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Sir John William Downer (1843–1915)

by Peter Bartlett

This article was published:

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John William Downer (1843-1915), by unknown photographer

John William Downer (1843-1915), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21399820-16

Sir John William Downer (1843-1915), lawyer and politician, was born on 6 July 1843 in Adelaide, son of Henry Downer, a tailor who had migrated to South Australia from England in 1838, and his wife Jane, née Field. He won a scholarship to the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide, where he proved brilliant. He was articled to his brother Henry Edward and (Sir) James Penn Boucaut, and admitted to the Bar on 23 March 1867. He soon became a prominent barrister and, with his brother George, founded a leading legal firm, G. & J. Downer. In 1878 he became a Q.C. and in the same year entered the House of Assembly as a member for Barossa, which he represented until 1901.

His talents were soon recognized and he was attorney-general in (Sir) J. C. Bray's ministry in 1881-84. Downer's concern for legal reform was a feature of this period: in 1882 he carried a bill which allowed persons charged with criminal offences to give evidence under oath, and he amended the Insolvency and Marriage Acts. He devoted his greatest effort to the Married Women's Property Act, which was finally passed in 1883. An early supporter of women's suffrage, when the legislation was introduced, he opposed the inclusion of a property qualification clause. Although he believed that women had 'purer and higher notions' than men, he could not concede them the right to become members of parliament.

Downer was seen as the Bray ministry's strongest member and was the obvious choice to lead the Opposition during Bray's absence in Europe in 1885. Before Bray's return Downer successfully carried a motion of no confidence in the (Sir) John Colton ministry and assumed office as premier and attorney-general on 16 June 1885. Faced with economic depression in South Australia, he attempted to reduce the deficit by cutting government expenditure while increasing revenue by a protective tariff. Measures were taken however to find jobs for the unemployed on public works. Next year he opened negotiations with the Chaffey brothers for their carrying out an extensive irrigation scheme at Renmark. His interest in Federation led him to introduce a bill to bring into operation in South Australia the Act of the Imperial Parliament which had constituted a Federal Council of Australasia, but it had to be withdrawn. In other matters he usually dominated the House, so much so that the Adelaide Observer spoke of him as self-opinionated, 'a second Bismarck, with a too yielding Reichstag'. Perhaps for this reason he felt it safe in 1887 to attend the Imperial Conference in London on the eve of an election, and in the face of disapproval throughout the colony.

At the conference Downer shone as one of the Australian colonies' leading political and legal figures: on behalf of the English Marriage Law Reform Association, he tried to persuade the British government to bring the English law relating to marriage with a deceased wife's sister into line with the more liberal colonial legislation. More importantly, he argued the need for a bill in the Imperial Parliament to make colonial judgments enforceable in the United Kingdom as a practical step towards Imperial Federation. He also argued for a uniform law for the Empire in relation to the winding up of estates in bankruptcy, but the British politely refused to endorse any such enthusiastic schemes. Before the conference he learnt that he was to be personally knighted by Queen Victoria. This pleasure and the recognition he received in London was only equalled by his disappointment on returning to Australia, when he discovered at Albany that his government had fallen. In the elections he had lost many supporters, particularly in Adelaide, to trade union candidates.

Downer was not to return to office until October 1892 and this ministry, in which he was premier and successively chief secretary and treasurer, lasted for only eight months. He was forced to resign when, after an election, C. C. Kingston, who had voted with Downer to defeat the previous ministry, was able to put together a coalition supported by the newly formed United Labor Party. Downer remarked of this party: 'They are very clever fellows. I have great respect for … the way they use either side for their purposes with absolute impartiality'. For most of the period until 1899 Downer led the Opposition.

As a delegate to the Intercolonial Convention of 1883 and as a member of the Federal Council of Australasia in 1889, he had played a minor role, but by the Sydney Convention of 1891 he was one of the leading conservative spokesmen. His great interest was the future Upper House's role as a States' house: Downer supported those who wanted a powerful Senate similar to that of the United States of America. The principle of responsible government was not to overrule States' rights. He opposed viewing the Senate as being like existing Legislative Councils or the House of Lords, and was concerned that it would be powerful enough to attract the best intellects, by offering its members a sense of authority and power.

At the Australasian Federal Convention of 1897 in Adelaide Downer was a member of the constitutional and drafting committees, some of the work of which was done in his house where (Sir) Edmund Barton was a guest. Downer wished to preserve the clauses of the 1891 bill relating to appeals to the Privy Council. He forcibly argued that the constitution should let the new nation manage its own judicial affairs. When these clauses were whittled away, he questioned whether the delegates 'would ever get out of swaddling clothes'. On (Sir) Simon Fraser's interjection that they were not here to 'cut the painter' with Great Britain, Downer replied: 'We have come to the conclusion that we may cease to be provincial, and form the foundation of a nation. We do not propose in any way to separate from the British Crown, in fact we look to it with reverence. We consider ourselves the same people, but the very essence of the difference is that we think that we can make laws which will suffice us; in other words, to put it colloquially, we think we can manage our own affairs'.

In the elections for the first Commonwealth parliament Downer was returned as one of the six South Australian senators. He was so interested in the constitutional position of the Senate, that one colleague remarked that Downer reminded him of the gentleman who under all circumstances would drag King Charles's head into the discussion. While Downer doggedly defended the Senate's constitutional rights—and he believed those rights extended to the removal of governments—he was also a firm believer in the importance of convention. He fought a move in the Senate to delay passage of a supply bill: 'In every constitutionally governed state the practice has been to pass Supply Bills practically as a matter of course', and during the controversy over Lord Hopetoun's resignation he again cited convention when he pleaded that 'It is a well understood principle of constitutional government that it is undesirable for the Governor General to take an active part in debatable politics'.

In this first parliament Downer supported Barton's ministry although at times he was unenthusiastic about its legislation. He believed the Immigration Restriction Act did not deserve high priority and objected to what he described as 'this general running amok with the name of white Australia'. Nor did he bear kindly with cant about the white man's civilizing mission; 'When the British came here the population was black. Through the ennobling influences of the civilised whites, the blacks are nearly all dead'. Such sentiments did not, however, prevent him accepting the brief—paid for by public subscription—to defend William Willshire, the first South Australian policeman to be charged with the murder of Aboriginal people. Willshire and others had allegedly attacked sleeping Aboriginal people on Tempe Downs station in 1891 and killed two men. After an investigation the sub-protector of Aborigines at Alice Springs, F. J. Gillen, had committed Willshire for trial. Problems over Aboriginal evidence resulted in Willshire’s acquittal.

The legislation that Downer thought deserved priority was that which would establish the High Court of Australia, the body which he saw as the final arbiter between the two parliamentary Houses. Privately, he hoped that with his long service to the Federal cause, his acknowledged position as one of the leading constitutional lawyers of the day, and his friendship with Barton, he would be assured of one of the seats. Despite Barton's support, his appointment was opposed in cabinet by certain members who disapproved of what they considered were his rather self-indulgent habits. His failure to be appointed when the court was announced in 1903 was the great disappointment of his life.

Before the announcement of the High Court, he had decided to retire from the Senate. He had never been wealthy and had relied upon work at the Bar to earn a living. While a member of the South Australian parliament he had combined both careers, but the need to spend so much time in Melbourne had interfered with his practice. In 1905, however, he was elected to the South Australian Legislative Council as a representative of the Southern Districts. He remained a member until his death at his home in North Adelaide from cancer on 2 August 1915. His estate was valued for probate at £14,190.

Downer was a politician of strange contrasts. He often took up positions which, at least for a self-styled nineteenth-century conservative, did not quite fit this image: witness his promoting women's rights and his opposition to appeals to the Privy Council. His abhorrence of jingoistic racism was a rare virtue in the first Commonwealth parliament. Despite his affectionate loyalty to the British Crown and England, he devoted much time to creating an independent Australia. Sir John Cockburn wrote of him in the 1920s: 'Of all the leaders I have been associated with Sir John Downer stands out as a chivalrous, honorable, and straight forward man'. Alfred Deakin described him as 'bull-headed, and rather thick-necked, … with the dogged set of the mouth of a prize fighter' and 'smallish eyes'. Deakin found him to be suave, clear and effective and believed that only reserve and indolence had prevented him from playing a far greater part in the Federal movement.

He was married twice; first to Elizabeth Henderson (d.1896); and second, on 29 November 1899, in Sydney, to Una Stella Haslingden Russell, artist. He was survived by a son from each marriage (Sir Alexander Downer being his son by the second marriage); two sons had predeceased him. Besides his elder brother and legal partner George, who was a noted pastoralist, his other brother Henry was a member of the House of Assembly in 1881-96 and in 1890 served briefly in Cockburn's ministry as attorney-general. All were Anglicans.

In Canberra the suburb of Downer and a sculptured fountain commemorate Sir John.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (South Australia), 1883-84, 2031
  • Intercolonial Convention, 1883: Report of the Proceedings of the Intercolonial Convention, held in Sydney, in November and December, 1883 (Syd, 1883)
  • Proceedings of the Colonial Conference, 1887: Papers Laid before the Conference (Lond, 1887)
  • National Australasian Convention, 1891 to 1898, Official Record of the Proceedings … (Sydney, 1891, and Adelaide, 1897, and Sydney, 1898, and Melbourne, 1898)
  • British Australasian, 17 June 1887
  • Edmund Barton papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • P. M. Glynn diaries, 1880-1918 (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Peter Bartlett, 'Downer, Sir John William (1843–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 19 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 William Downer (1843-1915), by unknown photographer

John William Downer (1843-1915), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21399820-16

Life Summary [details]


6 July, 1843
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


2 August, 1915 (aged 72)
North Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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