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Wood, John Dennistoun (1829–1914)

by Jill Eastwood

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

John Dennistoun Wood (1829-1914), by unknown photographer

John Dennistoun Wood (1829-1914), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H37475/28

John Dennistoun Wood (1829-1914), barrister and politician, was born on 4 July 1829 at Dennistoun near Bothwell, Van Diemen's Land, eldest son of Captain Patrick Wood and his wife Jane, née Patterson. Patrick, of Elie, Fifeshire, Scotland, was a retired officer of the East India Co.'s Madras army; he arrived in Van Diemen's Land on 1 March 1822 in the Castle Forbes: fellow-passengers included Myles Patterson and his daughters, Jamima who married (Sir) Robert Officer in 1823, and Jane who married Patrick on 1 October 1828. Patrick was an original partner with Philip Russell senior in the Clyde Company and they established the Dennistoun estate.

After his mother's death in 1837 John Dennistoun was sent to Scotland and attended the Edinburgh Academy and the University of Edinburgh. A student at the Inner Temple, London, from 3 November 1845, he was called to the Bar on 3 January 1852 and, on returning to Victoria, was admitted to the colonial Bar in 1853. Described as 'a sound little lawyer', he soon built up a good practice. An unsuccessful candidate for Brighton at the first Legislative Assembly elections in 1856, he was solicitor-general in (Sir) John O'Shanassy's ministry from 11 March to 29 April 1857, when he won The Ovens at a Legislative Assembly by-election. He retained that seat until July 1861 and then was member for Warrnambool from December 1861 until defeated in 1864. He was attorney-general from October 1859 to November 1860 in W. Nicholson's ministry and the first minister of justice from November 1861 to June 1863.

Regarded as something of a radical among his relations, Wood at first expressed an opportunist liberal philosophy, including a national secular education system, abolition of state aid to religion, and mining on private property. In October 1858, however, he moved destructive amendments to the electoral reform bill, asserting that 'the theory of representation based on population had to be modified': as a result the goldfields and towns lost fourteen representatives. He opposed the commonage and ballot provisions of the original Nicholson land bill and voted for it only to calm the demagogues outside.

In the 1865 constitutional crisis Wood was an active member of the conservative group opposing (Sir) James McCulloch's government. His legal advice to the banks had political overtones, and in 1865-66 he pursued a vindictive libel action against David Syme who had named him in the Age as an author of a plot to overthrow the government. He was a clear and forceful speaker, but a bitter tongue and spiteful temper harmed his reputation. After unsuccessful attempts to return to parliament in 1865 and 1866 he left Victoria for eighteen months travel in China, Java, India and the Middle East.

In 1870 in London Wood married 22-year-old Frances Jane Potts, daughter of a gaoler and born at New Norfolk, Tasmania. For twenty years he practised law in London, appearing mainly before the Privy Council in colonial appeal cases; and he may have practised for a while in New York in the early 1870s. A consistent supporter of imperial federation, from 1873 he was a member of the (Royal) Colonial Institute. In 1884 he was an inaugural member and honorary treasurer of the Imperial Federation League but resigned on the election of Lord Rosebery as chairman in 1886: he found the financial provisions of the Irish Home Rule bill incompatible with imperial federation and opposed Rosebery's stand on it.

In 1889 Wood returned to Victoria, practising there until 1898 when he retired to Tasmania to manage Dennistoun. At Bothwell he soon became a leader in local affairs and later warden of the municipality. In 1903-09 he held the seat of Cumberland in the House of Assembly, and in 1904 refused offers to act either as attorney-general or premier. His publications included two legal treatises, two pamphlets on imperial federation, and in 1903 a volume of poetry; and he collected a fine library, which was burnt with his house in January 1909. The last survivor of the first Victorian parliament, he died, aged 85 at Dennistoun on 23 October 1914, survived by his wife (d.1917), three of his four sons, and four daughters. His estate was valued for probate at £46,205.

Select Bibliography

  • C. G. Duffy, My Life in Two Hemispheres (Lond, 1898)
  • J. L. Forde, The Story of the Bar of Victoria (Melb, 1913)
  • C. A. Bodelsen, Studies in Mid-Victorian Imperialism (Köbenhavn, 1924)
  • H. L. Hall, Australia and England (Lond, 1934)
  • P. L. Brown, Clyde Company Papers, vols 1, 2, 7 (Lond, 1941, 1952, 1971)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • C. E. Sayers, David Syme: A Life (Melb, 1965)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 2 Dec 1859, 22 July 1886, 24 Oct 1914
  • Truth (Melbourne), 22 Aug, 31 Nov 1914
  • Mercury (Hobart), 24 Oct 1914
  • F. K. Crowley, Aspects of the Constitutional Conflicts … Victorian Legislature, 1864-1868 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1947).

Citation details

Jill Eastwood, 'Wood, John Dennistoun (1829–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wood-john-dennistoun-4883/text8169, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 20 September 2014.

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

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