Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John William Israel (1850–1926)

by R. J. K. Chapman

This article was published:

John William Israel (1850-1926), Commonwealth auditor-general, was born on 4 July 1850 at Launceston, Van Diemen's Land, son of John Cashmore Israel and his wife Adelaide Maria, née Cook. His father was probably the Cashmore Israel convicted of larceny and transported to New South Wales in 1818. Removed to Van Diemen's Land next year, he was granted a free pardon in 1841 and subsequently followed his own father's trades of baker, confectioner, jeweller and pawnbroker, in Launceston. By the 1850s he was a man of property, able to send his son to Abraham Barrett's private academy, where John William's extraordinary prowess in mental arithmetic provided entertainment on speech days, and to the Launceston Church Grammar School.

At 17 Israel became a storekeeper's clerk at Latrobe and then on the Waterhouse goldfields. In 1870, after competitive examination, he obtained a junior clerkship under R. M. Johnston in the audit branch of the Launceston and Western Railway Co. He was promoted to stationmaster at Perth and then Launceston. After the railway was taken over by the government in 1872 Israel returned to the accounts office where he succeeded Johnston as accountant in 1880. Two years later he again succeeded Johnston, as chief clerk in the government Audit Department, Hobart. He rose quickly to deputy auditor and, on 31 December 1894, to auditor.

Of medium height, bearded and bespectacled, the 'lightning calculator' was a man of high integrity. He instituted the travelling audit by which inspectors personally examined departmental and local accounts. He placed great stress on the independence of his office; after the ministry reduced his salary in February 1895 he annually drew attention to this as a contravention of the 1894 Audit Act. Israel was founding president of the Civil Service Association in 1897; in 1899 he became a commissioner of the Public Debts Sinking Fund. A Freemason, he was a master of Pacific Lodge (1894-95), secretary of the Tasmanian Masonic Benevolent Fund and in 1897 first president of the Board of Benevolence, Grand Lodge. In Launceston he was for many years secretary of the musical union.

On 1 December 1901 Israel became the first Commonwealth auditor-general, with the crucial task of establishing procedure. He held the position not only for the formative years of the Commonwealth Public Service, but during World War I and the expansive post-war period when he was well past the usual retiring age. He was still able to ensure the continued independence of the office and competence of the work while retaining the respect of both ministers and public servants. He was appointed I.S.O. in 1916.

While in Melbourne Israel served as honorary treasurer of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (Victorian branch) and of St Paul's Cathedral. He kept his links with Tasmania, holidaying annually at Ulverstone, the birthplace of his wife Jane, née McDonald; they had married there on 1 November 1883 with Anglican rites. Israel died of cancer at Kew, Melbourne, on 30 May 1926, survived by his wife and son, and was buried in Box Hill cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £16,814. 'His work', according to an obituarist, 'was the subject of much encomium, his prime object always being the safeguarding of the moneys entrusted to the care of the Government'.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of Tasmania, vol 1 (Hob, 1900)
  • Examiner (Launceston), 9 July 1895, 29 Nov 1901, 31 May 1926
  • Mercury (Hobart), 4 Aug 1898, 15, 30 Nov 1901
  • Punch (Melbourne), 21 Sept, 12 Oct 1916
  • Weekly Courier (Launceston), 3 June 1926
  • M. P. Peck, The Auditor-General of Tasmania 1826-1968 (Diploma of Public Administration, University of Tasmania, 1975)
  • HO/10/57, 11/3, 16/1.

Citation details

R. J. K. Chapman, 'Israel, John William (1850–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 22 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]


4 July, 1850
Launceston, Tasmania, Australia


30 May, 1926 (aged 75)
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.