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John Henry Cann (1860–1940)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with George Cann

John Henry Cann (1860-1940), by unknown photographer, 1902

John Henry Cann (1860-1940), by unknown photographer, 1902

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 09469

John Henry Cann (1860-1940), politician and railway administrator, and George Cann (1871-1948), politician, were born on 19 April 1860 at Horrabridge, Sampford Spiney, Devonshire, and on 30 May 1871 at Shankhouse, Cramlington, Northumberland, England, sons of Richard Cann, signalman, and his wife Rebecca, née Sowden. John Henry moved with his family to Northumberland in 1866; at 9 he was a trapper in a coal-mine, continuing as a miner until he went to London in 1882 and worked as a porter and signalman on the Metropolitan District Railway. On 20 August 1885 at St Mary's Anglican Church, Lambeth, he married a widow Elizabeth Ann Callard, née Wright; they migrated to Sydney in February 1887. He hoped to get a job in the railways but became a miner at Port Kembla; next year he went to Broken Hill and in 1889 was employed by the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd. He became a Primitive Methodist lay preacher and president of the local branch of the Amalgamated Miners' Association; his leadership during the 1890 maritime strike ensured his pre-selection as parliamentary candidate when the A.M.A. formed the district's first Labor Electoral League in 1891.

In June the Labor Party won thirty-five seats in its electoral campaign; Cann won Sturt and held it until 1916 (Broken Hill in 1894-1913). He gradually emerged as a skilful and eloquent parliamentarian, remaining 'solid' in the party disputes of 1891-94. He was the director of Labor's campaign at the 1897 election for delegates to the Australasian Federal Convention. At the 1899 party conference at Woonona he supported J. C. Watson in a vital division that ensured that Labor would not oppose the submission of the Constitution bill to a second referendum.

By 1900 Cann was one of only three original Labor members left in parliament and his ability and seniority helped him to become chairman of committees, until 1904, in an agreement with the Protectionist government. When Labor gained office with a majority of one in 1910 he became Speaker, but stood down in July next year when W. A. Holman arranged for H. Willis, a Liberal, to take over following the unexpected resignation of two Labor men. In the cabinet reshuffle after J. R. Dacey's death, Cann succeeded A. C. Carmichael as treasurer on 6 May 1912. When Holman formed his first ministry in June next year, Cann became deputy leader and remained at the Treasury until 29 January 1914, when he exchanged posts with Holman to become colonial secretary and secretary for mines. Carmichael's resignation in March 1915 led to Cann's last portfolio, public works.

By then he was a classic self-made Labor man who, through the party, had overcome his lack of formal education and developed his innate intelligence and ability. He exhibited another facet of his background when his Empire sentiments made him a conscriptionist in 1916; he was expelled from the Labor Party. His omission from Holman's National ministry was followed in December by his appointment as assistant railways commissioner. He retired at the end of 1924 and died, childless, at his home at Petersham on 21 July 1940. He was buried in the Congregational section of Rookwood cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £19,993.

George Cann was educated at Cramlington National School. At 11 he worked at Hartford colliery and later became a member of the Northumberland Miners' Association. On 8 March 1890 at the Primitive Methodist Chapel, Cowpen Quay, Blyth, he married Catherine Roberts; they had one daughter and one son, and migrated to New South Wales in 1900. He found work in the western coalfields around Lithgow and in 1905-07 he was president of the Western Miners' Association. He joined the Labor Party and in 1910-13 held the Federal seat of Nepean and was also an alderman on Lithgow council.

Cann contested the State seat of Upper Hunter in 1913, but lost; next year he won Canterbury at a by-election, and in 1915-16 was a member of the Labor Party central executive. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 14 March 1916, became an acting sergeant, and served in various training groups in England, reverting to private on 13 September 1917. He returned to Australia and was discharged on 22 January next year. He had missed the party split — he was probably opposed to conscription — and resumed his political career, retaining his seat in 1917 and in 1920 (St George). He was elected chairman of caucus 1919.

In the Storey-Dooley cabinets, 1920-22, at various times Cann was secretary for mines, minister for labour and industry and minister for local government. In factional wrangles early in 1923, the State executive, dominated by J. Bailey, expelled him; but, after the intervention of the Federal executive, a State conference in June restored the status quo, and in J. T. Lang's cabinet, 1925-27, he was variously minister for local government, health and labour and industry.

Cann had opposed Lang's leadership; as a result he lost Labor pre-selection in 1927, ran unsuccessfully as an independent and was expelled. He became critical of Lang's 'red dictatorship' and in 1930 contested Lakemba as a Nationalist, but lost. He was a trustee of the National Park (president in 1932) and a Freemason. He died on 18 October 1948 and was buried in the Methodist section of Rookwood cemetery, survived by his wife. His estate was sworn for probate at £577.

Select Bibliography

  • H. V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader: The Story of W.A. Holman and the Labour Movement, (Syd, 1942)
  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • H. Radi and P. Spearritt (eds), Jack Lang (Syd, 1977)
  • B. Kennedy, Silver, Sin, and Sixpenny Ale (Melb, 1978)
  • Bulletin, 14 July 1900, 9 May 1915
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Dec 1916, 4 Apr 1923, 17 Oct 1924, 22 July 1940, 19 Oct 1948
  • Punch (Melbourne), 4 Jan 1917.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Cann, John Henry (1860–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 May 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

John Henry Cann (1860-1940), by unknown photographer, 1902

John Henry Cann (1860-1940), by unknown photographer, 1902

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 09469

Life Summary [details]


19 April, 1860
Horrabridge, Devon, England


21 July, 1940 (aged 80)
Petersham, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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