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Sir John Michael Higgins (1862–1937)

by Helga M. Griffin

This article was published:

Sir John Michael Higgins (1862-1937), metallurgist, government adviser and company director, was born on 9 December 1862 at Eureka Reef, Castlemaine, Victoria, son of Cornish parents Enedor Stephens Higgins, miner, and his wife Elizabeth Jane, née Stephens. Educated at Rae's School, Sandhurst, and Bendigo High School, at 14 he was indentured to a local pharmacist. After graduating in chemistry and metallurgy at the Bendigo School of Mines he ran his own chemist shop and reputedly studied surgery before becoming an analyst with a New South Wales mine. On 14 November 1889 at Christ Church, North Adelaide, he married Frances Anna Macgraith, a talented musician.

Next year, on the invitation of C. W. Chapman, once fellow-student at the school of mines and now a Melbourne director of the newly formed Australian Smelting Co., Higgins became metallurgical chemist at the Dry Creek Railway Station, Adelaide, reduction works. Within a few years he was manager and when the works closed about 1900 part-owner with Chapman of the company. He settled in Melbourne as a metals consultant and with Chapman, as Chapman, Higgins & Co., acquired pastoral holdings in New South Wales and Queensland. When Higgins retired from the partnership he retained an interest in wool technology. Before the outbreak of World War I travel in Asia and Europe also sharpened his concern with metallurgical issues.

Nevertheless he was reluctant to accept W. M. Hughes's offer of a position as independent metallurgical adviser to the Federal government; he believed that the 1914 War Precautions Act was worded specifically to requisition his services. Asked to submit proposals which would establish Commonwealth control over the treatment, refining and sale of Australian metals in order to preserve their use for the allies and negate enemy access via neutral countries, Higgins on 6 September 1915 established the Australian Metals Exchange. The following year he helped to found and became government nominee on the Zinc Producers' and Copper Producers' associations. He also acted as company adviser to the Federal Treasury, a sensitive area which brought his work under public scrutiny. On 28 November 1918 he was accused in parliament of secret, autocratic power over government policy on the embargo on sale of scrap metals overseas, particularly to Japan. There were hints of collusion with Colonel W. J. N. Oldershaw, another government adviser and chairman of directors of a Melbourne de-tinning factory. Higgins's name was cleared after he proposed that a judicial enquiry be conducted into his honorary position.

His 'herculean labours' in the complex metals field led to his appointment in November 1916 as chairman of and government nominee to the Central Wool Committee, founded that year on the same principles as the metals exchange. Essential to the committee's success was the chairman's ability to elicit co-operation from leaders in the industry. In 1918 Higgins's service to the nation was acknowledged by appointment as K.C.M.G. and next year W. A. Watt, treasurer and acting prime minister, paid tribute to him as one who had 'laboured himself almost to a standstill for over four years in patriotic service'.

In January 1921 Sir John was founder and chairman of directors of the British Australian Wool Realisation Association Pty Ltd, the largest public company in Australia, established to safeguard the national wool trade and, in association with a temporary London directorate, to realize the wool carried over from the war period. By May 1924 the surplus had been cleared, with a profit of £6 million. Higgins's company addresses insisted on high standards from producers and sellers. Standardization of documents and classification and cataloguing of wool became accepted procedures in wool-marketing, as did double-dumping in transport. After the liquidation of B.A.W.R.A. in 1926 Higgins was trustee for the Wool Selling Brokers' Commission Trust until the final clearance of B.A.W.R.A. wool in 1932.

In his published address to the Empire Wool Conference (Melbourne, 1931), The Stabilisation or Equalisation or the Insurance of Wool Values, Higgins outlined a scheme for an Empire wool-marketing collective. It attracted favourable interest overseas but was rejected by Australian wool-brokers and graziers who feared government monopoly. Aggrieved growers and brokers had unsuccessfully demanded a parliamentary enquiry into the exclusive distribution of profits to shareholders on B.A.W.R.A.'s liquidation; they viewed Higgins and the 'aristo-plutocrat squattocracy' of B.A.W.R.A. as a dictatorship which had destroyed Australia's subsidiary wool industries and created large-scale unemployment. Higgins believed he was working to offset economic recession. Early in 1931 he was prominent in the plot to capture J. A. Lyons from the Labor Party in order to lead the United Australia Party.

A member of the Victorian committee of the Commonwealth Institute of Science and Industry and vice-chairman of the Metropolitan Gas Co., Higgins was also a Victorian director of the Bank of New Zealand. A chevalier of the French Legion of Honour, he was appointed G.C.M.G. in 1934. He was short and dark with a trim beard and dressed carefully 'like the youngest clerk'. Detractors stressed his ambition. An indefatigable worker of retiring disposition, he avoided public exposure; when he was forced to comment publicly his statements were informative and carefully worded. The 'absolutely Perfect Official', he was seen to inspect the arrangement of chairs before board meetings. This careful façade, however, hid a man of unusual generosity. As chairman of B.A.W.R.A. he worked initially at half the salary of his English counterpart. Although a buyer of books and objets d'art, when his salary was doubled he donated the extra £5000 a year to charitable and educational institutions. His commission on the Wool Selling Brokers' Commission trust was similarly given away. He was a member of the Melbourne (president, 1933) and Adelaide clubs and enjoyed recreational walking.

Higgins died, childless, on 6 October 1937 at Toorak, Melbourne, and was buried in Box Hill cemetery; his wife had died on 10 August 1932. His estate was sworn for probate at £157,476 in four States. The University of Melbourne promotes agriculture and veterinary science through the J. M. Higgins Research Foundation and the annual J. M. Higgins exhibition; the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology's chemistry laboratory is named after Sir John and Lady Higgins.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Scott, Australia During the War (Syd, 1936)
  • W. S. Robinson, If I Remember Rightly, G. Blainey ed (Melb, 1967)
  • R. Cooksey (ed), ‘The great Depression in Australia’, Labour History, 1970, no 17
  • L. F. Fitzhardinge, The Little Digger (Syd, 1979)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1914-17, p 2124, 1918, pp 8458, 8654, 1919, p 10360
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1917-19, 5, p 5
  • Australian Industrial and Mining Standard, 6 June 1918, p 567
  • Economic Record, Feb 1928, p 51
  • University of Melbourne, Calendar, 1942, pp 558, 565
  • Punch (Melbourne), 20 June 1918, 16 July 1925
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 22 Jan 1921, 28 Oct 1922
  • Argus (Melbourne), 29, 30 Jan 1924, 7 Oct 1937
  • Labor Daily, 8, 22 Apr 1930
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Mar, 2 Apr, 10 Aug 1932, 1 Jan, 15 Dec 1937
  • F. W. Eggleston, Confidential Notes (Australian National University Library)
  • Attorney General's Dept, A 432 29/2061 and Prime Minister's Dept, AM 500/11 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Helga M. Griffin, 'Higgins, Sir John Michael (1862–1937)', 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

Life Summary [details]


9 December, 1862
Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia


6 October, 1937 (aged 74)
Toorak, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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