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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Evans, Sir John William (1855–1943)

by W. A. Townsley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Sir John William Evans (1855-1943), seaman, businessman and politician, was born on 1 December 1855 at Liverpool, England, son of George Matthew Evans, merchant seaman, and his wife Mary Ann, née Fisher. In 1859 the family migrated to Battery Point, Hobart. After an education at Alexander Ireland's Collegiate School, and a year-long voyage with his parents to Eastern ports, Evans became an apprentice on his father's part-owned barque Helen, trading to China and Japan. He then worked as second mate on the Wynaud and Harriet McGregor. In 1878-85 he served the Tasmanian Steam Navigation Co. and was in command of Tasman when she was wrecked in 1883. He lost a second ship Esk in 1886 and, although exonerated from blame, left the sea to go into the ironmongery business with James Harcourt, ex-mayor of Hobart, whose daughter Emily Mary he had married on 20 October 1883 at the Davey Street Congregationalist Church. Two years later he took charge of the river and channel steamer Huon. In 1891 he became traffic manager for Huddart Parker Ltd and from 1894 until his death was manager of the firm's Hobart branch.

From the time he began to live ashore Evans took a practical interest in public welfare. A director of the International Exhibition in Hobart in 1894 he supported the Tasmanian Tourist Association from its inception next year. He was for many years president of the Tasmanian Consumptives' Sanatorium and of the St John Ambulance Society, and for shorter periods of the King George's Fund for Sailors, the Tasmanian section of the League of Boy Scouts and the Royal Life Saving Society. He was a magistrate from 1909, a Rotarian and Freemason. In 1891 he was elected to the Hobart Marine Board and was master warden eight times before 1939. He was a member of the Technical School Board in 1899-1900 and actively supported football and cricket.

Sometime president of the Southern Tasmanian Licensed Victuallers' Association and chairman of the Liberal League and National Federation, Captain Evans was elected to the House of Assembly for Kingborough in 1896. When in 1903 the premier Sir Elliott Lewis lost not only the State election but his own seat, Evans became leader of the Opposition facing the government of William Propsting. In July 1904 Propsting, refused a dissolution by Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Dodds when his finance bill was rejected by the Legislative Council, resigned and Evans was commissioned. In October 1905 he took the treasurer's portfolio on the resignation of C. L. Stewart.

More prosperous conditions in the State helped Evans win the election of 1906, after which he reconstituted his ministry with himself premier and chief secretary. With Propsting as his attorney-general in the Legislative Council he tried in vain to reach a constitutional settlement of differences between the Houses, but he did succeed in establishing a new electoral system with large districts, common rolls for State and Commonwealth elections, and the Hare-Clark method of voting. He legislated to provide free education in state schools and gave the Complex Ores Co. the right to begin the development of hydro-electric power.

Evans survived in the 1909 election when he won Franklin with a narrow majority over Labor, but his health was deteriorating and in June 'the little skipper' relinquished the premiership to Lewis. In 1913 he became Speaker and held office, except for two brief periods, for the next twenty years, making a mark by his sense of fairness, amiability and salty humour. Appointed C.M.G. in 1906 he was knighted in 1926 and retired from parliament in 1937 on his appointment as lieutenant-governor of Tasmania. He published The Life Story of Sir John Evans K.B., C.M.G. (Hobart) in 1934, and died on 2 October 1943 in Hobart. He was given a state funeral after a Congregationalist service and was buried in Cornelian Bay cemetery, survived by a son and daughter, his wife having died in 1941. His estate was valued for probate at £8432.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of Tasmania, vol 1 (Hob, 1900)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth, Senate), 1901-02, 1, 769
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 28 Aug 1902
  • Weekly Courier (Launceston), 4 Aug 1921, 6 Aug 1925, 7 Jan 1926, 29 Feb, 21 Nov 1928
  • Examiner (Launceston), 19 Feb 1937
  • Mercury (Hobart), 6 Aug 1941, 4 Oct 1943.

Citation details

W. A. Townsley, 'Evans, Sir John William (1855–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 19 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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