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Sir John Quick (1852–1932)

by Michele Maslunka

This article was published:

John Quick (1852-1932), by Portia Geach, c1910

John Quick (1852-1932), by Portia Geach, c1910

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2241658

Sir John Quick (1852-1932), lawyer, politician and author, was born on 22 April 1852 near St Ives, Cornwall, England, only child of John Quick, farmer, and his wife Mary, née Quick. The family arrived in Victoria in October 1854 and headed for the Bendigo goldfields where John's father died of fever. (Mary remarried and had four more children.) Young John attended various schools until he was 10. A series of manual jobs followed—in an iron foundry, battery-feeding in a mine, in the printing room of the Bendigo Evening News before, having taught himself shorthand, he became a junior reporter on the Bendigo Independent and later the Bendigo Advertiser. He moved to Melbourne and in 1874 matriculated. With the aid of scholarships at the university, he graduated LL.B. in 1877 and in June 1878 was called to the Victorian Bar. He continued in journalism as leader of the Age parliamentary staff.

In 1880 Quick won the Legislative Assembly seat of Sandhurst (Bendigo) where he returned to live and practise law, taking his LL.D. by examination in 1882. On 24 December 1883 he married Catherine Harris, daughter of a former mayor of Eaglehawk. They lived at Edelweiss, Quarry Hill, where they raised a niece of Mrs Quick's as if she was their daughter.

Quick held his seat in 1883 and 1886 but then declined the offer of a portfolio in the Gillies-Deakin ministry. He had already become a prominent advocate of Federation, having spoken in September 1882 on the issue that was to receive much of his future time and energy, when he strenuously defended a motion to hold an intercolonial conference: 'It is only by consistent agitation and discussion that a national question such as this can ever be brought to maturity'. In October 1885 he objected to the formation of the Federal Council of Australasia—'the “one horse” federation business' as he called it.

Quick lost his seat after a redistribution in 1889. Although not native born he had been allowed to join the Bendigo branch of the Australian Natives' Association in an honorary capacity and, while not permitted to hold office, still did much to promote support for Federation among his fellow members. In October 1893 he established the Bendigo Federation League and was its president in its only known active years (1893, 1898, 1899). He attended the 1893 Corowa conference which marked the start of the popular movement for Federation as a delegate from the Bendigo A.N.A. Early in the proceedings, when there were calls from the floor for practical action, Quick secured a recess and with a few others hammered out his famous resolution which set the guidelines for dealing with the Federation question: 'That … the Legislature of each Australasian colony should pass an Act providing for the election of representatives to attend a statutory Convention or Congress to consider and adopt a Bill to establish a Federal Constitution for Australia and upon the adoption of such Bill or measure it be submitted by some process of referendum to the verdict of each colony'.

Quick energetically pursued the plan, quickly drafted a model enabling bill, and circulated it to Federation leagues. He travelled to Sydney in 1894 to promote it and, after modifications, it was eventually presented to Premier (Sir) George Reid. Quick's pamphlet, A Digest of Federal Constitutions (1896), was published by the Bendigo A.N.A.

He was prominent at the Bathurst convention of 1896 before being elected second of ten Victorian delegates to the Australasian Federal Convention which framed the Commonwealth Constitution in 1897-98. As an active member of the constitutional committee, he addressed aspects of the franchise, representation in the Senate and solutions for deadlocks. His speeches highlighted his preparedness to compromise in order to see Federation achieved, and his realization that since the people were to vote on the draft Constitution they needed to be well informed.

Quick was knighted on 1 January 1901 for his outstanding contribution to Federation. That year, with (Sir) Robert Garran, he published The Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth, a 'monumental tome' including a valuable history of the Federation movement, which confirmed his authority on constitutional questions. He was elected unopposed as the first Federal member for Bendigo, a seat he held until 1913. However, his immediate hopes for preferment from his leader and potential patron Deakin—a ministry, the Speakership, secretaryship of cabinet—were dashed. In 1905-07 he had a troubled, stormy time as chairman of the royal commission on the Commonwealth tariff which produced voluminous and inconclusive reports. Quick became increasingly critical of Deakin's close association with Labor and was an early advocate of fusion of non-Labor elements. Early in 1909 Deakin had Quick in mind as his possible successor and included him as postmaster-general in his Fusion ministry of June 1909–April 1910. But Quick's political aspirations had been disappointed.

After his defeat in 1913 Quick returned to the Bendigo legal firm he had established with Barkly Hyett in 1892. He continued the important works of authorship which had begun with The History of Land Tenure in the Colony of Victoria (1883) and The Inauguration of Parliamentary Government in Victoria (1886), followed by, with his friend (Sir) Littleton Groom, The Judicial Power of the Commonwealth (1904). In 1919 he published The Legislative Powers of the Commonwealth and the States in Australia and in 1920, with L. Murphy, The Victorian Liquor Licence and Local Option Laws Abridged and Consolidated.

In 1922 Quick was appointed deputy president of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, work for which he was well suited; based in Melbourne, he retired in 1930. He began bibliographical work on Australian authors which was eventually completed by E. Morris Miller and published as Australian Literature from its Beginnings (2 volumes, 1940). Quick served on the committees of the Bendigo Art Gallery and the Mechanics' Institute. He enjoyed gardening and had been a prominent member of the Forest Street Methodist Church and a Freemason.

The journalist Claude McKay described Quick as being of medium height and powerful build with blunt features and outsize head, striding along Pall Mall, Bendigo, 'compact and rigid as a clothed statue in action … He had a toneless voice and a heavy manner, and took a witness with plodding gradualness and inevitability'. Garran, while admiring Quick's extraordinary thoroughness, sometimes felt himself to be something like 'the junior partner of a steamroller'.

Quick died on 17 June 1932 at his Camberwell home and was buried in Back Creek cemetery, Bendigo. A self-made man, Quick rose from poverty and obscurity to become one of the 'Founding Fathers'. Bendigo, where he was a legendary hero, erected a bronze bust of him in 1934 in the Queen Victoria Gardens, bearing the motto 'Qui Patitur Vincit' (He who perseveres conquers). His portrait by W. B. McInnes is in the Bendigo Art Gallery.

Select Bibliography

  • National Australasian Conventions, 1897-98, Proceedings… (Adel, 1897 and Syd, 1897 and Melb, 1898)
  • W. B. Kimberly, Bendigo and Vicinity (Ballarat, 1895)
  • A. Deakin, The Federal Story, J. A. La Nauze ed (Melb, 1963)
  • R. R. Garran, Prosper the Commonwealth (Syd, 1958)
  • J. Quick, Sir John Quick's Notebook, L. E. Fredman ed (Newcastle, 1965)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1882, p 1646, 1659, 1885, p 1562, 1887, p 1188
  • Victorian Historical Magazine, 15, no 2, Dec 1934, p 33
  • L. E. Fredman, Quick, the Role of a Founding Father (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1956)
  • M. Maslunka, Bendigo: One Community's Response to Federation (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Melbourne, 1983)
  • Bendigo Australian Natives' Association, Minute books, 1891-93, 1893-96, 1896-99 (ANA, Bendigo)
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Michele Maslunka, 'Quick, Sir John (1852–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 22 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

John Quick (1852-1932), by Portia Geach, c1910

John Quick (1852-1932), by Portia Geach, c1910

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2241658

Life Summary [details]


22 April, 1852
St Ives, Cornwall, England


17 June, 1932 (aged 80)
Camberwell, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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