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John Howard Clark (1830–1878)

by W. G. Buick

This article was published:

John Howard Clark (1830-1878), by unknown photographer, c1870

John Howard Clark (1830-1878), by unknown photographer, c1870

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3902

John Howard Clark (1830-1878), newspaper proprietor and public figure, was born on 15 January 1830 in Birmingham, England, son of Francis Clark (1798-1853), silver-plate manufacturer, and his wife Caroline (1800-1877), sister of Rowland Hill. Rosamond and Florence Hill, authors of What We Saw in Australia (London, 1875) were his cousins. He was educated at the Birmingham and Edgbaston Proprietary School and attended lectures at the Birmingham Polytechnic Institution by Charles Cowden Clarke to whom he attributed his knowledge and love of Shakespeare. His contemporaries valued highly this knowledge and his skill at reading Shakespeare aloud. His first employment was at Corbyn's Hall coal and iron works near Dudley, Worcestershire. On medical advice he emigrated to South Australia with his parents in the Fatima.

The diary which he kept on the voyage of 118 days illustrates his practical nature and his dislike of sophisticated and contrived qualities that never left him. Of a schoolmaster he notes, 'affects gentility always coming on deck in black kid gloves'; of Chapman's Homer he has 'no taste for that twisting and elongated and stiffening of nature which goes by the name of High Art'. Macaulay's History was read aloud on the voyage with Clark commencing; 'though I am fond of reading aloud I never can listen to reading with any comfort'. His scientific interests, not uncommon among other Nonconformist emigrants, were employed in making a star map for Adelaide; with the merest of aids he laid down the positions of over 200 stars. His Nonconformism is shown in the entry for Easter Sunday: 'The doctor read the Athanasian Creed, so that I had the satisfaction of considering myself damned'. He also notes that an amusing old gentleman is an advocate of capital punishment.

After his arrival in Adelaide on 11 June 1850 he opened a business as chemist and assayer but soon joined his father as Francis Clark & Son, accountants and merchants. He won repute as the most proficient accountant in the colony and arbitrated in several disputes involving abstruse questions of account. In 1865 he bought the interest of Joseph Fisher in the South Australian Register, became its commercial manager and was editor in 1870-78. Contemporary opinion did not endow him with a nose for news; his interest was more that of the littérateur than that of the journalist. His strong advocacy of the public welfare and social reform carried him where sensations and scoops would not.

Clark was influential in many educational and philanthropic institutions in Adelaide. He presided at a meeting on 10 January 1853 when the Adelaide Philosophical Society (later Royal Society of South Australia) was inaugurated and was its first honorary secretary until 1862. He rejected all overtures to enter parliament though he wrote what were said to be clever election squibs. He helped to organize a popular demonstration in 1856, when the Constitution was granted, on the question of whether the part-elected Legislative Council should not at once cease to be. He made common cause with the claimants of the Moonta mines leases and helped to keep alive the agitation. He joined the Volunteer Forces in 1860 and was immediately chosen by his company as a non-commissioned officer. He was later elected lieutenant and captain and promoted adjutant and then major. Later he was offered the rank of lieutenant-colonel but declined.

Clark's greatest work was with the South Australian Institute from which stems the present State Library of South Australia and other institutions. He made proposals to the government in 1854 and with the governor, Sir Richard MacDonnell and the chief justice, Sir Richard Hanson, prepared the Act of Incorporation. He revised the bill thirteen times before he was satisfied and the Act of 1855-56 was not amended for twenty-two years. He was treasurer in 1857-58, chairman in 1858-59 and the first governor elected by the subscribers; except for one year he remained on the board until 1864. He concerned himself particularly with the affiliated country institutes and with the classes conducted by the board which at one stage appeared almost as though it might develop the institute into the colony's university. His view of the South Australian Institute as something much more than a mere subscription library for the city of Adelaide was clearly shown by his evidence to the parliamentary commission appointed to inquire into the whole question of the new institute and museum in 1874.

From young manhood Clark suffered indifferent health; he rarely went out at night and then only with a respirator. He did not have the advantage of formal higher education. His sense of humour, like his literary efforts, had the quality of Victorian drawing room pleasantry rather than of sophistication or erudition. The best of his writings show perception and fluency. He contributed to the Register under the name of 'Geoffrey Crabthorn' but not all the writing so attributed is his. He wrote some verse as 'Pleeceman X'. A number of his burlesques, written apparently for family entertainment, were collected and printed under the title Echoes from the Bush.

Clark was a leader in the infant Unitarian Church in Adelaide and his marriage on 15 October 1858 to Lucy Martin (1839-1863) was the first celebrated in that church. With Rev. J. C. Woods and Robert Kay, secretary to the South Australian Institute, he framed a special set of liturgical prayers, and he sometimes acted as lay preacher. He died from consumption at Port Willunga on 20 May 1878 and in keeping with his unostentatious life there was no funeral procession; even so about 300 people including the acting-governor, the premier and the vicar-general of the Anglican Church assembled at West Terrace cemetery. Clark was survived by his second wife Agnes, née Macnee (1843-1913), whom he had married on 11 October 1865, and by a son and two daughters of his first marriage and one son and four daughters of the second.

Without doubt John Howard Clark was a man of integrity and influence. Institutions which he founded or promoted in the middle decades of the nineteenth century in an environment which could hardly have been conducive to the cultivation of the arts and sciences still flourish. In 1880 the public subscribed £500 to found scholarships in English literature at the University of Adelaide in his memory.

A portrait is in the National Art Gallery of South Australia and another in the possession of Stuart Auld, Adelaide.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (South Australia), 1872 (36)
  • ‘John Howard Clark’, Library Record of Australasia, vol 1, no 4, Dec 1901, pp 113-18
  • Register (Adelaide), 13 June 1878 supplement
  • Clark papers (State Records of South Australia)
  • SA Institute minutes (State Records of South Australia)
  • Clark diary and papers (privately held).

Citation details

W. G. Buick, 'Clark, John Howard (1830–1878)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 20 June 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 Howard Clark (1830-1878), by unknown photographer, c1870

John Howard Clark (1830-1878), by unknown photographer, c1870

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3902

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Crabthorn, Geoffrey
  • Pleeceman X

15 January, 1830
Birmingham, Warwickshire, England


20 May, 1878 (aged 48)
Port Willunga, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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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.