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Sir Jenkin Coles (1843–1911)

by Suzanne Edgar

This article was published:

Jenkin Coles (1843-1911), by unknown photographer, c1885

Jenkin Coles (1843-1911), by unknown photographer, c1885

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B48260

Sir Jenkin Coles (1843-1911), auctioneer and politician, was born on 19 January 1843 at Liverpool, New South Wales, eldest son of Jenkin Coles, publican, and his wife Caroline. The family returned to England in 1849 and Coles attended Christ's Hospital, London. In 1854 they migrated to South Australia and Coles became a junior clerk with the River Murray Navigation Co. From 1859 he worked at the Adelaide Hospital; in 1861 he failed in an application to join John McDouall Stuart's exploring party, but it led to a job as a mounted policeman at Overland Corner. From 1864 at Kapunda, Coles was an auctioneer and stock and station agent with a popular 'trick of repartee'. Next year, on 9 May, he married Ellen Henrietta Briggs in St Francis Xavier's Cathedral, Adelaide; they had seven daughters and four sons.

Although not a single-taxer, Coles admired Henry George's ideas on land reform. In 1875, as a free trader and land reformer, he won a House of Assembly by-election for Light. Standing down at the 1877 elections, he wound up his business and in 1881 regained Light (Wooroora) and held it until his death. When campaigning, Coles was 'a strange mixture of nervousness and intrepidity', although he 'spoke fearlessly'. His policies were 'sober, and sane and safe' and in parliament he proved practical and diligent. In June 1884 he was rewarded with the lands and immigration portfolio in (Sir) John Colton's cabinet.

Coles was a just and efficient minister. He ensured that rents were paid and resisted special pleading and indignant squatters' deputations; although 'forcible, often aggressive', he extended 'the greatest leniency where it was justified'. He carried the important Pastoral Crown Lands Act, 1884. Aimed at land speculation, it classified pastoral land, opened old leases to public competition and extended fixity of tenure to genuine settlers.

In 1885 the government fell, and for a time Coles led the Opposition. His 1886 no confidence motion against Sir John Downer forced a restructuring of the cabinet. When Thomas Playford formed a government in 1887 Coles resumed lands and immigration. He amended much legislation to further facilitate settlement. His 1888 Crown Lands Consolidation Act embodied the recommendations of the important commission on the land laws of South Australia of that year, on which he had sat. It divided the colony into land districts with local land boards.

The Playford government was replaced in 1889 and next year Coles was unanimously elected Speaker of the House. The Register commented: 'the best prizefighter makes the fairest referee'. He proved an 'alert, suave and wise' arbiter and avoided further active political participation. In 1894 he was appointed K.C.M.G. and moved to Adelaide. A member of the Savage Club, he had joined the Adelaide Club in 1890, and became a director of the Bank of Adelaide. By 1900 his friend C. C. Kingston found him 'not so Liberal as might be wished'. Averse to 'promiscuous society gatherings', he loved a rubber of whist, and was 'a thorough home bird'.

In 1910 Coles achieved a record term as Speaker. He was unwilling to retire when illness overtook him next year and his son relayed his resignation to parliament shortly before Coles's death of Bright's disease at his Glenelg home on 6 December. Eulogies extolling his impartiality and tolerance were extravagant and from all political groups. His family declined the offer of a state funeral as being incompatible with his unostentatious habits.

Select Bibliography

  • G. D. Combe, Responsible Government in South Australia (Adel, 1957)
  • Gleam (Adelaide), Oct 1900
  • Register (Adelaide), 30 June 1854, 7 Dec 1911
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 13 Apr 1881, 6 June 1890, 17 Nov, 7, 8 Dec 1911
  • Observer (Adelaide), 27 Aug 1887, 7 June 1890, 27 May 1893
  • S. Godwin, The Land for the People (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1961)
  • Carruthers papers, vol 20 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • PRG 30/5 (State Records of South Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar, 'Coles, Sir Jenkin (1843–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 June 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

Jenkin Coles (1843-1911), by unknown photographer, c1885

Jenkin Coles (1843-1911), by unknown photographer, c1885

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B48260

Life Summary [details]


19 January, 1843
Liverpool, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


6 December, 1911 (aged 68)
Glenelg, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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