Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Petrie, John (1822–1892)

by John Laverty

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

John Petrie (1822-1892), contractor and mayor, was born on 15 January 1822 at Edinburgh, eldest son of Andrew Petrie and his wife Mary, née Cuthbertson. He arrived in Sydney with his family in 1831 and was educated at J. D. Lang's school. In 1837 he went to Moreton Bay, where his father had been appointed clerk of works, and accompanied him on explorations to the west and north of Brisbane; he also became a champion oarsman.

After 'apprenticeship' in the family building and contracting business John assumed increasing responsibility for its management after his father's blindness in 1848 forced him to retire. John became sole proprietor and the firm was changed from Petrie & Son to John Petrie. The enviable repute for fine workmanship under his father was sustained by John. His skill can still be seen in many buildings in Brisbane, but he lacked his father's drive and business acumen. In 1882 Petrie's son, Andrew Lang Petrie, became manager of the reconstructed firm, John Petrie & Son. The business was then centred on cabinet making and joinery, brick and tile making and monumental masonry. The firm went bankrupt in 1894 during the depression; it later revived but confined its operations to monumental masonry.

Although Petrie seems to have had little interest in politics, he was public-spirited and held many important offices. He topped the poll in Brisbane's first municipal election in 1859 and was mayor three times by 1862. He twice resigned from the council in protest against what he deemed the high-handedness of the majority faction, but continued after re-election to serve as an alderman until 1867. As mayor he had welcomed the first governor of Queensland, Sir George Bowen, to Brisbane in 1859. Practical experience and common sense fitted Petrie for laying the sound foundations of municipal administration in Brisbane and for guiding the council in providing public works and services. Closely associated with the Enoggera Creek scheme while it was planned by the council, he later saw it constructed as a member of the Board of Water Works; as its chairman in 1875 he was a leader in implementing the Gold Creek project and planning of the Mount Crosby scheme. After serving as mayor, he had difficulty in 'playing second fiddle' and was prone to indulge in such manoeuvres as walking out of council meetings.

Petrie devoted much time to community welfare. For years he served on the management committee of the Brisbane Hospital and was chairman after 1885. He was also a member of the Board for Administering Outdoor Relief and the Central Board of Health. Appointed to the New South Wales Commission of the Peace in 1859, he remained a member of the Brisbane bench until 1892. He gave long service on the Brisbane Licensing Board and was often returning officer for the parliamentary electorate of Brisbane. A trustee of the Brisbane general cemetery and of Bowen Park and a ranger for protecting native birds on the Enoggera Water Reserve, he was a director of several building societies and of the Queensland Steam Navigation Co. Elected to the North Brisbane School of Arts Committee in 1864 and 1866, he was also an enthusiastic member of the first Masonic lodge in Queensland.

On 5 September 1850 Petrie had married Jane Keith, daughter of Daniel McNaught of Dunbarton, Scotland, who became foreman of the Petrie business and contracting business after migrating to Brisbane. Of their five sons and five daughters, Andrew Lang Petrie was the eldest son and heir to the family business; he represented Toombul in the Legislative Assembly in 1893 and, apart from his insolvency in 1894, held the seat until 1926. John Petrie died on 8 December 1892. A staunch Presbyterian, he was an elder and worked with enthusiasm for building St Paul's Church. Integrity and long association with the city made him one of the best known citizens of Brisbane.

Portraits are in the Brisbane City Council and the Oxley Library.

Select Bibliography

  • W. F. Morrison, The Aldine History of Queensland, vol 2 (Syd, 1888)
  • C. C. Petrie (ed), Tom Petrie's Reminiscences of Early Queensland, 1st ed (Brisb, 1904)
  • G. Greenwood and J. Laverty, Brisbane 1859-1959 (Brisb, 1959)
  • J. Whiteley, Two Families of Early Brisbane (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1963)
  • Municipal Council minutes, 1859-67 (Town Hall, Brisbane).

Additional Resources

  • funeral, Brisbane Courier, 10 December 1892, p 5

Citation details

John Laverty, 'Petrie, John (1822–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/petrie-john-4394/text7161, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 28 June 2017.

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

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