Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Thomas Smith (1816–1879)

by Jill Eastwood

This article was published:

John Thomas Smith, n.d.

John Thomas Smith, n.d.

State Library of Victoria, 49386616

John Thomas Smith (1816-1879), publican and landowner, was born on 28 May 1816 in Sydney, son of John Smith, a Scottish shoemaker, and his wife Elizabeth, née Biggs. Educated at W. Cape's school, he was apprenticed at 14 to Beaver & Co., builders and joiners, but in 1833 his indentures were cancelled. After service as a bank clerk and under the colonial storekeeper, in June 1837 he sailed for Melbourne, and in September became assistant teacher to the Church of England Aboriginal Mission Station on the Yarra River at £40 a year.

Smith soon became storekeeper to J. Hodgson and husband to Ellen, daughter of Irish Catholic Michael Pender, a pioneer publican who encouraged his sons-in-law to enter the trade. In July 1841 Smith took over the Adelphi Hotel, Flinders Lane, from his brother-in-law Robert Brettagh, and in 1844 became licensee of St John's Tavern, Queen Street, in place of Brettagh. The behaviour of the Adelphi's customers aroused much criticism but Smith disclaimed responsibility: he was probably managing St John's Tavern at the time. The publicity had not prevented him from winning Bourke Ward on the first Melbourne Town Council in December 1842. He was a councillor for the rest of his life, a 'Whittington of the South', being seven times mayor between 1851 and 1864.

In 1845 Smith built the Queen's Theatre Royal, Melbourne's first theatre, next to St John's Tavern; it held 1200 people and was the first home of George Coppin's professional company. Smith attempted to make it safe for gentlefolk by reserving the dress circle for them, prohibiting smoking and putting street lamps in pot-holed Queen Street. In 1854 he leased the building to Charles Young for £300 a week. He lived in Queen Street in the 1850s in an elegant three-storied brick house; his last home was in Mount Alexander Road, Moonee Ponds.

In the first Legislative Council elections in 1851 Smith became member for North Bourke, and from May 1853 represented Melbourne, but he failed to win Central Province in 1856. In 1856-59 he represented Melbourne in the Legislative Assembly. He sat for Creswick in 1859-61 and for West Bourke in 1861-79. He was minister for mines in J. A. MacPherson's ministry from September 1869 to April 1870.

As councillor, mayor and politician Smith was lampooned and criticized by the press, especially by his political opponent Lauchlan Mackinnon and by Edward Wilson of the Argus, who preferred independents and regarded Smith as a representative of the publican interest with questionable electioneering tactics. By his marriage and business he had put himself beyond the pale of respectable society, yet he had a great desire to return. In politics he was conservative, generally supporting the government of the day and upholding 'law and order' at all times. He was one of a die-hard group that opposed reduction of the miners' licence fee in 1853; as mayor he reacted to the Eureka rising by enrolling special constables to protect Melbourne, presenting a loyal address to Governor Hotham, and calling a public meeting which was taken over by supporters of the diggers. He voted against the secret ballot, but in favour of gold being part of property freehold, for state aid to churches and for denominational education. In 1858 he went to England to present a civic address of congratulation to Queen Victoria on the marriage of the Princess Royal. He dined at Windsor Castle but was disappointed when he did not receive a knighthood, unlike many mayors of the British Isles and despite a testimonial signed by Bishop Perry, Supreme Court judges and the Speaker among other dignitaries. Mackinnon and others had told scandalous tales to the British government, hinting that his wealth was derived from sources even less pure than the sale of intoxicating liquors.

Smith was a well-known figure in white hat, white shirt frills and smoking a cutty pipe. Despite his political conservatism, he was considered a 'man of the people'. Shrewd, energetic and able, as a magistrate he was both kind and just. His personal generosity was great, and his charity work active. He instigated in 1848 the campaign for a Benevolent Asylum and helped the Melbourne Hospital, the Central Board of Health and the Lunatic Asylum. He gave financial and moral support to the eight-hour movement in the mid-1850s. He was a prominent Freemason under the Irish Constitution and remained active in the Church of England. He died of cancer on 30 January 1879 at Flemington and was buried in the Anglican section of the Melbourne general cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £42,500; he owned town property and stations on the Darling River, New South Wales, and in the Warrego District, Queensland.

Select Bibliography

  • Garryowen (E. Finn), The Chronicles of Early Melbourne (Melb, 1888)
  • J. Hetherington, Witness to Things Past (Melb, 1964)
  • Examiner (Melbourne), 10 Nov 1860
  • Leader (Melbourne), 14 Mar 1863
  • Argus (Melbourne), 31 Jan 1879
  • Bulletin, 15 Apr 1915
  • G. R. Quaife, The Nature of Political Conflict in Victoria 1856-57 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1964)
  • CO 309/47, 53.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jill Eastwood, 'Smith, John Thomas (1816–1879)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Thomas Smith, n.d.

John Thomas Smith, n.d.

State Library of Victoria, 49386616

Life Summary [details]


28 May, 1816
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


30 January, 1879 (aged 62)
Flemington, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (not specified)

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.

Key Organisations
Political Activism