Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Wheeler (1853–1915)

by Mark Lyons

This article was published:

John Wheeler (1853-1915), accountant, Orangeman and politician, was born on 18 December 1853 in Sydney, son of Aaron Wheeler, sawyer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Hawkins, both English born. Upon leaving school, John worked with his father for two years before joining in 1870 the Newcastle-Wallsend Coal Co.'s head office in Sydney. On 7 August 1878 he married Hannah Clarke at Petersham Congregational Church; they were to have five children. He became a qualified accountant and in the early 1900s the company's general manager.

The prevailing climate of sectarianism had prompted Wheeler, an active Congregationalist, to join the Loyal Orange Institution of New South Wales in 1870. Entering its New South Wales Grand Lodge in 1872, he was grand master in 1886, 1894-1909 and 1912 (by which time Orangeism was less influential) and sometime grand president of the Loyal Orange Institution of Australasia. A dedicated Freemason, from 1883 he was a member of the Protestant Alliance Friendly Society of Australasia's New South Wales grand council, its grand master in 1885-94 and for a time vice-president of its federal council.

Having lived in the suburb since 1867, Wheeler was an alderman on Petersham Municipal Council in 1884-92, 1896-1901 and 1904-13; he was mayor in 1886-91 and 1912-14. A council-member of the Municipal Association of New South Wales for over twenty years from 1886, when not a Petersham alderman he represented Wallsend. For much of that time he was the association's senior vice-president. He strongly supported the movement for a Greater Sydney and for a city railway.

Defeated in 1887, Wheeler was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Canterbury behind (Sir) Joseph Carruthers in 1889. At his public meetings and in parliament Wheeler eschewed sectarianism and espoused free trade, municipal reform and local option. Standing again in 1891, he was the object of rowdy attention from supporters of the new Labor Party, probably because of his opposition to aspects of the coal mines regulation bill which he believed unnecessarily restricted the rights of the proprietors. As in 1889, he appealed to working men, claiming to support an eight-hour day and quoting Henry George. Wheeler was narrowly returned, but unseated after a recount.

An energetic joiner of organizations, he was a good chairman and an able administrator. He served on royal commissions on the improvement of the city of Sydney and its suburbs (1908) and on food supplies and fish (1911-13). Anti-Catholicism was an integral part of his outlook, but he gave it no prominence in seeking parliamentary or municipal office. Like others from the second rank of business, such as Thomas Jessep, Wheeler linked Protestant sectarianism, temperance and evangelical Christianity with free trade and liberalism, laying the foundation for much of the electoral support gathered in the 1904 election by the Liberal Party under the leadership of his old friend Carruthers.

Forced by ill health to resign from business, Wheeler died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 18 April 1915 at his Strathfield home and was buried in the Independent section of Rookwood cemetery. He was survived by his wife, three daughters and a son.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • W. A. Stewart (compiler), Early History of the Loyal Orange Institution, N.S.W. (Syd, 1926)
  • A. M. Shepherd (compiler), The Story of Petersham 1793-1948 (Syd, 1948)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 June 1891, 19 Apr 1915
  • M. Lyons, Aspects of Sectarianism in New South Wales circa 1865 to 1880 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1972).

Citation details

Mark Lyons, 'Wheeler, John (1853–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 15 July 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]


18 December, 1853
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


18 April, 1915 (aged 61)
Strathfield, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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