Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Nobbs (1845–1921)

by Terry Kass

This article was published:

John Nobbs (1845-1921), conveyancer and politician, was born on 8 September 1845 at Surry Hills, Sydney, son of John Nobbs, native-born gardener, and his wife Jane, née Leek. His father grew prize fruit and vegetables on the family's old-established Surry Hills farm. Educated at Sydney Grammar School and in Britain, from 15 John junior worked in legal firms and gained sufficient experience to be granted a conveyancer's certificate. In Sydney on 6 December 1865, he married Louisa Smedley, daughter of a publican. In 1873 he joined the 2nd Regiment, Volunteer Rifles, as an ensign and in 1878 was promoted second lieutenant in the renamed Volunteer Infantry.

Meanwhile Nobbs built up a large and lucrative practice. Recognizing the potential of Parramatta Junction, he moved there in 1877. He initiated and led the campaign to change the area's name to Granville, for the abolition of toll bars and for road improvements, a public school, Anglican church and municipal incorporation. When Hudson Bros Ltd established railway and engineering workshops there, Nobbs dabbled in land speculation, building development and rental housing. He established the Cumberland Independent under the editorship of T. Courtney at Parramatta in the 1880s. The owner of a farm at Colo, he was a founder and first president of the Fruitgrowers' Union of New South Wales.

When Granville was incorporated in 1885, Nobbs was first mayor and again in 1887-88. He was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Central Cumberland as a free trader in 1888 and held the seat until he resigned in the wake of his bankruptcy in April 1893; he was discharged in 1895. After three unsuccessful attempts to return to parliament, he represented Granville from 1898 until defeated by J. T. Lang in 1913. In 1901-13 he was Liberal Party whip. In many ways Nobbs was the archetypical 'roads and bridges' politician, but he was also an early supporter of female suffrage. His success in winning government locomotive contracts for Clyde Engineering enhanced his local popularity. On the hustings he was not a good public speaker but skilfully chose arguments that appealed to his particular audience.

His other enthusiasms were legion: Nobbs was a founder of the (Royal) Australian Historical Society, the New South Wales branch of the Australian Natives' Association (sometime president) and of Granville School of Arts (president). He was a justice of the peace, commissioner for the Melbourne (1888) and Chicago (1893) exhibitions and a trustee of the National Park and of Captain Cook's landing place at Kurnell. Nobbs fostered the development of Soccer and became president of the New South Wales Football Association. An Anglican, he was a leading Freemason and a founder of United Grand Lodge of New South Wales, and a member of the Australian Protestant Defence Association. A tall, well-proportioned man with military mien, he had a drooping moustache and muttonchop whiskers. His lack of vindictiveness enabled him to win and retain many friends.

Survived by his wife, three sons and four daughters of their twelve children, Nobbs died at his Granville home on 11 November 1921 and was buried in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • Town and Country Journal, 27 Aug 1887
  • Cumberland Times, 9 Mar 1905
  • Fighting Line, 19 Nov 1913
  • Sun (Sydney), 17 Sept 1916
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Nov 1921
  • T. Fowlie, A History of Granville (manuscript, 1919, State Library of New South Wales)
  • insolvency file 6457, 10/22855 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Terry Kass, 'Nobbs, John (1845–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 14 June 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]


8 September, 1845
Surry Hills, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


11 November, 1921 (aged 76)
Granville, Sydney, New South Wales, 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.