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John Greeley Jenkins (1851–1923)

by Dean Jaensch

This article was published:

John Greeley Jenkins (1851-1923), premier, was born on 8 September 1851 at Clifford, Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, United States of America, fourth son of Evan Jenkins and his wife Mary, née Davis. His Welsh parents had migrated in 1834. After education at Wyoming Seminary, he worked on his father's farm and studied at night school until 1872 when he became a publisher's traveller. He arrived in South Australia in 1878 to represent his company and, at the end of his contract, established his own successful book-importing business. He sold this and became South Australian manager of the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia (1886). In 1886 with C. G. Gurr he formed the firm Jenkins & Gurr, agents and auctioneers. A member of the Adelaide Literary Society, Jenkins sharpened his debating skills in its mock parliament and in 1886 was elected to the Unley City Council; in 1888 he was mayor. On 4 January 1883 he had married Jennie Mary Charlton; they had a son and a daughter.

From 1887 Jenkins, a protectionist, was a member for Sturt in the House of Assembly; after a redistribution he represented Torrens in 1902-05. He was seen as a clever, 'shrewd long-headed' Yankee and there was said to be no 'back-wounding calumny' about him. First appointed to a ministry when Thomas Playford reshuffled his 1890-92 administration, Jenkins dealt with education and the Northern Territory in 1891-92 and was commissioner of public works for six months in 1892. When C. C. Kingston formed his ministry in 1893, political parties had emerged. The conservative National Defence League formed an Opposition and the United Labor Party occupied the cross-benches. Jenkins was ministerialist party whip until he was again commissioner of public works in Kingston's ministry in 1894-99. Jenkins then was chief secretary in (Sir) Frederick Holder's ministry of December 1899–May 1901.

In 1901 Holder was elected to the Federal House of Representatives, and in May Jenkins became premier and chief secretary. Although he had been reputedly one of the more radical political figures of the 1880s and close to Kingston, Jenkins now looked elsewhere for support. He approached the Australasian National League (formerly the National Defence League) and accepted its views against franchise reform of the Legislative Council as a concession in return for support. A. H. Peake spoke for most former Kingstonian Liberals when he warned that the Jenkins government must not be surprised if not only Labor but other members who favoured liberal legislation turned their backs on it. The 1902 election saw Jenkins win government but, curiously, he was dependent on the votes of the A.N.L. Opposition! A critic described him as a 'political acrobat' and A.N.L. leader John Darling said: 'as the policy of the Government had been mainly taken from that of the Opposition the duty of the Opposition was to support the Ministry'. In 1904 the anomaly was formalized by Jenkins's incorporation of A.N.L. members in his ministry, with dissident Liberals forming the Opposition. In 1905 Jenkins resigned to become South Australian agent-general in London until 1908. The once ardent democrat was now passionately respectable.

As minister and premier he had been responsible for important legislation, including free education (1891), the provision of Happy Valley water to supply Adelaide, and South Australia's participation in the transcontinental railway. He also played a major role in an agreement between the States about the River Murray, and in continuing attempts to develop the Northern Territory. As chief secretary in Holder's government, he was also minister for defence and had responsibility for the four South Australian contingents to the South African War. Jenkins was a Congregationalist and a zealous teetotaller; he neither smoked nor swore. A Freemason, he was deputy grand master of Leopold Lodge in 1897-1901.

In London he was a popular agent-general with a facility for repartee; he relished his responsibilities. He argued effectively for ending double income tax for colonials in England and was vice-president of the Royal Colonial Institute where he was regarded as one of those 'most helpful men who hold others together … who look for avenues of agreement not difference'. He published pamphlets on Australian products and social conditions and edited the Australasian section of the Encyclopedia Americana. In 1908 he represented Australia at the International Telegraphic Conference, Lisbon. Next year he returned to South Australia, reportedly interested in contesting his old seat, but he arrived too late. He then attempted unsuccessfully to negotiate with Prime Minister Deakin for a subsidy for his company, Papuan Lands Ltd, to develop a telegraphic link between Australia and Papua.

Jenkins returned to live in London where he became a steel importer. He was also treasurer of the London Chamber of Commerce, vice-chairman of the British Imperial Council of Commerce and a director of the International Chamber of Commerce. He attended international trade conferences in Boston (1912) and Atlantic City, U.S.A., and in Paris (1914, 1920). Survived by his wife and children, he died of pulmonary embolus following surgery on 22 February 1923 and, after a memorial service in St Clement Danes Church, was buried in Kensal Green cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. J. Pascoe (ed), History of Adelaide and Vicinity (Adel, 1901)
  • Parliamentary Debates (South Australia), 1901, p 590, 1903, p 87
  • Quiz (Adelaide), 20 June 1890, 24 Mar 1898, 24 May, 7 Nov 1902, 12 Feb 1904
  • Royal Commonwealth Society, London, United Empire, 14 (1923), p 209
  • Observer (Adelaide), 11 July 1891
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 10 July 1909
  • Times (London), 23 Feb 1923
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 24 Feb 1924
  • A1 10/330 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Dean Jaensch, 'Jenkins, John Greeley (1851–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 18 July 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 Jenkins, c.1894

John Jenkins, c.1894

State Library of South Australia, 48262

Life Summary [details]


8 September, 1851
Clifford, Pennsylvania, United States of America


22 February, 1923 (aged 71)
London, Middlesex, England

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