Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sir Jonathan Robert Cain (1867–1938)

by Carl Bridge

This article was published:

Jonathan Robert Cain (1867-1938), by unknown photographer

Jonathan Robert Cain (1867-1938), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6911

Sir Jonathan Robert Cain (1867-1938), lord mayor and businessman, was born on 23 September 1867 at Leamington, Warwickshire, England, son of John Cain, carpenter, and his wife Winnifred, née Anstey. The family migrated in 1877 and John Cain started a furniture shop in North Adelaide. Cain attended the Model School there and was a chorister at St Peter's Cathedral. On leaving school he worked first with his father, and later in Melbourne as an undertaker. At Collingwood, on 30 July 1890, he married Ada Davey, a milliner. They returned to Adelaide and established a confectionery store and, in 1903, a drapery shop in King William Street. From 1908 Cain concentrated on the drapery and millinery trade, in which he remained for the rest of his life.

Outside business Cain was a debater and, before the war, president of the Pirie Street Literary Society and a front-bencher in the Literary Societies' Union parliament. Business and debating drew him into politics and in 1914 he became secretary of the Liberal Union's Adelaide district committee. In 1916 he was elected councillor for the Hindmarsh Ward in the Adelaide City Council, where he served for twenty-two years, and was lord mayor in 1933-37.

Cain's period as lord mayor was marked by his concern for the unemployed and by his efforts to popularize the council. In 1931 he started the Lord Mayor's Relief Fund, an appeal for voluntary contributions to help the unemployed. In 1933 he formed the United Relief Council to co-ordinate the relief work of all metropolitan councils and defeated moves to restrict use of the fund to the city only. He always shunned inter-council jealousies, and as lord mayor persuaded the United Relief Council to operate on the principle of most aid to the areas of greatest need. The council spent £30,000 raised by the relief fund in 1931-37 and over £30,000 in State grants in 1933-37. Cain greatly increased the number of mayoral receptions, arguing that in times of crisis they heightened the sense of community. He excelled as host for the Duke of Gloucester's Adelaide visit in 1934 and as an organizer for the State centennial celebrations in 1936 when he ensured that money spent benefited the unemployed: work was provided to beautify Torrens Lake. For his services to the city he was knighted in 1937.

Cain was interested in bowling, community singing and the Boy Scouts' movement, and was a council-member of the South Australian Acclimatization and Zoological Society. He was also chairman of the Adelaide directors of the Cornhill Insurance Co. Ltd. He was a short man, plump, florid, talkative and hospitable. Not a controversialist, he believed party politics had no place in council affairs. Predeceased by his wife and survived by his only daughter, he died on 4 November 1938 of pneumonia contracted after a motor accident and was buried in North Road cemetery. His intestate estate was valued for probate at £2703.

Select Bibliography

  • The Civic Record of South Australia 1921-1923 (Adel, 1924)
  • The Official Civic Record of South Australia (Adel, 1936)
  • Adelaide City Council, Annual Report, 1932-38
  • South Australian, 11 Nov 1926
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 1, 4 Dec 1933, 30 June 1937, 5 Nov 1938
  • Notice papers etc (Adelaide City Council Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Carl Bridge, 'Cain, Sir Jonathan Robert (1867–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Jonathan Robert Cain (1867-1938), by unknown photographer

Jonathan Robert Cain (1867-1938), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6911

Life Summary [details]


23 September, 1867
Leamington Hastings, Warwickshire, England


4 November, 1938 (aged 71)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.