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Sir John Colton (1823–1902)

by S. R. Parr

This article was published:

John Colton (1823-1902), by unknown photographer, c1880

John Colton (1823-1902), by unknown photographer, c1880

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 11137

Sir John Colton (1823-1902), legislator and merchant, was born on 23 September 1823 at Harbertonford, Devonshire, England, son of William Colton (1795-1858), farmer, and his wife Elizabeth. He worked at Yealmpton for a harness-maker before he migrated to South Australia with his parents and four brothers with free passages in the Duchess of Northumberland. They arrived at Adelaide on 19 December 1839. His father settled at McLaren Vale as a tenant of the South Australian Co. and became a vigneron.

John made his home in Adelaide, where he became apprenticed to the saddlery trade. In 1842 he began business on his own account, opening a small shop which developed by 1883 into a factory employing over 125 hands and the large retail hardware and saddlery business with which he was actively connected until his retirement.

Colton's leadership in the city's commercial circles led to his election in 1859 as alderman for Grey ward in the Adelaide City Council; he served as mayor in 1874-75. On 17 November 1862 Colton was elected member for Noarlunga in the South Australian House of Assembly. His administrative ability and commercial acumen were recognized in November 1868 by his appointment as commissioner of public works in the Strangways ministry. In May 1870, because of local unpopularity of a uniform land tax of ½d. an acre proposed by Strangways, he was defeated at the general elections. In 1872 Colton was re-elected for Noarlunga, and in June 1875 became treasurer in the Boucaut government. He introduced a stamp duties bill, the second in Australia, but in March 1876 resigned in disagreement with changes in the ministry. Boucaut's government was defeated and Colton formed his first ministry, taking office as premier and commissioner of public works on 6 June 1876. On 26 October 1877 he was displaced by Boucaut in a constitutional struggle over the new parliamentary building.

He resigned his seat in August 1878 because of illness and spent some time abroad. Returning in better health he was re-elected in 1880 to the House of Assembly and, because of his deep-seated resistance to Bray's property tax, took his place with the Opposition. After his successful motion of no confidence in the Bray administration over its property tax, Colton formed his second ministry on 16 June 1884 and became premier and chief secretary. In his twelve months of office he successfully introduced a land and income tax as well as progressive legislation on public health, vermin destruction and crown and pastoral lands, including small suburban blocks where workmen could supplement their incomes. After his ministry fell Colton toured the Australian colonies and New Zealand. On his return he made a last attempt to lead the Opposition against the Downer administration, but an attack of paralysis enforced his retirement in 1887. In 1891 Colton was appointed K.C.M.G. He died at Hackney, near Adelaide, on 6 February 1902, and was buried at West Terrace cemetery. The township of Colton on Eyre Peninsula is named after him.

On 3 December 1844 he had married Mary Cutting, who had migrated from London in 1839 with her widower father. Of their five children, John William and Alfred Cutting carried on the family business; Edwin Blackler entered an Adelaide legal practice; Frank Septimus practised medicine for many years in England; and Ellen Hannah remained at home as companion to her parents.

Wesleyan Methodist by profession, Colton sponsored the building in 1850 of the Pirie Street church and parsonage. His generous gift of £100 toward the £600 required for the half-acre (0.2 ha) site was described at the time as 'an act of great faith in God and in the future of the city of Adelaide'. He was trustee of more than a hundred Wesleyan churches and benefactor of many more throughout the colony. One of the most influential laymen in the church, he served as Sunday school superintendent and lay preacher. He opposed state aid for churches in the 1840s and was a leading figure in the League for the Preservation of Religious Freedom. As a champion of 'social purity' he was active in the temperance movement and in parliament sponsored the young persons protection bill. He was the founder of the Stranger's Friend Society and an executive member of the British and Foreign Bible Society. Zealous in community service he was for many years chairman of the Adelaide Hospital Board, and member of the boards of the Blind, Deaf and Dumb Institution and of the Adelaide Children's Hospital. He was active in opening the Franklin Street Wesleyan Day School years before free education was introduced in the colony, and later played a leading part in founding Prince Alfred College; the Colton wing now bears testimony to his generous benefactions. Patriarchal in spirit he was fearless in controversy and sought with undoubted sincerity to help those less fortunate than himself whether by his generous gestures or his legislative activities. Admirers described him as broad in his Christian sympathies but narrow in worldly pleasures because of his hatred of gambling and of spirituous liquors and his abstention from theatre-going and dancing; detractors, not without justification, charged him with a lack of humour. His striking appearance on a public platform won tribute from a contemporary: 'If Sir John were simply to rise, stand in silence for a minute, and produce a hush, stroke his beard, a venerable structure eighteen inches long, and in oracular terms bid his audience good morning, he would produce more effect than many other members could by an hour's speech'.

Select Bibliography

  • G. D. Combe, Responsible Government in South Australia (Adel, 1957)
  • D. Pike, Paradise of Dissent (Melb, 1967)
  • Select Committee on Government Works and Tenders, Evidence, Votes and Proceedings (South Australia), 1877 (131)
  • Register (Adelaide), 7 Feb 1902.

Citation details

S. R. Parr, 'Colton, Sir John (1823–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 13 July 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 Colton (1823-1902), by unknown photographer, c1880

John Colton (1823-1902), by unknown photographer, c1880

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 11137

Life Summary [details]


23 September, 1823
Harbertonford, Devon, England


6 February, 1902 (aged 78)
Hackney, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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