Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Lewis (1844–1923)

by R. H. B. Kearns

This article was published:

John Lewis (1844-1923), pastoralist and politician, was born on 12 February 1844 at Brighton, South Australia, second of thirteen children of James Lewis, labourer, and his wife Eliza Margaret Hutton, née Bristow. James had arrived at Glenelg on the Rapid in 1838, and Eliza on the Cygnet in 1836. In 1844 James accompanied Charles Sturt into the interior. John Lewis spent six years at small local schools and enjoyed observing the ways of the Aborigines in their seaside camps. At 12 he started work on his father's Richmond farm but, following a parental beating that he considered undeserved, he ran away at 14. Working on outback properties, he developed into an expert rough-rider, bushman and an authority on sheep, cattle and horses. He rode to hounds, played polo and won the hurdle race at the first Adelaide Cup meeting.

In 1872, with his brother James and others, Lewis went overland to the Northern Territory. En route, the government commissioned him as a courier between the constructing parties on the north and south ends of the overland telegraph line. At Palmerston (Darwin) he equipped and ran the Telegraph Prospecting and Goldmining Co. Next year he formed the Coburg Cattle Co. near Port Essington and conducted pastoral, exploration, gold-mining and trading operations. In 1876 he returned to South Australia intending to go overseas. Instead, on 18 September he married Martha Anne Brook and settled at Burra Burra where he joined William Lister and James Shakes in a stock and station agency. Lewis conducted huge stock sales, once disposing of 47,000 sheep and 1200 cattle. In 1888 the firm became Bagot, Shakes & Lewis Ltd, one of the colony's biggest pastoral firms, with branches in many towns. In 1906 they amalgamated with Luxmoore, Dowling & Jeffrey and, later, with Goldsbrough, Mort, & Co. Ltd. In addition to Newcastle Waters in the Northern Territory, Lewis acquired properties in South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales, some in partnership with (Sir) Sidney Kidman. At Burra he served for three years on the local corporation and was prominent in community organizations.

Lewis's wife died in 1894; in 1906 he moved to Adelaide where his company took up King William Street premises and he bought an imposing home, Benacre, at Glen Osmond. On 5 July 1907 he married a widow, Florence Margaret Toll, née Mortlock. In 1898-1923 he represented the Northeast (later Northern) District in the Legislative Council. He was sometimes brusque, always brief, and forthright in his political stance. He championed the pastoral interest and, as a member of the Advisory Council of Aborigines and the Aborigines' Friends' Association, he maintained his interest in their welfare. 'Work, not talk' was 'the Honourable John's' philosophy. He had a forceful personality and remained physically robust and energetic.

Lewis was president of the Horticultural and Floricultural Society for three years from 1899 and was a member of the Flora and Fauna Board. As president in 1913-20 of the South Australian branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, he and Thomas Gill organized the publication of records of the explorers Eyre, Strzelecki and Sturt. In 1922 Lewis published his autobiography, Fought and Won: 'I always liked winning when I was right up against it', he was quoted in the foreword as saying. In 1923 he was appointed C.M.G.

Lewis died at Benacre on 25 August 1923; his ashes were interred at Burra cemetery. His wife and two daughters and four sons, including Essington, survived him. John Lewis's estate was valued for probate at almost £90,000.

Select Bibliography

  • J. J. Pascoe (ed), History of Adelaide and Vicinity (Adel, 1901)
  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1907)
  • R. Cockburn, Pastoral Pioneers of South Australia, vol 2 (Adel, 1927)
  • G. Blainey, The Steel Master (Melb, 1971)
  • Register (Adelaide), 1 Dec 1921, 27 Aug 1923
  • Burra Record, 29 Aug 1923
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 1 Sept 1923
  • C. Sturt, Journal of expeditions into Central Australia (manuscript, State Records of South Australia)
  • PRG 247 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

R. H. B. Kearns, 'Lewis, John (1844–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 15 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


12 February, 1844
Brighton, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


25 August, 1923 (aged 79)
Glen Osmond, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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