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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Swanson, Sir John Warren (1865–1924)

by David Dunstan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

This is a shared entry with Donald Alexander Swanson

John Warren Swanson (1865-1924), by unknown photographer, c1923

John Warren Swanson (1865-1924), by unknown photographer, c1923

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/4440 [detail]

Sir Donald Alexander Swanson (1859-1940) and Sir John Warren Swanson (1865-1924), builders, were born on 20 December 1859 and 12 May 1865 at Sandhurst, Victoria, sons of Scottish-born William Swanson (d.1892), carpenter, and his English wife Mary, née Shields. The family moved to Melbourne about 1870 where Donald was educated at St Paul's Grammar School. He served his indentures with his father and took over the business when William retired in 1889; one of William's last works was the west block of the Newport railway workshops. John was educated at Walker's School, West Melbourne; after a sojourn in Tasmania with an unsuccessful theatrical company, he joined the family firm with which another brother Alexander also had a brief involvement. On 5 June 1890, at Albert Park, John was married to Alice Comins by Rev. Charles Strong.

During the 1890s Melbourne's building industry slumped and Donald moved briefly to Queensland where he carried out railway work and constructed a major bridge over the Burdekin River. John was left in charge of the Melbourne office. When activity resumed, Swanson Bros became one of Melbourne's leading builders, specializing in contracts requiring extensive masonry work; at one stage 150 stonemasons were employed at their William Street yards. The firm built the Crown Law offices, the Collins Street Assembly Hall, the dining-room wing of Parliament House, the city baths, the Commonwealth Bank, the Arts and other buildings at the University of Melbourne, the city court, the New Zealand Loan Co. building, Scotch College and the Athenaeum Club. After much controversy, Swanson Bros was chosen in 1911 to construct the reinforced concrete dome of the Melbourne Public Library. Both Donald and John were presidents of the Master Builders' Association of Melbourne and the Federation of Master Builders of Australia.

Completely absorbed by his work as a building contractor, Donald was the driving force in the business while John became the public figure. A prominent Freemason, John was a Melbourne City councillor (1914-23) for Bourke ward, chairman (1919) of the council's public works committee and mayor (1920-23). Knighted in 1923, he inaugurated the Lord Mayor's Metropolitan Hospitals Fund and was president of the National War Memorial Committee. Survived by his wife and five daughters, he died at St Kilda of cirrhosis of the liver on 4 February 1924 and was buried in the local cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £31,757.

Donald continued to manage the business even after his total loss of sight in 1931. Blindness did not deter him from being driven in a motor car to building sites where he could discuss projects with his foremen. He died at his St Kilda home on 11 September 1940 and was buried in Brighton cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £18,891. On 26 March 1903 at East Melbourne he had married with Presbyterian forms Charlotte Baillie Luff who survived him with their two daughters and a son. Swanson Bros remained a family business until 1983.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 2 (Melb, 1904)
  • Architectural Science Review, 2, no 1, Mar 1959, p 39
  • Table Talk, 7 Dec 1911
  • Argus (Melbourne), 9 Oct 1920, 5 Feb 1924, 13 Sept 1940
  • private information.

Citation details

David Dunstan, 'Swanson, Sir John Warren (1865–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 28 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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