Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Joseph Colin Francis Johnson (1848–1904)

by R. M. Gibbs

This article was published:

Joseph Colin Francis Johnson (1848-1904), journalist, mining promoter and politician, was born on 12 February 1848 at King William Street, Adelaide, son of Henry Johnson, solicitor, a migrant of 1838 and prominent Roman Catholic, and his wife Wilhelmina Colquhoun, née Campbell. In the 1850s the family moved to Victoria. Johnson attended the Geelong National Grammar School, then took to bush life. He was correspondent for metropolitan papers before returning to Adelaide in 1868. Joining the staff of the South Australian Register, he wrote well on commerce, mining, viticulture and the theatre.

In 1872-73 Johnson published brief collections of stories and verse (On the Wallaby, Christmas on Carringa and Over the Island); though ordinary in style, they anticipated Lawson and others in depicting bush life. In 1880 he went to the Mount Browne, New South Wales, diggings, a visit which was financially successful and was described in his press articles and book, Moses and Me (1881). He became proprietor and editor of the satirical weekly Adelaide Punch, then turned his attention increasingly to mining. Publicly urging more enterprise, he privately developed promising mines near Mannahill and Woodside, and employed prospectors. He fostered better prospecting and mining practice through lectures and his books Practical Mining (Adelaide, 1889), which sold 10,000 copies, and Getting Gold (London, 1897). He successfully negotiated the sale of the Maritana mine in Western Australia in 1896. A founding member of the Australian Institute of Mining Engineers, he was also an honorary life member of the Australian Mine Managers' Association and a fellow of the Geological Society, London. The choicest of his fine auriferous specimens were presented to Queen Victoria, the remainder to the British Museum.

In 1884 Johnson won the seat of Onkaparinga in the House of Assembly. A staunch protectionist, he preferred the term 'productionist' to explain his position. He became one of three members ('The Triumvirate') who were effective watchdogs on government expenditure. In 1887-89 he was minister of education and responsible for the Northern Territory. He drafted and introduced useful mining legislation, encouraged the study of drawing and the natural and physical sciences in state schools and supported Federation; his later parliamentary career was undistinguished. In 1895-97, financially independent, he travelled in Britain and America with a commission from the government to report on new methods of mining and the treatment of ores. He had retired from parliament in 1896.

Beyond parliament Johnson was more effective; he promoted the Australian National Union which later amalgamated with the Australian Natives' Association, in which he was also active. In 1900 he raised funds for the Bushmen's Contingent in the South African War by sponsoring repeated sales of the horse Bugler and, later, of a bullock, a mare and a donkey. His suggestion of a statue of heroic proportions commemorating the South Australian Bushmen led to the fine memorial erected outside Government House, Adelaide, in 1904.

Johnson's interests included literature, art, music and travel. He was on the council of the South Australian School of Mines and Industries and the board of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of South Australia. Known as 'Alphabetical' to his friends, one critic found him disputatious and showy, but he was acknowledged as a mining pioneer. After falling down stairs, he died on 18 June 1904 at North Adelaide, where he had lived with his mother, and was buried in the Catholic section of West Terrace cemetery. Johnson was survived by an adopted son.

Select Bibliography

  • J. J. Pascoe (ed), History of Adelaide and Vicinity (Adel, 1901)
  • P. Depasquale, A Critical History of South Australian Literature, 1836-1930 with Subjectively Annotated Bibliographies (Adel, 1978)
  • W. F. Morrison, The Aldine History of South Australia, vol 2 (Syd, 1890)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 20 June 1904
  • Register (Adelaide), 20 June 1904.

Citation details

R. M. Gibbs, 'Johnson, Joseph Colin Francis (1848–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 17 April 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]


12 February, 1848
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


18 June, 1904 (aged 56)
North Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, 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.