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John Henry Want (1846–1905)

by Paul Finn

This article was published:

John Henry Want (1846-1905), by unknown photographer

John Henry Want (1846-1905), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 11612

John Henry Want (1846-1905), barrister and politician, was born on 4 May 1846 at Glebe, Sydney, fourth son of nine children of Randolph John Want, solicitor, and his wife Hariette, née Lister. Educated at Rev. W. H. Savigny's Collegiate School, Cooks River, and Sydney Grammar School, Jack reputedly spent some time at Caen, France. Entering Randolph's office, he became dissatisfied with the monotony of legal practice and worked on the land in Queensland and at a mine in which his father had an interest at Lithgow, New South Wales. Attracted back to the law, Want read in the chambers of (Sir) Frederick Darley and was admitted to the Bar on 13 November 1869. At St John's Anglican Church, Darlinghurst, on 20 December 1870 he married Mary Selina Augusta Prince; they were divorced in 1884.

Without professing any profound interest in legal doctrine, Want was suited by temperament to the theatre of the courtroom and established a pre-eminent reputation as an advocate who was to command an extensive practice, particularly in criminal and nisi prius cases. His skill with a jury was widely acknowledged. Over six feet (183 cm) tall, with a rugged jaw, flashing eyes and 'fierce moustachios', he addressed the jury in 'a voice full and sonorous', with a homely and familiar style marked by the use of proverbs and colloquialisms. 'Bluff and unconventional', he was never more dangerous than when 'toying with his watch-chain'. He emerged as an authority on shipping matters: 'nobody knew more about the rules of navigation, or the harbour regulations'. Frequently appearing as a junior with William Bede Dalley in 'heavy cases', Want was appointed a Queen's Counsel in 1887, but declined elevation to judicial office. He was, in his own words, much attracted by 'the active life and excitement of my profession'.

Elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1885 for Gundagai, Want served as attorney-general from October to December 1885 and from February 1886 to January 1887 in the ministries of (Sir) George Dibbs and Sir Patrick Jennings. While in office he prosecuted Francis Wright and others in 1886 for conspiring to defraud the commissioner of railways; he also persuaded Darley to accept the chief justiceship. A staunch free trader, Want was unable to continue supporting the protectionists, Dibbs and Jennings, but was unwilling to join Sir Henry Parkes. When the latter ignored his criticism of the appointment of William Fehon as chief commissioner of railways, Want carried a motion for adjournment against the ministry on 9 January 1889 and precipitated Parkes's surprise resignation. Being about to visit Japan, Want declined the governor's commission to form his own ministry. He represented Paddington in 1889-91 before temporarily retiring from politics. As in his legal career, Want was not driven to pursue high office and never enjoyed certain backing in parliament. In 1894 he was nominated to the Legislative Council and, save for ten weeks in 1898, was (Sir) George Reid's attorney-general from 18 December 1894 until resigning in April 1899.

Of a singularly independent character, Want was deeply committed to the colony he served. Aspiring to be 'the arch destroying angel of Federation', that 'hydra-headed monster', he was an intransigent—if not an extravagant—opponent of any system of federal union for the Australian colonies. 'Faderation', as he dubbed it, could only result for his own colony in 'the surrender of our independence and liberty', beneficial though union might be for the others. His purpose was 'to protect New South Wales, not to sell it into bondage'. Following Reid's famous 'Yes-No' speech on the Federation enabling bill in March 1898, Want resigned from office on 4 April the better to oppose Federation, only to rejoin the ministry on 18 June after the first referendum. Reid's failure in the interim to fill the vacancy excited the Federationists' suspicion.

On 25 November 1898 at St Stephen's Anglican Church, Kurrajong, Want had married Nina Ventry, née Everest, a 42-year-old widow with two daughters. He defended Dean Denis O'Haran in Arthur Coningham's divorce case in 1900-01 and later defended the solicitor T. M. Slattery. In 1904-05 Want opposed Sir Josiah Symon's attempt to move the High Court of Australia's principal seat to Melbourne.

Vigorous and robust, Want threw 'the same energy into his amusements as into his serious avocations'. Like his father, he was a member of Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron and enjoyed sailing down to Hobart or fishing on Port Hacking, dressed like 'a pirate bold'. He was a trustee of (Royal) National Park and a member of the Board of Fisheries, in which capacity he did much to develop and to protect the fisheries of the colonies, as well as advocating the introduction of trout to inland waters. A generous foe and a loyal friend, he was a member of the Union Club, a patron of the turf, a motorist and an inveterate traveller.

Survived by his wife, Jack Want died from complications of aortic valve disease on 22 November 1905 at Darlinghurst; he was buried in Waverley cemetery, his coffin being borne by six K.C.s—(Sir) Alexander Gordon, (Sir) William Cullen, Charles Pilcher, Richard Sly, Arthur Smith, and Reid.

Select Bibliography

  • B. R. Wise, The Making of the Australian Commonwealth, 1889-1900 (Lond, 1913)
  • W. Blacket, May it Please Your Honour (Syd, 1927)
  • A. B. Piddington, Worshipful Masters (Syd, 1929)
  • P. Loveday and A. W. Martin, Parliament Factions and Parties (Melb, 1966)
  • J. M. Bennett (ed), A History of the Bar of New South Wales (Syd, 1969)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1897, pp 2100, 2111, 2117
  • British Australasian, 16 Feb 1899
  • Express (Sydney), 17 Dec 1885
  • Arrow (Sydney), 21 Nov 1905
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Nov 1905
  • Truth (Sydney), 26 Nov 1905
  • Town and Country Journal, 29 Nov 1905
  • Henry Parkes correspondence (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Paul Finn, 'Want, John Henry (1846–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 21 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

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