This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988
Sir John See (1845-1907), merchant and politician, was born on 14 November 1845 at Yelling, Huntingdonshire, England, son of Joseph See, farm-labourer, and his wife Mary Ann, née Bailey. Migrating in 1852, the family reached Sydney on 16 October. They soon took up a farm at Hinton in the Hunter district, where John irregularly attended the National school for three years. In May 1862 with his elder brother David he began farming at Southgate on the Clarence River, but after disastrous floods in 1863 and 1864 he set up as a produce merchant and commission agent with George Nipper in Sydney. The firm expanded into shipping in the late 1860s.
At St Jude's Church, Randwick, See married Charlotte Mary Matthews on 15 March 1876; they had ten children. She had 'a pretty taste in old ivory, lace, and china'. See built his lavish mansion, Urara, at Randwick and, an alderman on the local council (1877-88), was mayor (1880-81, 1886). He was appointed a justice of the peace in August 1878 and a trustee of the Savings Bank of New South Wales in 1884, and was later president of the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales (1891-1907) and a member of the Australian Club.
In November 1880 See was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Grafton and held the seat until he retired in 1904. An undistinguished public speaker, he seldom spoke in his early years in parliament, confining himself almost entirely to local matters, particularly the proposed Grafton to New England railway. His consistent if limited political philosophy changed little throughout his political career. He was fundamentally committed to material 'progress' (a word he invoked more frequently than 'democracy' or 'God'), and to a vigorous public works policy directed at improving country transport.
From October to December 1885 See was postmaster-general in the short-lived ministry of (Sir) George Dibbs. Next year he was identified as a member of the 'hay and corn' group led by William Clarke and increasingly advocated protection of local agriculture by retaliatory duties. Endorsed by the Protection Union of New South Wales in the elections of February 1887, he was appointed to its council in April next year but for business reasons declined to stand for the leadership of the Protectionist Opposition. When Dibbs formed another short-lived ministry in January 1889, See was enjoying a lengthy overseas visit with his wife.
Throughout the 1880s his business interests continued to expand. Following the dissolution of Nipper & See in 1884, he traded as John See & Co. On the Manning and at Grafton and Maclean on the Clarence he established large agencies dealing extensively in produce and general storekeeping. Besides his coastal steamers, he acquired numerous wharves, offices and warehouses and various droghers, launches and tugs. In August 1891 his fleet, including fourteen steamships, was amalgamated with that of the Clarence, Richmond and Macleay Rivers Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. See received £70,000 and became joint managing director of the enlarged company, known as the North Coast Steam Navigation Co. Ltd, a position he retained until his death. John See & Co. remained as a prosperous commission agency and general produce firm, operating from Sussex Street, Sydney.
From the 1880s See was a director of the Hunter River New Steam Navigation Co. (later Newcastle and Hunter River Steamship Co.), the Citizens' Life Assurance Co. (founded by his close friend J. P. Garvan in 1886) and numerous other insurance firms. He later joined the boards of Washington H. Soul, Pattinson & Co. Ltd, Gloucester Estate Ltd and the Australian Newspaper Co. Ltd (publishers of the protectionist newspaper, Australian Star). In 1902 the Bulletin aptly commented that 'the number of directorships which Mr See holds is marvellous. He is probably the champion “guinea-pig” of Sydney'. Well-known for his shrewd and judicious personal investments, particularly in mining companies, See owned much property throughout Sydney and in country areas. He maintained a reputation for strict business integrity and for regular business habits and attention to detail.
When Dibbs formed a ministry in October 1891 See became colonial treasurer and minister for railways. He acquitted himself well in presenting his first budget in December and next year introduced tariff legislation of limited protectionist effect, but as economic conditions deteriorated he encountered unexpected budget difficulties. After a serious miscalculation of the revenue and underestimate of the deficit, he was compelled to make a second financial statement in a month on 18 January 1893. He became a prime target of the Opposition and the free trade press. In the banking crisis of May 1893, it was Dibbs who moved promptly to restore confidence and who introduced the necessary legislation. The government was defeated in the July 1894 elections by Reid's revitalized free traders. See's political reputation had scarcely been enhanced by his performance as colonial treasurer, but had suffered no irrevocable damage.
In Opposition after 1894 See spoke more vigorously, more forthrightly and more often and enjoyed pointing to the failures of his former critics, particularly Reid's inability to abandon monthly supply bills. See supported Federation, which he visualized in simple terms as a practical aid to progress. Narrowly defeated for the 1897 Australasian Federal Convention, he campaigned vigorously for the referenda on the Constitution in 1898 and 1899. In September 1899 he was included in the Lyne ministry as colonial secretary. Briefly acting premier in October, he proved an able administrator in his own portfolio which was rarely controversial. A faithful lieutenant to Lyne, he reserved his greatest enthusiasm for vigorous public works policies and mustered sufficient cabinet support for the Grafton to Casino Railway Act to be carried.
When Lyne entered Federal politics in March 1901 See's accession to the premiership was taken for granted. Although he failed to persuade (Sir) Joseph Carruthers and other leading free traders to join his ministry, the Progressives retained office in the July elections, despite the antipathy of much of the Sydney press. See managed to retain the support of the Labor Party and allowed the more radical members of his inherited cabinet, notably E. W. O'Sullivan and B. R. Wise, considerable scope—his government carried important industrial arbitration legislation in 1901 and the female suffrage bill in 1902. His first year as premier was the pinnacle of his career: with his appointment as K.C.M.G. and premiership his ambition was largely satisfied. By the end of 1902, however, disastrous drought and economic recession were overcoming the ministerial themes of optimism and progress. Tormented by his critics and a virulent press campaign See was like a 'victim in the bull-ring'. The government was forced to abandon its expansive works policy; the 1903 session was both unproductive and disorderly.
By early 1904 the worry and cares of office had so affected his health that in February See visited the Rotorua district of New Zealand. His wife died on 16 March. Rumours of his impending retirement were rife at the end of May. He resigned on 13 June and was succeeded by Thomas Waddell after discussions with Governor Sir Harry Rawson. Soon nominated to the Legislative Council, he returned to New Zealand, where he remained until after the August election, in which the Progressives were decimated. In frail health, he again visited New Zealand and Japan (1905).
See died of heart disease on 31 January 1907 at his Randwick home and was buried in the Anglican section of Randwick cemetery. Four sons and three daughters survived him; his daughter Charlotte married (Sir) Samuel Hordern in 1900. His estate was valued for probate at £167,372.
In appearance See was 'a fighter—big jawed, fierce black eyes, large boned, deep chested and muscular'; he put on weight with the advancing years. In youth he had thick, curly jet-black hair, which in maturity he wore close-cropped. Cartoonists were impressed by his dark visage, and accented his deep-set dark eyes and black beard.
Although his experience of public life extended over a quarter of a century, See made no lasting impact on the history of New South Wales. He had not envisaged that he would. He had risen from poverty to commercial eminence and the premiership. As the slab-hut premier he was held up as something of an Australian counterpart to the log-cabin president, exemplifying the ideal of the open society, where birth, family and class did not significantly circumscribe material possibilities. For See this was an ample and satisfying achievement.
Keith Henry, 'See, Sir John (1845–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/see-sir-john-8380/text14711, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 27 February 2017.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988