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Johnson, Sir William Elliot (1862–1932)

by G. N. Hawker

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

William Elliot Johnson, by Melba & Co, 1920s

William Elliot Johnson, by Melba & Co, 1920s

National Library of Australia, 23185518

Sir William Elliot Johnson (1862-1932), politician, was born on 10 April 1862 at Newcastle-on-Tyne, Northumberland, England, son of John Ellis Johnson, scene painter, and his wife Mary, née Nutsforde. After an adventurous life as a youth, which included some telegraphy and scene painting in London, he came to Sydney as a ship steward and on 29 June 1881 married Marie McLachlan, a dressmaker from Scotland.

Johnson divided his time for the next few years between scene painting, journalism and politics. Four times president of the Newtown branch of the Labor Electoral League, he was a faithful contributor to the Labour Defence Journal and a devoted disciple of Henry George whom he escorted on his 1890 lecture tour. In 1894 he stood unsuccessfully as pledged L.E.L. candidate for Marrickville in the Legislative Assembly. He left the Labor Party when, in his view, it turned wrongly towards socialism and state interference, to become honorary secretary of the Free Trade and Liberal Association of New South Wales. Though he had opposed Federation, in 1903 he was elected as a Free Trade Liberal to the Federal seat of Lang which he held until 1928.

Parliament was a natural forum for the loquacious Johnson. His politics were to remain unusual, maintaining a mixture of radicalism and conformism through changing party titles and creeds. As a populist and a democrat committed to 'equal opportunity, justice and liberty for all', he attacked impartially socialism, collectivism, government intervention, employers' federations and capitalist concentrations of wealth and opportunity. Strongly opposed to 'sweating', he fought tenaciously for better conditions for the lower grades of postal, telegraphic and clerical workers and for old-age pensions. He believed that the land value tax would promote a sturdy yeomanry through whom Australian freedom and individualism would flourish. A rigorous free trader he was at his best demolishing either the Labor Party or protectionist iniquities with prolific quotations, examples and figures. He opposed the Fusion, but supported the Liberal Party under Deakin.

In 1911 Johnson attended the coronation as a member of the parliamentary delegation to England and became one of the founders of the Empire Parliamentary Association and honorary secretary of the Australian branch. A strong advocate of White Australia, he was concerned with defence and Imperial policies in the Pacific, especially with regard to the New Hebrides and Papua. He was a member of royal commissions on the pearling industry (1913) and the New Hebrides mail service (1915).

Johnson was parliamentary party secretary in 1912-13 and a deputy chairman of committees in the House of Representatives. He was twice Speaker, in 1913-14 and 1917-23. Under his old companion, later political foe and eventual benevolent prime minister, W. M. Hughes, the experienced and hard-working Johnson found his political place. His decisions were fair, he battled for the parliamentary staff and resisted parliamentary inquiries such as the economies commission (1919) with gusto. He was appointed K.C.M.G. in July 1920, adopting the style Elliot. When summarily replaced as Speaker by W. A. Watt, he retained his political exuberance and continued as vice-president of the National Association in 1923.

A firm, orthodox Christian he was a leading teetotaller and a successful campaigner against licensing in the Capital Territory, the import of opium and lesser evils like starting-price betting. He had been closely associated with the choice of Canberra as the capital site and with a range of minor improvements to communications and electoral administration. An amateur artist and photographer himself (the National Library of Australia holds a collection of his works), he supported the development of public art-collections.

The protectionist policies of the 1920s remained obnoxious to Johnson. He left parliament as he had entered it, quoting Henry George, when defeated in 1928 by the Labor Party he had so long resisted and by the 'working man of Lang' upon whom he had proudly relied. Johnson was distinguished in appearance by a full moustache, sported since early days. Popular and an engaging conversationalist, he was full of tales of the sea and distant lands. His political ideas predated the parties with which he was perforce associated and he became accustomed to working with those with whom he was in only partial sympathy. Though his radical instincts for the aspirations of the less well-off left him isolated he was admired for his personal warmth, candour and tolerance. He lived his principles and left no followers.

He died of cerebro-vascular disease on 8 December 1932 at Geelong, Victoria. Born an Anglican he was buried at Rookwood cemetery, Sydney, as a Presbyterian. He was survived by his only daughter. A portrait by Florence Rodway hangs in Parliament House, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • J. A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin (Melb, 1965)
  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • L. Fitzhardinge, The Little Digger (Syd, 1979)
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 26 June 1894
  • Punch (Melbourne), 21 Aug 1913, 29 Dec 1921
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Dec 1932
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

G. N. Hawker, 'Johnson, Sir William Elliot (1862–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 2 August 2021.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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