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John Francis Hughes (1857–1912)

by Peter Spearritt

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Thomas Hughes

John Francis Hughes (1857-1912) and Sir Thomas Hughes (1863-1930), solicitors and politicians, were born on 11 May 1857 and on 19 April 1863 in Sydney, eldest and third sons of Irish parents John Hughes, grocer and later grazier, and his wife Susan, née Sharkey. They were educated in England at Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, and matriculated for the University of London in 1876 and 1880. Returning to Sydney, John was articled in 1878 to H. M. Makinson and was admitted as a solicitor on 1 March 1884. After touring Europe, Thomas returned to Sydney and in 1882 was articled to T. M. Slattery and admitted as a solicitor on 28 May 1887. From that year the brothers practised as Hughes & Hughes.

At St Mary's Cathedral, John married Mary Rose, daughter of James Charles Gilhooley, physician, on 2 July 1884 and Thomas married her younger sister Louisa on 19 October 1887.

On their father's death in 1885 the brothers inherited Lyndhurst Chambers and 26 Hunter Street in the city. John soon acquired other city property and became a director of the Australia Hotel Co. Ltd and chairman of Bannockburn Estate Ltd. A leading Catholic layman like his brother-in-law John Lane Mullins, he was treasurer of St Vincent's Hospital in 1885-1912 and of St Mary's Cathedral building fund, a trustee of the Public Library of New South Wales in 1885-1912, president of the Prisoners' Aid Association, and a vice-president of the (Royal) Sydney Liedertafel. In 1903 the Pope appointed him knight commander of the Order of St Gregory.

In 1891-94 John Hughes represented Fitzroy Ward on the Sydney Municipal Council and in 1895 was nominated to the Legislative Council. He was vice-president of the Executive Council in 1898-99 and in 1904-10 in the Reid, Carruthers and Wade ministries, and minister of justice from July to September 1899. He served on the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works in 1901-04 and was treasurer of the Federal Freetrade and Liberal Committee in 1901.

A biggish man with a crown of silvery-white hair above a cleanly moulded face, John Hughes cut a commanding figure in Sydney's legal, business and religious circles. He lived at Rockleigh Grange, North Sydney, which was later sold to the Catholic Church to house the apostolic delegate. A chronic asthmatic, he died unexpectedly on 18 December 1912 at North Sydney and was buried in Waverley cemetery. He was survived by his wife, two daughters and six sons, four of whom served overseas in World War I—one was killed in action. His estate was valued for probate at £34,114.

Thomas took little part in public affairs until he openly supported Federation in 1898 and next year became secretary to the government representative in the Legislative Council. In January he accompanied Reid, as his secretary, to the Federal Conference of Premiers in Melbourne which made concessions to New South Wales in the draft Constitution. Defeated for the State seat of Sydney-King in 1901, Hughes threw himself into municipal affairs. He represented Bourke Ward on the Sydney Municipal Council in 1898-1912 and, an advocate of municipal reform, in 1898 had instituted a vigorous investigation into the city's finances, which resulted in the formation of a citizens' reform movement. With (Sir) James Graham, he helped to organize the Citizens' Vigilante Committee which co-operated with the government to control the first plague outbreak in 1900.

While Hughes held office as mayor in 1902, the title was changed to lord mayor. An imposing figure with dark hair, parted in the centre, and a waxed moustache, he again became lord mayor in 1903, 1907 and 1908. He was a member of the royal commissions on Sydney water supply (1902-03) and on the decline of the birth-rate (1903-04). With Sir Matthew Harris, Hughes became an ardent campaigner for a unified 'Greater Sydney'. He favoured a centralized municipal body owning and controlling key public services and a programme of slum clearance and rehousing. By 1906 he had managed to extend the franchise to joint and individual occupants of business premises—a move designed to offset the working-class vote. In 1908-09 he presided over the royal commission for the improvement of the city of Sydney and its suburbs; its final report, a planning document of lasting importance, included recommendations on transport, beautification, town planning and social welfare.

In World War I, with his wife, Thomas Hughes was a foundation executive-member of the Universal Service League and a leading representative of a small group of upper-class Catholics who criticized the 'disloyal' anti-conscription attitudes of Dr Mannix and other Catholics. His sons Geoffrey and Roger, who was killed in action in 1916, fought in France.

Thomas was nominated to the Legislative Council in 1908 and knighted in 1915. His business interests soon outstripped those of his brother: he was chairman of Washington H. Soul, Pattison & Co. Ltd, S. Bennett Ltd (publishers of the Evening News), Tooheys Ltd and the Sydney boards of the London & Lancashire Fire Insurance Co. and National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Ltd, and was a director of the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney and the Australia Hotel Co. Ltd. As chairman of Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd, in the early 1920s he engaged in complex negotiations with the Commonwealth government to establish a direct commercial wireless service between Australia and Britain.

Hughes served as secretary of the first and third Catholic congresses in 1900 and 1909 and was appointed a knight commander of the papal Order of St Gregory in 1915. He was a member of the Australian Club and of the council of the Women's College, University of Sydney, and had been nominated to the Legislative Council in 1908. Suffering from chronic nephritis and arteriosclerosis, he died on 15 April 1930 in St Vincent's Hospital and was buried in Waverley cemetery after a service at St Canice's Church, Darlinghurst (he had donated the site and given £4000 for the establishment of this church). Two of his sisters were nuns in the Sacred Heart Order. His estate was valued for probate at £42,752.

He was survived by his wife and one of his three sons. Lady Hughes shared her husband's interest in municipal reform and supported many charitable causes; in 1914 she was a foundation member of the executive committee of the New South Wales division of the British Red Cross Society. Through the National Council of Women she advocated the registration of women for national service in World War I. She died in 1948.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • P. J. O'Farrell, The Catholic Church and the Community in Australia: A History (Melb, 1977)
  • N. Hicks, ‘This Sin and Scandal’ (Canb, 1978)
  • J. Roe (ed), Twentieth Century Sydney (Syd, 1980)
  • Sydney Municipal Council, Vade Mecum, 1900-1912
  • Lone Hand, Dec 1908, Nov 1915
  • Town and Country Journal, 5 June 1907, 2 Dec 1908
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Dec 1912, 16 Apr 1930
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 18 Aug 1915
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 26 Dec 1912, 24 Apr 1930
  • D. H. Coward, The Impact of War on New South Wales (Ph.D thesis, Australian National University, 1974)
  • Lady Hughes, newsclipping book and Hughes family papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Spearritt, 'Hughes, John Francis (1857–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 20 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]


11 May, 1857
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


18 December, 1912 (aged 55)
North Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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