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Sir John Alexander Cockburn (1850–1929)

by John Playford

This article was published:

John Alexander Cockburn (1850-1929), by unknown photographer

John Alexander Cockburn (1850-1929), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21399820-14

Sir John Alexander Cockburn (1850-1929), premier, Federationist and medical practitioner, was born on 23 August 1850 at Corsbie, Berwickshire, Scotland, second son of Thomas Cockburn, farmer, and his wife Isabella, née Wright. His father died in France in 1855, and his mother migrated to South Australia in 1867 with three of the four children. John, educated at Cholmeley (now Highgate) School, remained behind to study medicine at King's College, University of London (M.R.C.S., M.B., 1871; M.D. and gold medal, 1874), although he briefly visited his family in 1871.

Believing the medical profession to be overcrowded in England, Cockburn settled in South Australia in 1875, and set up a lucrative practice in Jamestown. He was elected its first mayor in 1878 and held the office for three and a half years. In 1881 he was appointed a commissioner of the North Midland Road Board. He was also vice-president of the Rifle Volunteer Force and captain of the Jamestown company as well as a lay reader of the Anglican Church.

Cockburn's ambitions did not lie in medicine and in 1884 he won the House of Assembly seat of Burra. He immediately made his mark in parliament as a picturesque and eloquent speaker. As minister of education in Sir John Downer's ministry in 1885-87, he was mainly responsible for the inauguration of arbor day. He also established an inquiry to report on the best means of developing technical education. Although he lost his seat at the 1887 election, he won Mount Barker, which he represented until his retirement.

In 1888 Cockburn was appointed chairman of the council of the new School of Mines and Industries but he resigned when it opened in June 1889. In the same month the Thomas Playford government was defeated and Cockburn formed a ministry as chief secretary. In August next year Playford successfully moved a motion of no-confidence, Cockburn was again chief secretary in F. W. Holder's ministry, June-October 1892. He was one of three former premiers in the cabinet of Charles Kingston, formed in June 1893, and he remained as minister of education and agriculture until he resigned in April 1898 to become agent-general in London.

An advanced liberal, Cockburn was held by his critics to be an impractical visionary, easily swayed by the writings of reformers such as Henry George and Edward Bellamy. His intellectual eclecticism was paralleled in practical politics by frequent changes of mind; he was not a strong leader in an era of faction politics. Nevertheless Cockburn initiated a number of notable pieces of reform legislation. He was active in the struggle to secure payment for members of parliament, and he helped to change Kingston's mind on adult suffrage. He also introduced unsuccessfully a bill for a progressive land tax.

Cockburn was an ardent Federationist, representing South Australia at the 1890 conference, and the 1891 and 1897-98 conventions. He was also the only notable South Australian to attend the unofficial People's Federal Convention at Bathurst in 1896. At these conferences he supported moves for a more democratic constitution. At the same time he wanted a strong Senate, basing his case on 'State rights'—his decentralist sentiments were declared at Sydney in 1891: 'Government at a central and distant point can never be government by the people'. He and Kingston were the only two delegates in 1891 to support Sir George Grey's proposal that the governor-general and the State governors should be elected by the people. Cockburn argued the governor-general would be a dummy and the office useless; many other delegates believed that an elective governor-general would have pretensions to real authority. A collection of his articles and speeches was published in Australian Federation (London, 1901), dedicated to his close friend, Sir J. Langdon Bonython.

Fears were expressed when Cockburn was appointed agent-general in 1898. The conservative Register wrote that 'the Doctor of Fanciful Notions would be more congenially employed in a library studying mystical lore and in resurrecting impracticable political schemes from “Plutarch's Lives"' than in directing the commercial and financial operations of the government in London. The outgoing incumbent of the office, Thomas Playford, in a letter to the under-treasurer Thomas Gill, pointed out Cockburn's lack of knowledge of finance but felt that 'if he holds his tongue and refrains from gassing upon socialistic fads he may do well.' As it turned out, Cockburn was a successful agent-general until 1901; he never missed an opportunity of advertising the State and its products.

He was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1900. Patrick McMahon Glynn noted with disbelief in his diary that 'Mr. Cockburn, the political mystic and interpreter of the democratic spirit as understood by himself, the paper-disciple of Rousseau, the chief South Australian exponent of philosophic equality and scientific methods of social progress—has been made a Knight'. In 1901 Cockburn was appointed knight of grace of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. That year he hoped to enter Federal politics, but his friends failed to nominate him in time. Shortly afterwards he was placed in an embarrassing position by the government of J. G. Jenkins, which wished to downgrade the agent-generalship to that of a State agent, at a reduced salary. Cockburn's term of office was not extended, as had previously been the case, and his retirement reflected rather poorly on his former political colleagues. The Critic commented sourly that electors 'would hardly recognise their old friend with the ultra-radical views … [who] dressed “carelessly", wore his hair long like the typical anarchist of the papers illustrated, [but is] now immaculately frocked and has somewhat changed his views'.

Cockburn remained in England for the rest of his life as a sort of unofficial ambassador for South Australia, many of whose citizens he entertained at Dean's Hill, Harrietsham, Kent. He made an unsuccessful attempt to enter the House of Commons at a by-election for West Monmouthshire in November 1904, standing as an Independent Tariff Reformer supported by Joseph Chamberlain and the local Conservatives; however, he had nothing else in common with them. He held directorships of the English, Scottish & Australian Bank, the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Co. Ltd, the Australian Mutual Provident Society, and the Central Insurance Co. He also became chairman of the Australasian Chamber of Commerce in London, the Nature Study Association and the Swanley Horticultural College, and was vice-chairman of the court of governors of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Cockburn was president of the Entente Cordiale Society, the National Association of Manual Training Teachers, the London branch of the Child-Study Society, the Men's International Alliance for Woman Suffrage, and the International Philological Society, and a vice-president of the Royal Colonial Institute. He was also a member of the council of King's College, University of London, from 1900. In addition, he did prominent work for the London County Council on elementary education, and was a prolific writer on Australian, Imperial and educational topics. Greatly interested in freemasonry, he had been deputy grand master in South Australia, and in England he became president of both the International Masonic Club and the Society for Masonic Study, and wrote extensively on the symbolism of freemasonry.

Cockburn was a short and handsome man. His obituary in The Times described him as 'stamped with the zeal and courtesy of a past generation'. He was proud of his extensive library, and bookbinding was one of his hobbies. He died in London, at King's College Hospital, on 26 November 1929, survived by his wife Sarah Holdway (d.1931), née Brown, whom he had married in 1875, and by a son and a daughter. His estate was valued for probate at £20,442. A bust in bronze by Alfred Drury is in the possession of the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Deakin, The Federal Story, J. A. La Nauze ed (Melb, 1963)
  • N. Robinson, Change on Change (Leabrook, 1971)
  • British Australasian, 9 Mar 1899
  • Critic (Adelaide), 4 Jan 1902
  • Freemason (London), 30 Nov 1929
  • Observer (Adelaide), 10 Dec 1904
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 27 Nov 1929, p 16
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 28 Nov 1929
  • Register (Adelaide), 28 Nov 1929
  • Recorder (Port Pirie, South Australia), 30 Nov 1929.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Playford, 'Cockburn, Sir John Alexander (1850–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Alexander Cockburn (1850-1929), by unknown photographer

John Alexander Cockburn (1850-1929), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21399820-14

Life Summary [details]


23 August, 1850
Corsbie, Berwickshire, Scotland


26 November, 1929 (aged 79)
London, Middlesex, England

Cultural Heritage

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