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Sir James John Joynton Smith (1858–1943)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published:

Sir James John Joynton Smith (1858-1943), hotelier and racecourse and newspaper owner, was born on 4 October 1858 at Bishopsgate, London, eldest of twelve children of James Smith, master brass finisher, later gasfitter and ironmonger, and his wife Jane, née Ware. Baptized James John, he had a London School Board education, at 12 worked for a year in his father's shop, then was a pawnbroker's rouseabout and stationer's assistant before signing on, under an assumed name, as cabin-boy on a steamer to Naples, Italy. He worked in Peninsular & Oriental liners and was third cook in the Christian McAusland which reached Port Chalmers, New Zealand, in October 1874.

After working in hotels and as steward with a coastal line Smith prospered as a hotel licensee in Wellington. He married Ellen McKenzie, illiterate daughter of a farmer, at Auckland on 20 April 1882. In 1886 he went alone to England, where he gambled away his savings. Thereafter, he eschewed gambling. Returning to Wellington later that year, he was founding secretary of the Cooks' and Stewards' Union.

About 1890 Smith came to Sydney, where he produced illuminated funeral descriptions in his copperplate hand. In 1892-96 he managed the Grand Central Coffee Palace Hotel, Clarence Street. Having divorced his wife, he married on 2 March 1893 at St David's Church, Surry Hills, New Zealand-born Nellie Eloise Parkes; her family were experienced hoteliers. In 1896, by now known as Joynton Smith, he laid the foundation of his fortune when he leased, at £12 per week, the run-down Imperial Arcade Hotel, renamed the Arcadia, between Pitt and Castlereagh streets. He made it a good residential hotel and by 1924 had purchased the entire arcade for £147,500. He later owned the Hotel Astra, Bondi, and the Carlton in the city.

In February 1901 he was made justice of the peace. Seeing the tourist potential of the Blue Mountains, where he established the first electric-light plant, he bought the Imperial Hotel, Mount Victoria, leased the Hydro Majestic, Medlow Bath, and bought the Carrington Hotel and two theatres at Katoomba. He was long the dominant investor in the area, and in the automobile age built the Log Cabin at Penrith, a tea shop en route to the mountains. He loved motor cars, owned many including a Pierce Arrow, Bentley, Cadillac, Rolls-Royce and Lasalle, and invested in a company selling them.

Smith always saw himself as a sportsman and was adept at making money from sport. He was an 'avid dog fancier' and owned and drove trotters. In 1901 he leased Brighton racecourse at Rockdale. Successful with the ponies, in 1903 he leased Forest Lodge (formerly Lillie Bridge), at the 'swamp end of Glebe', which he renovated and renamed Epping; he sub-let the course to the New South Wales Trotting Club. Taking up his option to buy it for £1200 in 1911, Smith immediately sold it to the trotting club for £18,000; it became Harold Park in 1929. He was chairman of the Australian Trotting and Victoria Park Racing clubs.

On 15 January 1908 Smith opened Victoria Park racecourse at Zetland on land he had reclaimed. The 'first course in Australia to cater for ladies in the provision of retiring rooms', it was a showplace for horse and pony racing and trotting, the most modern and with the best facilities of the hitherto disreputable pony tracks. James Donohoe was its manager. It closed down in 1944.

In August 1909 Smith financed football matches between the (Rugby Union) Wallaby team and the (Rugby League) Kangaroos; proceeds went to Smith's favourite charity, (Royal) South Sydney Hospital, which he had founded in 1910 and of which he was a director until his death. President of the New South Wales Rugby League in 1910-28, he was patron in 1929-43.

State politics drew him. In July 1901 he had failed to win Moruya as an Independent. Probably on William Holman's advice, in March 1912 Smith was nominated to the Legislative Council; never active there, he retired in 1934. In 1916-18 he was an independent alderman of Sydney Municipal Council for Bligh Ward. Supported by Labor, in December 1917 he was elected lord mayor. A 'fluent and logical' speaker, fond of wise saws, though he had trouble sounding his r's, he was patriotic, tireless and innovative in raising war loans. He was appointed K.B.E. in 1920 and next year visited London in triumph.

Defeated in municipal elections in December 1918, Smith resolved to launch a newspaper to present his views. With Robert Packer as manager and Claude McKay as editor, he published Smith's Weekly from March 1919. Employing popular artists and writers, it found a large and appreciative readership with its jaunty style. Smith's Newspapers Ltd published the Daily Guardian from 1923 and the Sunday Guardian from 1929. In 1930-39 he was proprietor of the Referee and Arrow. He sold the two Guardians to Sir Hugh Denison in January 1930, but remained chairman of Smith's Newspapers until June 1939, when he leased the paper to National Press Ltd. In the 1930s he sold most of his property (his arcade fetched £600,000) but retained the Carrington and a leasehold on the Arcadia Hotel.

Entrepreneurial skill and ambition enabled Joynton Smith to prosper in free-wheeling Sydney through his concentration on the pastimes of the people. Cocking a snook at wowsers and snobs, Smith enjoyed his wealth and knighthood and was generous with time and money for community causes such as the South Sydney Hospital. Also a director of Sydney Hospital (1911-32) and Queen Victoria Home for Consumptives, Wentworth Falls, he was first president of the Picton Lakes T.B. Soldiers and Sailors' Settlement. He purchased the Talgai skull for the University of Sydney in 1914. His autobiography, My Life Story (1927), ghosted by Claude McKay, showed his relish for business intrigue and speculative investments; 'to succeed in business one should always be in debt', he wrote. He backed innovative ventures such as Sydney's first radio station 2SB (2BL), whose studio in 1923 was in Smith's Weekly building, Phillip Street.

A practical joker, Smith conjured, sang comic Cockney songs and played the concertina. He smoked cigars but rarely drank alcohol. He enjoyed boxing, kept fit with a masseur and sauna and was a good billiards player. Having lost his right eye in early life, he sported a glass one and pince-nez or monocle. He was moustached and slicked back his steel-grey hair with Pears soap and Bay Rum. Not a churchgoer, he was attracted to the supernatural.

In 1907 Smith had bought a mansion, Hastings, on the headland north of Coogee Beach. Other residences included Mahratta at Warrawee. About 1916 his second marriage ended in separation and his wife went to England. Predeceased by an adopted son Thayre, Sir Joynton Smith died at Hastings on 10 October 1943 survived by his third wife Gladys Mary Woods, and by their son and daughter. His estate, sworn for probate at £326,000, was the subject of protracted, costly litigation. A portrait of Sir Joynton by C. F. Harris is held by his family.

Select Bibliography

  • C. McKay, This is the Life (Syd, 1961)
  • G. Blaikie, Remember Smith's Weekly (Syd, 1966)
  • R. B. Walker, Yesterday's News (Syd, 1980)
  • J. J. J. Smith diary (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Smith, Sir James John Joynton (1858–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 20 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

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