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Sir John Hannah Gordon (1850–1923)

by Graham Loughlin

This article was published:

John Hannah Gordon (1850-1923), by Kerry & Jones, c1900

John Hannah Gordon (1850-1923), by Kerry & Jones, c1900

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3793

Sir John Hannah Gordon (1850-1923), politician and judge, was born on 26 July 1850 at Kilmalcolm, Renfrewshire, Scotland, eldest son of Rev. James Gordon, preacher of the Free Church, and his wife Margaret, née Leonard. In 1859 the family migrated to South Australia where James Gordon became pastor of Presbyterian churches at Mount Barker and Gawler. John was educated privately and at Rev. J. Leonard's school. His first employment was with W. Duffield & Co., merchants, followed by a term with Dunn & Co., millers, before studying theology for two years. In July 1871 he was articled to J. J. Bonnar, whose Strathalbyn law practice he acquired upon admission to the Bar in 1876. On 4 January 1877 at the Presbyterian church, Strathalbyn, he married Ann Wright Rogers; they had two sons and two daughters. In 1879 he was elected mayor of Strathalbyn and served in this office for one year. He transferred his practice to Adelaide in 1887.

At the 1888 election Gordon, later described as 'a consistent Liberal, with a tendency … towards the left', entered the Legislative Council as member for Southern District. In June 1889 he was appointed leader of the government in the council and minister of education and of the Northern Territory, holding these offices for the remaining term of the Cockburn ministry until April 1890. Gordon also served as president of the 1890 Intercolonial Post and Telegraph Conference in Adelaide and as a delegate to the 1891 Federal convention where he favoured a loose confederate type of union; his introduction of the subject of preferential railway rates led ultimately to the inclusion of the interstate commission clause in the Constitution. In June 1892 he was reappointed minister of education in the Holder ministry but resigned from parliament just four months later when on the verge of bankruptcy. The principal sources of Gordon's financial difficulties were his partnership in Crown Point cattle-station in the Northern Territory and ownership of nearly all shares in the ailing West Australian Timber Co. Ltd. He avoided official insolvency by assigning all of his property by deed and thereby maintained his parliamentary eligibility.

Gordon was re-elected to the council for Southern District in June 1893 and was appointed chief secretary in the Kingston ministry. At the height of the Adelaide Hospital dispute in February 1896 he resigned this office in the wake of claims that he had improperly aided his sister's promotion to a senior nursing post. This charge was not substantiated by the royal commission which preceded his resignation but rumours continued to appear in the press. His resignation was further precipitated by the refusal of the hospital board of management to comply with recommendations of the royal commission which he had endorsed.

In 1897 Gordon was elected as a South Australian delegate to the Australasian Federal Convention and served as a member of the important constitutional committee. On the conference floor, together with Patrick McMahon Glynn, he led and won the case for South Australia's equal access to River Murray water.

From December 1899 until December 1903 Gordon was attorney-general in the Holder and then in the Jenkins ministries; he also held the education portfolio from April 1902. In these final parliamentary years he was appointed Queen's Counsel in July 1900, was a delegate to the 1902 Corowa conference on water conservation which recommended the appointment of a royal commission into navigation and irrigation of the River Murray, and served as president of the South Australian Law Society.

In December 1903, despite his absence from legal practice for many years, Gordon was appointed to the Supreme Court and for a time administered its wage-determining jurisdiction. He was knighted in 1908. He was chairman of the Commonwealth royal commission into the sugar industry in 1911 but soon resigned because of ill health; in February 1913 he declined an invitation from W. M. Hughes to move to the High Court.

Gordon had suffered since a child from a rheumatic heart condition. He died in Adelaide of cardiac disease on 23 December 1923, survived by his wife and daughters. Throughout his parliamentary and judicial career he was praised for his courtesy, generosity and superb oratory; as a judge he was industrious and conscientious. A brother, William Beattie, was a member of the Western Australian Legislative Assembly in 1901-11.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Fitzhardinge, William Morris Hughes, vol 1 (Syd, 1964)
  • H. J. Stowe, They Built Strathalbyn (Adel, 1973)
  • Queensland Historical Review, 1 (1968), p 49
  • Observer (Adelaide), 1 July, 5 Dec 1903
  • Register (Adelaide), 28 Feb 1927
  • M. A. Heaney, The Adelaide Hospital Dispute 1894-1902 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1980)
  • G. Loughlin, South Australian Queen's Counsel 1865-1974 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1974)
  • GRG/14/4300 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Graham Loughlin, 'Gordon, Sir John Hannah (1850–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Hannah Gordon (1850-1923), by Kerry & Jones, c1900

John Hannah Gordon (1850-1923), by Kerry & Jones, c1900

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3793

Life Summary [details]


26 July, 1850
Kilmalcolm, Renfrewshire, Scotland


23 December, 1923 (aged 73)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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