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McElhone, John (1833–1898)

by Martha Rutledge

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

John McElhone (1833-1898), merchant and politician, was born on 16 June 1833 in Sydney, son of Terence McElhone, milk vendor, and his wife Catherine, née Mallon. Educated at St Mary's Seminary School, he joined 'the Cabbage Tree mob' of wayward native-born youths. In 1851 he was an apprentice in Robert Towns's Royal Saxon. By 1859 he was a commission agent in Sydney. On 5 February 1862 at St Mary's Cathedral he married Mary Jane, daughter of John Browne, a wealthy squatter on the Liverpool Plains. In 1867-72 he was a broker and produce merchant in partnership with Richard Binnie, a saddler and brother-in-law of George Hill. In 1873 McElhone advertised as a stock, station and wool agent but soon set up as a hide and tallow merchant and exporter of colonial produce.

In August 1875 he contested the Legislative Assembly seat of Upper Hunter; defeated by Thomas Hungerford McElhone had the election declared null and void, and as the free selectors' champion won the second ballot after a bitter fight. He survived Hungerford's allegations of bribery and corruption but was later censured by the press for inciting the selectors to violence against the squatters, whom he described as 'the biggest thieves in creation'. In 1876 he was banquetted by the selectors of Jindera for helping to open the Colombo and Yanco reserves for selection. In the 1877 elections he told his constituents that 'I pride myself on having been the chief obstructionist in the Assembly'. He railed against 'the roguery, the corruption, the jobbery' of parliament and so viciously attacked land agents in parliament that he was sued by Thomas Garrett for £5000 damages.

In 1878-82 McElhone represented Fitzroy Ward in the Sydney Municipal Council. In 1880 with his penknife he exposed defective work in the foundations of the Town Hall and the ensuing 'corporation frauds' stirred up so much scandal that the government architect resigned. In February at the Town Hall he was called 'a servile lickspittle' by Daniel O'Connor and promptly punched him below the left eye and drew blood; an aldermanic scuffle followed. McElhone's impetuosity sometimes led him into 'serious violations of fairness and propriety'. In November 1882 his speech attacking Sir John Robertson's land bill was followed by the division on which the Parkes-Robertson government fell. McElhone was credited with 'one of those rare speeches which affect votes'. Elated at his success, in December he challenged Parkes in East Sydney and with the help of the Catholic vote was elected ahead of Parkes. On the hustings he argued the necessity of providing work for the colony's children; when a woman interjected, 'What if you haven't any children?', he roared back, 'Change the bull!'. He also won the Upper Hunter and boasted that 'his friend', W. B. Dalley, had written 'every word' of his electoral address.

McElhone's support of Alexander Stuart's ministry was short-lived but he 'repeatedly obstructed the business of the House' and was criticized by Governor Loftus for 'violent and abusive language'. In March 1883 after a dispute with A. G. Taylor McElhone challenged him to resign and contest Mudgee with him. Both resigned their seats; McElhone lost but was again returned for the Upper Hunter. In February 1884 O'Connor denounced him in the House as 'an illiterate mountebank', 'a commercial Shylock', 'an unscrupulous vulture' and 'a political Quilp'. Repute as a boxer usually saved McElhone from such attacks but in 1888 he was beaten in a fight with George Matheson, member for Glen Innes, in the parliamentary smoking room.

In 1881 his father-in-law had died and excluded three of his daughters from an estate valued at over £110,000. McElhone entered a caveat against probate being granted. Although his case was pleaded by Julian Salomons from 9 to 29 August 1882, he was unable to prove in Browne v. McElhone that the testator had been senile. He offered to forgo any claim if his sisters-in-law benefited but was criticized for exposing scandals in the Browne family and for making his 19-year-old daughter give evidence. In 1884 a Legislative Assembly select committee found that McElhone had three times recommended J. T. Handsaker for government employment. Handsaker was not only in his debt but also a notorious drunkard, and after he was given employment his salary went to McElhone. Denounced by the Evening News for corruption, McElhone unsuccessfully sued the proprietors for libel. In 1885 although nominated by supporters he did not canvass his electorate and was defeated. He visited England and in February 1887 regained the Upper Hunter.

McElhone had been repeatedly forced by the Speaker to apologize and in 1888 was taken into custody by the serjeant-at-arms. Incurably litigious he successfully sued Alderman James Poole for infringing the 1879 Sydney Corporation Act but failed to get a Supreme Court injunction restraining the Australian Mutual Provident Society from using £25,000 of its funds to create a superannuation fund for its staff. He did not stand in the 1889 elections and in 1891 ascribed his defeat to his views of the shearing strike. An advocate for freedom of contract, he had denounced the union leaders from the hustings as 'scoundrels'. In turn he had been castigated as 'a traitor to the free selectors and working men'. In 1894 he was defeated for the Fitzroy division of East Sydney but won the seat as an independent free trader in 1895. He could not adapt to the changed politics of the 1890s: he dismissed Federation as 'a cuckoo cry taken up by a lot of scheming politicians' and thought the payment of members 'pernicious' and that the 'self-styled labour members' had done nothing for the country.

Honest, hot-tempered, ribald and at times scurrilous, McElhone was more than a mere rough-neck. His endless questions in parliament exposed many public wrongs, and his vitality and purpose were respected. His driver, Bill Inglis, an ex-prize-fighter, was often useful in the rough and tumble of electioneering. About 1881 McElhone had built a four-storied house in Rockwell Crescent, Potts Point, near the Woolloomooloo steps named after him. He died on 6 May 1898 from heart disease and was buried in the Catholic section of Waverley cemetery. Predeceased in 1894 by his wife, he was survived by six sons and three daughters to whom he left an estate valued at over £42,000.

Select Bibliography

  • Supreme Court Reports, cases at law, 2 (1881), 6 (1885), 9 (1888), cases in equity, 10 (1889)
  • A. B. Piddington, Worshipful Masters (Syd, 1929)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1875, 2, 283, 1875-76, 1, 16, 769, 1877-78, 1, 267, 1880-81, 1, 104, 1883-84, 3, 196, 1887-88, 1, 374, 479, 3, 982, 1889, 1, 660
  • F. MacDonnell, ‘John McElhone, the inquisitive alderman’, Royal Australian Historical Society Newsletter, June 1970
  • Maitland Mercury, 1-5 June, 10, 24, 31 July, 3-7 Aug 1875, 20 Oct, 8 Nov 1877, 16, 20, 25 Nov 1880, 2 June 1881, 7-12 Dec 1882
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Dec 1877, 9, 10, 12, 15-19, 22-26, 29 Aug 1882, 8 Mar, 29 June 1883, 30 June, 3, 10, 18 July 1894, 28 Nov 1898
  • Australasian, 26 Apr 1879, 14 Mar 1885
  • Bulletin, 7 Feb 1880, 16 July, 24 Sept 1881, 27 May, 2 Sept 1882, 27 Oct 1883
  • Pastoral Review, 16 July 1891
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • newspaper cuttings (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 201/584, 598, 600, 608
  • private information
  • .

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'McElhone, John (1833–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcelhone-john-4087/text6529, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 17 December 2017.

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

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