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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Simons, John Joseph (Jack) (1882–1948)

by Lyall Hunt

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

John Joseph (Jack) Simons (1882-1948), youth organizer and businessman, was born on 12 August 1882 at Clare, South Australia, son of Thomas Simons, currier, and his wife Margaret, née Henry, schoolteacher. Simons came to Fremantle, Western Australia, about 1896 and worked for a tinsmith. He was committed to social improvement, Australian nationalism and the Labor Party. A confident, charismatic and dominant figure at 6 ft 4 ins (193 cm), he became a strong debater, knowledgeable about Australian writing, an advocate of military, naval and industrial self-reliance and an organizer of 'Buy Australian' campaigns. As secretary of the Western Australian National Football League in 1905-14 and founder of the Young Australia Football League (1905) he consolidated Australian Rules football in Western Australia.

Aided by Lionel Boas and others, Simons established the Young Australia League in 1905 to promote 'education through travel'. It developed rapidly as a patriotic, independent, non-political, non-sectarian organization, whose membership included girls, but emphasized boys' activities. The 1909 interstate tour was the first of many and led to overseas tours in 1911, 1914, 1925 and 1929. Other activities embraced literature, debating, band music, sport and theatrical performances. These were publicized in the annual Australian Junior (1906-11) and in the monthly Boomerang, edited from 1914 by Simons. A collection of his homilies appeared as Reflections (Perth, 1926). While the Y.A.L. featured militarist trappings—bands, banners, uniforms, and tight discipline on tour—relaxed behaviour and nicknames were encouraged: Simons was called the 'Boss'. After World War I he formed interstate branches. The Araluen gardens, a memorial to members killed in action, were constructed in the 1930s.

Simons campaigned against conscription in the plebiscites of 1916-17, and was an unsuccessful Labor candidate for Fremantle in the 1917 Federal elections. Although vilified as an anti-British shirker, he had served in the militia and was twice rejected for overseas service because of mitral obstruction and varicose veins. War hysteria forced his resignation in 1917 as paid secretary of the Western Australian State School Teachers' Union.

In 1921 Simons won the Legislative Assembly seat of East Perth for Labor. Radicals criticized his support of Premier Sir James Mitchell's land development and migration programmes, his work for Clement De Garis's Kendenup settlement, and his interest in the Call newspaper, which labelled strikers 'Trade Union Trash'. Simons asserted his independence from radical Labor when the party executive challenged Call's attitudes. He resigned his seat in November 1922 to stand as an Independent, but lost after a bitter campaign.

Jack Simons and Victor Courtney had founded the weekly Call in 1918. Building on experience of managing the Australian for the Australian Natives' Association in 1908-10, Simons promoted advertising while Courtney was editor. Their weekly Mirror, published from 1921, out-sold the Call. It featured sport and sensation, finding scandalous headlines—'Nakedness at North Beach'—and pious editorials a successful formula. Apparently Simons saw no dichotomy between this and his youth work. In 1935 Simons and Courtney, with C. de Bernales and others, bought Perth's Sunday Times for £55,000. With Simons as managing director, Western Press Ltd and Country Newspapers Ltd expanded, with three metropolitan and over thirty country newspapers. Reflecting Simons's Australian sentiments, the Sunday Times's secessionist stance was reversed, depriving that movement of its mouthpiece. From 1943 the paper supported the Federal Labor government and its attempts to win greater Commonwealth powers.

State president of the Australian Natives' Association in 1910-11 and a Rotarian, Simons was a life member of the Western Australian Trotting Association (secretary, 1913-14) and local chairman of the Scottish Insurance Corporation. Unmarried, he supported his mother and orphaned nephew. He was of temperate, manly habits and strong-willed; his gusty humour issued in a roaring laugh and invective which sometimes gave offence.

An estimated 50,000 people toured with the Y.A.L. in Simons's lifetime indicating its influence in broadening the horizons of Westralian, mainly middle-class, youth. In 1941 he assigned his interest in Western Press in trust for the Y.A.L. This yielded over £50,000 after his death from hypertensive heart disease on 24 October 1948. In the Roman Catholic section of Karrakatta cemetery his epitaph reads: 'I am the Spirit of the League'.

Select Bibliography

  • V. Courtney, The Life Story of J. J. Simons, Founder of the Young Australia League (Syd, 1961)
  • Boomerang, 30 Oct 1948
  • West Australian, 25 Oct 1948
  • Simons papers (State Library of Western Australia)
  • Young Australia League, press impressions, 38 vols (YAL, Perth).

Citation details

Lyall Hunt, 'Simons, John Joseph (Jack) (1882–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 31 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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