Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Arthur Perkins (1878–1954)

by D. I. McDonald

This article was published:

John Arthur Perkins (1878-1954), bookseller, stationer and politician, was born on 18 May 1878 at Gocup near Tumut, New South Wales, second son of Edward Perkins, hotel-keeper, and his wife Annie, née Connelly. He was educated at Tumut and Cooma Public schools. In 1894 he took up a small selection at Cooma, leasing it in 1899 to become a bookseller, stationer and tobacconist. On 15 September 1909 at Marrickville, Sydney, he married Evelyn Mary Bray.

Always active in community affairs, Perkins had joined the Cooma Debating Society when a boy and was president of the School of Arts in 1910-24. He helped before 1909 to establish a local band, rifle and camera clubs, a Cooma tourist association and a parents' and citizens' association. An Anglican, he was a director of the Monaro Grammar School (1914-22) and a parish councillor (1915-22). Although medically unfit for military service, he was concerned about the welfare of local returned servicemen; the Cooma Soldiers' Club was formed in 1923 through his initiative and support. In 1894 he joined the Manchester Unity Independent Order of Odd Fellows, becoming district grand master (1908-10) and Grand Master (1919).

Perkins had been a member of the Cooma Municipal Council (1902-09) and mayor in 1904 and 1908. He unsuccessfully stood for the Legislative Assembly seat of Monaro in 1904 and in 1907. In 1921 as a Nationalist he filled a casual vacancy for Goulburn following the death of William Millard with whom he had long been politically associated. Perkins always placed local interests ahead of party considerations and believed himself the 'stormy petrel' of the Fuller-Wearne coalition, having 'had many little fallings out with … those who have control of the purse'.

In January 1926 he successfully contested a by-election for the Federal seat of Eden-Monaro. He lost the seat in 1929, but held it again in 1931-43. Perkins was government whip in 1926-29 and honorary minister in January 1932. As minister for the interior from October 1932 he dealt shrewdly to restrain punitive reprisals against Aborigines in the Northern Territory, and had gazetted an ordinance modifying the criminal code to take account of Aboriginal custom. To Professor A. P. Elkin, who congratulated him on his efforts 'to make inter-racial conditions in the North more equable and more just', Perkins wrote that he was contemplating a general review of the laws covering Aborigines and the introduction of a special system of conducting trials. His period in office coincided with publicity in the British press over the treatment of Aborigines and interest from the Colonial Office that embarrassed S. M. (Viscount) Bruce and J. A. Lyons. The latter omitted Perkins from cabinet in 1934 though professing to value his 'loyalty and friendship'. To (Sir) Earle Page he was 'a man with a clear vision, with broad national outlook, and possessing a profound knowledge of country conditions and national needs'.

He was minister without portfolio in 1937-38 and 1939-40 and minister for trade and customs in 1938-39. In 1941 Perkins was chairman of a joint select committee on the operations of the apple and pear marketing board and a member, later chairman (1941-43), of the joint committee on social security.

In retirement, the widely read Perkins indulged a long ambition to 'write well'. A member of the Royal Australian Historical Society he devoted much time to researching his chronology of the Monaro. His diaries (1892-95) leave a vivid record of life in a small country town. Perkins died on 13 July 1954 at Manly, Sydney, and was cremated. His wife survived him without issue.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Wise, The Self-Made Anthropologist (Syd, 1985)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 July 1954
  • J. A. Perkins papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

D. I. McDonald, 'Perkins, John Arthur (1878–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 28 May 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]


18 May, 1878
Gocup, New South Wales, Australia


13 July, 1954 (aged 76)
Manly, 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.