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Sir John William Taverner (1853–1923)

by S. M. Ingham

This article was published:

Sir John William Taverner (1853-1923), politician, was born on 20 November 1853 in Melbourne, son of Henry Taverner, police sergeant, and his wife Margaret Sarah, née Large, both Irish born. Educated at Scots Grammar School, Williamstown, he went in 1864 to Kerang where his family had selected land. Taverner began his working career cutting thistles for five shillings a day and then held a surveyor's chain for seven shillings a day; he later drove for Cobb & Co. and kept an hotel. On 23 May 1879 at Kerang he married Elizabeth Ann Bassett Luxton with Anglican rites. In 1882-96 he was the senior partner in two firms and then the principal of a limited liability company of stock and station agents at Kerang.

At Swan Hill Taverner became involved in local government. He was president of the shire council in 1881-83, justice of the peace (1882) and for three years chairman of the Water Trust, representing the Swan Hill shire; he was also a vice-president of the North Western Municipal Association of Victoria, a president of the mechanics' institute and twice president of the Kerang branch of the Australian Natives' Association. He strongly supported the Kerang-Koondrook Tramway, the first to be constructed by a local body: this initiative was made possible by £200,000 granted by the O'Loghlen government.

Entering the Legislative Assembly in April 1889 as member for Donald and Swan Hill, Taverner quickly made his mark as a spokesman for previously neglected Mallee settlers. In the 1890s legislation was amended to give improved security of tenure which enabled farmers to obtain greater financial help. Taverner was appointed a member of the first Railways Standing Committee in 1889 and then chairman of the Light Railways Committee. In 1894-99 he was vice-president of the Board of Land and Works, commissioner for public works and minister for agriculture in (Sir) George Turner's government; in 1895 he was also minister for health. Taverner was president of the royal commission for the Greater Britain Exhibition of 1899 and represented Victoria during the currency of that exposition. Throughout the South African War he encouraged rural exports to the Cape by arrangements with the British War Office.

In forming his second ministry (1900-01), Turner ignored Taverner's claims. Personal ambition and a growing distrust of Turner's Liberals (who were supposedly dominated by city and Trades Hall interests) led Taverner, as leader of a 'Country' faction, to intrigue with Opposition groups in the assembly. The success of two conservative pressure groups—the Kyabram Movement and the National Citizens Reform League—helped in 1902 to defeat the Peacock government which had succeeded the Turner ministry. Taverner was commissioner for public works, vice-president (1902-03) then president (1903-04) of the Board of Land and Works, commissioner for crown lands and survey, and minister for agriculture in the Irvine government (1902-04). In helping to draw up land regulations, Taverner kept in touch with the problems of the early Mallee settlers.

In 1904, when Irvine resigned, Taverner fancied his chances of succession, but lacked the influence of (Sir) Thomas Bent who became the new premier. Taverner was appointed Victorian agent-general in London. He was no sooner overseas when charges were made that he had used his office as minister for agriculture for his personal benefit. A royal commission was set up to investigate the allegations, most of which were dismissed by the commissioner, (Sir) Thomas à Beckett, who found, however, that Taverner had exerted improper influence to gain preferment. Bent took no action and Taverner again repaired to London where he was knighted in 1909 and retained his agent-generalship until 1913. He stayed in London until 1922. On returning home, he became a member of the State Fruit Advisory Board and chairman of the Victorian directorate of the Primary Producers' Bank. On 17 December 1923, while attending a meeting at Doncaster, Melbourne, to open a branch of the bank, he collapsed and died of apoplexy after speaking a few words. Survived by his wife, he was buried in Brighton cemetery.

Thickset and genial, with a walrus moustache, Taverner was a loyal propagandist for Mallee settlers and an ardent advocate of adequate water storage systems and railway facilities in remote parts of Victoria. He anticipated coming generations of Country Party politicians.

Select Bibliography

  • E. H. Sugden and F. W. Eggleston, George Swinburne (Syd, 1931)
  • B. D. Graham, The Formation of the Australian Country Parties (Canb, 1966)
  • K. Rollison, Groups and Attitudes in the Victorian Legislative Assembly, 1900-1909 (Ph.D. thesis, La Trobe University, 1972)
  • Kerang New Times, 21 Dec 1923.

Citation details

S. M. Ingham, 'Taverner, Sir John William (1853–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


20 November, 1853
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


17 December, 1923 (aged 70)
Doncaster, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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