Club and in 1889 joined the Williamstown Racing Club. He was to head both organizations (the Football Club in 1923-33, the Racing Club in 1939-44) and become a prominent racehorse-owner. His barber's shop in Nelson Place was remembered as 'a sportsman's bureau'.

A big, ambitious man who studied to improve himself, Liston stood for Williamstown Council in 1897, revealing 'an astonishing grasp of municipal affairs' but losing the election by two votes. Next year he was returned unopposed. He was mayor in 1901-02 (the youngest in the State) and again in 1913-14. By 1906 he was licensee of the Customs House Hotel and that year was appointed secretary of the Liquor Trades' Defence Union, based in Melbourne. He sold his hairdressing business and, on 3 August 1910 at St Mary's Catholic Church, West Melbourne, married a milliner Eva Emily Roberts (d.1928).

Williamstown was a working-class suburb whose industries were in decline. As its representative on the Melbourne Harbor Trust in 1909-13, Liston sought public works for his area, expressed strong protectionist views and urged the trust to build its own ships at Williamstown. Even before his five successive mayoral terms in the 1920s it was said that Liston ran the town. Chairman of the finance and lighting committee, he persuaded the council to light the suburb with electricity in 1917 and take over supply. The financial success of the venture led to a new town hall and the purchase of a theatre and ferry steamer. Liston's plan to charge the cost of new streets to the benefiting property-owners was implemented after a long legal battle. In 1922-27 his supporters abandoned the rotation of the mayoralty so that he might carry out his programme of public works. But towards the end of the decade Liston and his 'progressive party' lost their grip. In August 1930 'grave irregularities' were alleged. A royal commission cleared Liston of wrongdoing but he resigned from the council and, after marrying May Ward on 15 December at St Patrick's Cathedral, moved to St Kilda. He claimed at this time to have lost all his Williamstown investments.

Liston had long ceased to be a purely local man. In 1918-30 he was Williamstown's representative on the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works; he was the northern and western suburbs representative on the Metropolitan Town Planning Commission in the 1920s; and in 1923-31 he was a Melbourne city councillor and for six years chairman of the traffic and building regulations committee. A supporter of a Greater Melbourne Council, in 1931 he was defeated by one vote for the position of lord mayor.

Liston worked with Montague Cohen to amalgamate Melbourne's breweries and strove to thwart the prohibitionists. He led 'the wets' to victory in the 1930 and 1938 'no licence' referenda; during the first campaign a Herald writer called him 'the busiest man in Melbourne'.

In his rise from humble origins and in the scope of his influence Liston may be compared with his co-religionist John Wren. He devoted an extraordinary amount of effort to public service, bestowing patronage on sporting and charitable associations and performing unpublicized acts of kindness during the Depression. A Williamstown high school, a regional hospital at Footscray and the Friendly Societies' Association were among his causes. He was a trustee of the Port Phillip Pilots' Association and of the Melbourne Cricket Ground and president of both the Victorian Soccer and Victorian Football associations.

Liston died of heart disease at Cliveden Mansions, East Melbourne, on 12 April 1944, survived by his wife and by two sons from his first marriage, one of whom was killed on active service next year. Archbishop Mannix attended his funeral and J. H. Scullin was a pallbearer. His estate was sworn for probate at £293,481. There is a bust in the Williamstown Town Hall and the Williamstown Historical Society holds a portrait. He is also remembered by the J. J. Liston medal for the best and fairest player in the Victorian Football Association and by the J. J. Liston Stakes at Sandown.

Select Bibliography

  • O. Ruhen, Port of Melbourne, 1835-1976 (Syd, 1976)
  • Williamstown Historical Society, Newsletter, no 58, July 1980
  • Williamstown Advertiser, 21 Aug 1897, 13 Aug 1898, 31 Aug 1901, 17 Aug 1907, 6 Sept 1913, 11 Oct 1919, 19 Aug 1922, 22 Mar 1924, 5 Sept 1925, 4 Sept 1926, 27 Aug 1927, 9 Aug, 29 Nov, 13 Dec 1930, 15, 22 Apr 1944
  • Age (Melbourne), 24 Aug 1927, 13, 22 Apr 1944
  • Herald (Melbourne), 11 Jan, 2 Aug, 6, 11 Dec 1930, 13 Apr 1944, 27 Sept 1946
  • Argus (Melbourne), 1, 26, 31 Mar, 16 Dec 1930, 10 Oct 1931, 10 Oct 1938, 13 Apr 1944
  • 1944
  • S. de Wolf, Why We Did Not Get Prohibition in Victoria (B.A. Hons thesis, Monash University, 1970).

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Citation details

David Dunstan, 'Liston, John James (1872–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/liston-john-james-7204/text12465, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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