Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Thomas Ness (1871–1947)

by Mark Lyons

This article was published:

John Thomas Ness (1871-1947), businessman and politician, was born on 20 August 1871 at Young, New South Wales, fourth son of Scottish parents Thomas Ness, shipbuilder turned miner, and his wife Isabella, née Sillars. Educated at Young Public School, he began work as a station-hand. About 1894 he acquired his own wheat-farm near Temora and by hard work succeeded. On 6 April 1896 he married Bertha Mary Ann Matuschka in Sydney.

In 1904 Ness sold up and moved to Dulwich Hill, Sydney, where he prospered as a fuel and produce merchant, investing his profits in housing. He eventually concentrated on real estate and auctioning, setting up Ness, Son & Co. with his only son. He soon became active in business organizations, pressing for the Saturday half-holiday which suburban retailers believed would benefit business. Active for many years in Dulwich Hill associations, he was an alderman on Marrickville Municipal Council in 1907-22 (mayor, 1915-17, 1918-19) and ex officio chairman of the local recruiting committee: his son served with the Australian Imperial Force. In 1916 and 1917 Ness made representations to the Department of Defence about disloyal remarks made in a sermon by Fr Jerger. Receiving no response, he raised the matter publicly at the inaugural meeting in February 1918 of the local branch of the exclusively Protestant, Australian Loyalty League. Within a week Jerger was interned.

Ness was a Presbyterian of sectarian disposition. After his defeat in March 1920 as a Soldiers' and Citizens' candidate for the Legislative Assembly electorate of Western Suburbs, he turned his attention to building a strong New South Wales Protestant Federation over which he presided in 1920-25. By 1921 he boasted that it had 100,000 members. After the war loyalty had flagged as a sectarian issue: at its annual convention in March 1921 the federation decided to make a major issue of the Catholic ne temere decree.

Thirty-eight candidates, mostly Nationalists or Progressives, backed by the federation were returned at the 1922 elections, including Ness (as a Nationalist) for Western Suburbs. With the minister for justice T. J. Ley, he agitated for the introduction of legislation on the New Zealand model making it illegal for anyone to say that a valid marriage was not a marriage. Despite the Fuller coalition government's reluctance, a bill was carried in the assembly but narrowly lost in the Legislative Council in 1924. Reintroduced next year, the Marriage Amendment Act was carried after the council inserted an amendment weakening its force.

Re-elected for Western Suburbs in 1925, Ness represented Dulwich Hill in 1927-30 and in 1932-38 (for the United Australia Party). He was periodically a councillor of the National Association of New South Wales from 1925. Although the Protestant Federation faded after 1925, he continued to denounce Catholics for disloyalty and for dominating the public service and the Labor Party, and attacked convents and monasteries as places of imprisonment. He also interested himself in many local issues, seeking lower taxes, a smaller public service and government regulation of business to prohibit sharp practices.

A handsome man, he was a voluble, excitable speaker, good on platforms but not in parliament. He lacked analytical capacity and was not considered ministerial material. Ness died at his Dulwich Hill home on 24 January 1947 and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. His wife and four children, who inherited his estate, valued for probate at £10,664, survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Marrickville Council (compiler), A History of the Municipality of Marrickville 1861-1936 (Syd, no date)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1922, p 241
  • Labour History, Nov 1976, no 31
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Feb 1918
  • Protestant World, 15 Apr 1925.

Citation details

Mark Lyons, 'Ness, John Thomas (1871–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


20 August, 1871
Young, New South Wales, Australia


24 January, 1947 (aged 75)
Dulwich Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.