Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Sir John Bramston (1832–1921)

by R. B. Joyce

This article was published:

Sir John Bramston (1832-1921), politician and civil servant, was born on 14 November 1832 at Roxwell, Essex, England, the second son of Thomas William Bramston, who represented South Essex in the House of Commons in 1835-65, and his wife Eliza, daughter of Admiral Sir Eliab Harvey who commanded the Temeraire at Trafalgar. He was educated at Winchester and Balliol College, Oxford (B.A., 1854). He then studied law while his scholastic attainments were recognized by his election as a fellow of All Souls (S.C.L., 1855; B.C.L., 1856). He entered the Middle Temple and was admitted to the Bar in 1857.

Bramston received his D.C.L. in 1863 while practising as a barrister in Queensland where he had accompanied Governor Sir George Bowen as private secretary. He also acted from December 1860 to April 1861 as clerk to the Executive Council. While he gave no reason for deciding to gain colonial experience instead of practising law in England, his 'numerous briefs' in Queensland and his friendship with Bowen and more especially with (Sir) Robert Herbert helped to prolong his stay. He shared a house in Brisbane with Herbert and enjoyed the variety of his bachelor's life: in 1860 he was commissioned a captain in the Brisbane troop of the Queensland Mounted Rifles; in 1862 he rowed in Brisbane as stroke of an Oxford four against a Cambridge crew; he often sailed in Moreton Bay and owned a race-horse; he was on the committee of the Brisbane Hospital; a trustee of the Brisbane Grammar School; and on the committee which formed the Queensland National Bank.

Bramston entered Queensland's Legislative Council in July 1863, serving in Herbert's ministry to February 1866. He was a minister without portfolio, except in August-September 1865 when he was attorney-general. He made few direct contributions, and attended only two of the six meetings of cabinet whilst attorney-general. In 1867 he went to England where he probably intended to remain, since he accepted office as assistant boundary commissioner for Devon and Cornwall. Although his friends, Bowen and Herbert, had left Queensland, he returned and was attorney-general in (Sir) Arthur Palmer's ministry from 3 May 1870 to 26 December 1873. He was responsible for such measures as the Common Law Process Act, the amended Marriage Act and the Insolvency Act. Never popular, when he left the Legislative Council to stand for the assembly he was defeated three times. His candidature was 'hawked about the country from Point Danger to the Gulf of Carpentaria' before he was elected for Burnett in April 1871. His petition against one opponent, John Handy, allegedly a 'minister … according to the rites of the Church of Rome', was rejected because Handy had left that church ten years earlier. This petition brought Bramston frequent political attacks, including aspersions on his ability as a lawyer and claims that he had 'always been the bungler of the Government'. He reciprocated with bitter personal references to his opponents and was not deterred from expressing his opinions, whether opposing payment of members or criticizing educational legislation. Although against free secondary schools, he supported limited aid for the best primary examinees and thought all discussion of a university was premature. Bramston gave loyal aid to Palmer, whose main supporters were the Conservative squatters, against the Liberals centred in Brisbane; in a furore over the official welcome to the new governor, Lord Normanby, Bramston countered the threats of the mayor of Brisbane to withdraw and hold a separate ceremony by proposing to invite the mayor of Ipswich as host. Despite his involvement in party politics, Bramston seemed to believe that Palmer, like his predecessor Herbert, was the most suitable leader as representing more than 'one class and one interest in the colony'.

In December 1872 Bramston married Eliza Isabella, daughter of Rev. Henry Vane Russell, and niece of the marchioness of Normanby, wife of the governor. This marriage may have influenced his final departure from Queensland, for a year later he moved to Hong Kong, where he was briefly attorney-general and then an acting judge. More significant was his work in the Colonial Office which he joined, again following Herbert, in June 1876. There he served for twenty-one years making good use of his knowledge of Australia. He was created C.B. in 1886 and was registrar of the Order of St Michael and St George from 1892; he was appointed G.C.M.G. in 1900. He also served on special tasks, including a mission to Berlin on the territorial negotiations over Angra Pequena in German South-West Africa in 1886, a royal commission on French rights in Newfoundland in 1898 and a royal commission for a Paris Exhibition in 1900. He retired at 65 and lived in London till his death on 13 September 1921. His career is inevitably linked with that of Herbert (even a Brisbane suburb was named Herston after them) and must suffer by comparison with Herbert's greater achievements. Bramston, however, deserves recognition as a brilliant lawyer who proved a skilful, impartial administrator and as typifying the many able Englishmen who contributed to Australian political development.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1859-73
  • Queensland Government Gazette, 1859-73
  • F. W. S. Cumbrae-Stewart, ‘Some Queensland Memoir Writers’, Journal (Historical Society of Queensland), vol 2, no 1, Feb 1920, pp 1-26
  • N. S. Pixley, ‘The Military Defence Force of Queensland’, Journal (Historical Society of Queensland), vol 4, no 2, Dec 1949, pp 253-70
  • A. A. Morrison, ‘Some Lesser Members of Parliament in Queensland’, Journal (Royal Historical Society of Queensland), vol 6, no 3, 1960-61, pp 557-79
  • Drury newsclipping books (State Library of Queensland)
  • Herbert letters (State Library of Queensland)
  • A. H. Palmer letters (State Library of Queensland)
  • Executive Council minutes, 1865 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

R. B. Joyce, 'Bramston, Sir John (1832–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 25 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Bramston, n.d.

John Bramston, n.d.

State Library of Queensland, 3985

Life Summary [details]


14 November, 1832
Roxwell, Essex, England


13 September, 1921 (aged 88)
London, Middlesex, England

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.