This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986
John Leighton Nanson (1863-1916), journalist and politician, was born on 22 September 1863 at Carlisle, Cumberland, England, son of John Nanson, solicitor and town clerk, and his wife Caroline Fletcher, née James. He was educated at the local grammar school and King William's College, Isle of Man. He left school at 16, worked for a solicitor for a year, and migrated to Australia, hoping to better his fortune and his health. His cousin Edward John Nanson was professor of mathematics at the University of Melbourne.
John Nanson first worked on a station near Broken Hill, New South Wales, but in 1881 he joined the Commercial Bank of South Australia. In 1891 he moved to Perth as accountant in its new Western Australian branch but two years later lost his job when the bank went into liquidation. On 8 October 1887 he had married Janet Drummond Durlacher in the Fremantle Anglican church; they had one daughter and a son who died young.
Nanson joined the West Australian, Perth's morning daily, and became the Fremantle representative; he alone managed both reporting and commercial affairs. He was soon promoted to Perth as a sub-editor. After visiting England in 1897, he became associate editor and chief leader-writer. Both the owner-partners, Charles Harper and (Sir) Winthrop Hackett, were in parliament; Nanson was in a position to be politically interested and useful.
In 1901, after obtaining Hackett's permission to stand, he won the Legislative Assembly seat of Murchison by one vote. At first he supported Premier Leake, but in October crossed the floor to vote with the Opposition, having criticized Leake's stand on duties on certain imports, large-scale government borrowing, recognition of unions in the conciliation and arbitration bill, and alleged tacit support for criticisms of British royalty published in the Sunday Times. In November the month-long Morgans cabinet included Nanson as minister for lands. He was a prolix, easily nettled, leader of the Opposition in 1902-03 and, now a Liberal, held office briefly again as works minister under (Sir) Walter James in 1904. His anxious look and gangling appearance made him a gift to cartoonists. In 1904-05 he represented Greenough, which was adjacent to his previous electorate.
In 1902 Nanson had left the West Australian and bought a controlling interest in the Morning Herald, launched by the owners of the Daily News to compete with his old paper. He became chairman of directors on 15 September, but after two and a half years the effects of his tuberculosis forced him to sell to J. Dreyer, nominee of Bishop Gibney.
Nanson went to Switzerland, and later to England where he studied law. He was called to the English Bar in July 1908, practised briefly with a leading common law barrister, and returned to Perth just in time to win back Greenough. When (Sir) Norbert Keenan resigned the following May, Nanson became attorney-general and minister for education for the last fifteen months of the (Sir) Newton Moore government. He held similar portfolios in the first Wilson ministry of 1910-11. He joined A. Despeissis in 1912 in Santa Rosa Wine & Distilleries Ltd.
Nanson's illness again became serious: he left Western Australia in 1913 and went again to Switzerland and to Italy and England where he lived in Dorset. He retired from parliament in 1914 and on 29 February 1916 died at Vaynor, Broadstone. His estate was sworn for probate at about £20,000.
Janet Nanson (1868-1943) had also been a journalist, from the time when her husband was associate editor of the West Australian. As 'Sigma' she was Perth's first social writer and the original 'Aunt Mary' of the Western Mail, Harper and Hackett's weekly for country people. After her husband bought the Morning Herald she wrote political journalism, but left work when he sold the paper. After his death she lived alternately in Perth and London, where her daughter was an actress. She died in Perth on 14 December 1943 and was buried in the Anglican section of Karrakatta cemetery.
O. K. Battye, 'Nanson, John Leighton (1863–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nanson-john-leighton-7724/text13531, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 2 July 2015.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986