Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Sawers (1842–1906)

by T. J. Hart

This article was published:

John Sawers (1842-1906), banker, was born on 29 January 1842 at Stirling, Scotland, son of John Sawers and his wife Jane Weir, née Wilson. Educated at Stirling High School, he began work in the general manager's office of the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway in Glasgow in 1858, resigning in 1863. He arrived in Sydney in April 1864 and next month became a clerk with the Colonial Architect. He resigned this position in May 1865 to join the Bank of Australasia as a clerk in the Sydney branch. His referees were his uncle John Bowie Wilson and Edward Wyld, a local director of the bank.

In 1871 Sawers was appointed as teller at Castlemaine, Victoria, and became acting accountant before leaving for the Wellington, New Zealand, branch in 1873. Three years later he became manager. On 10 June 1878 he married Elizabeth Hannah Buchanan in Wellington, where he remained, apart from a short term as acting manager in Sydney, until December 1882, when he was appointed inspector in New South Wales. While there Sawers was called to London by the court of directors, a sign that his abilities had been recognized. On his return in 1886 he was posted again to New Zealand as acting inspector. On the strong recommendation of E. S. Parkes, the bank's superintendent, the court of directors appointed Sawers assistant superintendent. He took up his duties in Melbourne in January 1887 but following the death of Parkes in May he was appointed superintendent.

A firm and capable administrator, Sawers was popular with both his staff and the public. His devotion to the bank was summed up in the phrase, 'his work is the bank, and his hobby is also the bank'. His administration coincided with the land boom of the 1880s and its aftermath, and his firmness, sound judgement and largely conservative management tempered by initiative and originality successfully steered the Bank of Australasia through this turbulent time, making it one of the few Australian banks to survive without change to its corporate structure. His prudent, far-sighted policy of urging low interest rates, restricting new loans and calling up old ones, and maintaining cash reserves, ensured that it remained open in the crash of 1891-93. During the Victorian government's moratorium week in May 1893, he refused to close.

Sawers was an active member of the Bankers' Institute of Australasia from 1887, and served several rotational terms as chairman of the Associated Banks of Victoria. He became involved in activities outside the bank only in his later years, serving as president of the Melbourne Club in 1904 and of the general council of the Chambers of Commerce of the Commonwealth of Australia (1904-05). He was also a strong supporter of the Federation movement.

A stocky man with beard and walrus moustache, Sawers affected pince-nez that added to an appearance of joviality. He retired from the bank in ill health in 1905 and died of cardiovascular disease on 1 July 1906 at his St Kilda home. His wife and five of their six children survived him. He was buried with Baptist forms in St Kilda cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at over £39,000.

Select Bibliography

  • S. J. Butlin, Australia and New Zealand Bank (Melb, 1961)
  • Australasian Insurance and Banking Record, Jan 1938
  • Review of Reviews (Australasian ed), 20 Aug 1895, p 149
  • Leader (Melbourne), 2 Dec 1899
  • Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd Archive.

Citation details

T. J. Hart, 'Sawers, John (1842–1906)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 22 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]


29 January, 1842
Stirling, Stirlingshire, Scotland


1 July, 1906 (aged 64)
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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