Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Rees, John (1825–1917)

by J. H. Rundle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

John Rees (1825-1917), farmer and politician, was born on 19 March 1825 at Lower Knowle, Bristol, England, son of John Rees, mechanic, and his wife Mary, née Graves. Educated locally, he worked in a lawyer's office before migrating to Geelong in 1849 with his wife Harriett, née Banfield, whom he had married at Bristol in 1848, and his brother Phillip. Successful on the Ballarat and Bendigo goldfields in 1851-52, he bought land at Little River in the Corio Shire in 1852, naming his property Lower Knowle. With other crop farmers threatened by cheaper South Australian imports, Rees supported the Geelong tariff protection campaign in 1856 and advocated grazing commons for farmers to fatten livestock. He was a delegate at the 1857 Land Convention which endorsed the commons principle and it was included in the 1860 Nicholson Land Act to cover one million acres (404,690 ha). Rees later supported farmers who wished to select commons land put up for sale on easy terms.

From August 1866 to July 1891 Rees was a councillor and twice president of the Corio Shire; as an admirer of William Cobbett he persistently attacked squatter 'landlords' in local politics. In 1871 he called a conference of local councils to change the basis of shire taxation from improvement to the 'natural value … as judged by its sheep carrying capacity'. He welcomed the revival of the Geelong Protection League in 1876 and formed the Little River branch which supported Graham Berry's 'stonewall' opposition to Sir James McCulloch's 'iron hand' ministry. In favour of the National Reform League's proposal for a progressive land tax, he initiated a local branch in February 1877, chaired meetings in the Primitive Methodist Chapel and, backed by Berry, successfully contested the Grant electorate on a joint ticket with Peter Lalor at the May elections for the Legislative Assembly.

Rees voted for the Berry ministry's land tax, payment of members, and constitutional reform proposals in the 1877-80 parliament. After serving on the wattle bark board of inquiry in 1878, he toured Victoria as a tireless member of the crown lands commission of inquiry, 1878-79, and in 1884 was a member of the royal commission on water supply. Attentive to the usual 'roads and bridges' claims from his electorate as 'a delegate of the sovereign power', he also backed improvement for rural Victoria, supporting moves for water trusts, the Dookie State Farm and forest conservation. Favouring high protection for agriculture, he defended the Victorian stock tax, attacked attempts to lower grain duties and spoke out for country millers and maltsters. Seeing intercolonial free trade proposals as solely in the interest of Melbourne men, he warned city protectionists in 1885 that unless they acted 'honestly towards the farmers' they would one day 'find themselves without their support'. With other 'Country party' members he remained critical of the Deakin-Gillies ministry and joined the Victorian Farmers' Protection Association in 1887, firmly convinced that 'the miners and farmers should govern the country not the moneyed men of Melbourne'. A pastoralist beat him narrowly at the 1889 elections after forty of his Mount Egerton supporters had neglected to vote; he again lost in 1892.

Rees remained active in local affairs, was a forceful lay preacher, and for thirty-four years superintendent of the Methodist Sunday school. Rugged strength and a determined manner found expression in his religion, 'a passion to do what his hands found to do and to do it with all his might'. He died on 10 May 1917 having, his mourners claimed, amply fulfilled his favourite text: 'With long life will I satisfy Him and show Him my salvation'. He had ten children by his first wife, and four by his second, Emily Catherine, née Thomson, whom he had married in 1887 at Little River.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • J. M. Powell (ed), Yeomen and Bureaucrats (Melb, 1973)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 8 July 1876, 17, 18 Aug 1888
  • Bacchus Marsh Express, 31 Mar, 27 Apr, 12 May 1877, 9 Feb 1878
  • Age (Melbourne), 10 May 1917
  • Werribee Shire Banner, 10, 24 May, 14 June 1917
  • private information.

Citation details

J. H. Rundle, 'Rees, John (1825–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rees-john-4460/text7271, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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