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John Woods (1822–1892)

by Jill Eastwood

This article was published:

John Woods (1822-1892), by unknown engraver, 1892

John Woods (1822-1892), by unknown engraver, 1892

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN02/05/92/16

John Woods (1822-1892), engineer, politician and inventor, was born on 5 November 1822 at Liverpool, England, son of Richard Woods, railwayman, and his wife Mary, née Cave. Educated locally, he trained as a locomotive engineer in Liverpool and then on the Leipzig and Dresden railway. He worked in North America and held positions in railway and iron works in Staffordshire and Lancashire, where he was active in anti-corn-law agitation. He won first prize for railway axles at the 1851 Great Exhibition. At Liverpool, aged 21, he married Sarah Gibbons.

With his wife Woods arrived in Victoria in 1852 and went to the goldfields. He first 'mounted the stump' at the Goulburn diggings to lead passive resistance to the licence fee. He became president of the Ararat branch of the Land Convention and was active in the registration of electors and in obtaining sufficient ballot papers for the 1858 election. At Ararat he was elected to the local court and then to the Mining Board and was a delegate to the 1859 Mining Board Conference. Partnership in a deep wet claim left him penniless; he took employment at Stawell, building the St George's crushing plant.

From October 1859 until his defeat in 1864 Woods was member for the Legislative Assembly seat of Crowlands. On 30 October 1865 he was appointed engineer and surveyor for the Victorian Water Supply at a salary of £300. He worked on the Malmesbury reservoir until summarily dismissed by (Sir) James McCulloch's government on a charge of knowingly accepting faulty pipes and tarring over the cracks. The accusation and dismissal were later privately acknowledged as unfair. Woods represented Crowlands again in 1871-77 and in 1877-92 the new electorate of Stawell. He was commissioner of railways and roads and vice-president of the Board of Lands and Works in (Sir) Graham Berry's governments of 1875 and 1877-80. He sat on many select committees, mainly about railways, and was also a member of several royal commissions including those on the tariff (1881-83), employees in shops (1882-84) and coal (1889-91). He was a commissioner for the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition and an honorary commissioner to the 1883-84 Calcutta Exhibition; from 1890 he was a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways.

A consistent, active proponent of democratic and radical principles and a staunch local member, Woods worked hard for the interests of miners and small settlers. He advocated a non-legalistic approach to mining on private property and a sliding scale of gold royalties to replace rents for mining land. He steadfastly put forward the Land Convention programme, always opposing permanent alienation of crown land and sale by auction, and proposing, in 1859, 1864 and 1873, a progressive land tax to 'burst up the great estates'; he published pamphlets on the subject in 1873 and 1880. As minister, his overriding interest was to reduce costs to small farmers, a political priority opposed by senior officials. He initiated great railway activity: a major branch line along the Goulburn Valley, the Melbourne-Oakleigh connexion and two north-western extensions into the Wimmera. He reformed the goods tariff to reduce freight charges and levelled and reorganized the Spencer Street yards; but his plans to build a block of grain and wool sheds and a new dock to reduce farmers' storage and cartage costs were cancelled by the next government.

A strong protectionist, Woods championed local industry, thereby opposing T. Higinbotham, on the use of Victorian-built locomotives. Among his several inventions were a fast stone-breaking machine (patented 1860) and an important and successful hydraulic railway brake (1882) which was used on many Victorian lines. He had set up a company in December 1877 to register the patent and manufacture his invention but air-powered brakes dominated eventually.

Although a member of the Chamber of Manufactures, Woods was always proud of his artisan background and claimed to be a representative of labour: 'I graduated in a hard school … I had to work my ten hours a day in England for very little money, and I know exactly what it means; and I know the advantages which have been obtained in this colony by labour in combination'. However he opposed political representation of trade unionists as such. He fought for the eight-hour principle and argued for unemployment relief and old-age pensions. In a major article, 'Wages', in the Victorian Review (1880), he raised the problem of ensuring for a worker a fair share in the profits of industry, not merely a day's pay. After 1880 he became a liberal oppositionist to the James Service-Berry coalition and subsequent ministries.

Deakin first met Woods in 1879, 'his rotund form, snub nose, glistening eyes and spiky hair rendering him a rather Socrates-Silenus appearance'; he described him as a serious reader and a man of original mind and initiative. However Woods never attained high parliamentary stature. His radical ideas, heterodox opinions and abrasive approach offended the community's respectable conformism. Impetuous and unconventional in his actions, he sometimes had to apologize for 'taking intoxicants too freely' and wrote amorous doggerel which Punch would not publish. He was a vigorous speaker with a gift for phrase-making. Deakin, however, claimed that he lacked industry and self-control. He lent his name to some of James Munro's more questionable promotions and with L. L. Smith 'puffed' a tin mine on the London market. Attacked by the conservative press, the nickname 'Tarbrush' followed him everywhere.

Woods's first wife died, aged 74, on 12 January 1888 and on 23 September 1891 he married a divorcee, Jessica Muir, née Whitley. He died of heart disease, dropsy and gangrene on 2 April 1892 at Brighton. Survived by his second wife and two of his four daughters, and predeceased by his two sons, he was buried in the Boroondara cemetery according to the rites of the Anglican Church.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • A. Deakin, The Crisis in Victorian Politics, 1879-1881, J. A. La Nauze and R. M. Crawford eds (Melb, 1957)
  • C. E. Sayers, Shanty at the Bridge (Donald, 1963), and Shepherd's Gold (Melb, 1966)
  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melb, 1966)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1873, 1883, 1886, 1887
  • Argus (Melbourne), 2 Dec 1859, 2 Oct, 23 Oct 1883, 24 Mar 1887, 4 Apr 1892
  • Australasian, 31 Aug 1878
  • Table Talk, 11 Nov 1886
  • Pleasant Creek News, 5 Apr 1892
  • Leader (Melbourne), 9 Apr 1892
  • S. M. Ingham, Some Aspects of Victorian Liberalism 1880-1900 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1950)
  • J. E. Parnaby, The Economic and Political Development of Victoria, 1877-1881 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1951).

Citation details

Jill Eastwood, 'Woods, John (1822–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Woods (1822-1892), by unknown engraver, 1892

John Woods (1822-1892), by unknown engraver, 1892

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN02/05/92/16

Life Summary [details]


5 November, 1822
Liverpool, Merseyside, England


2 April, 1892 (aged 69)
Brighton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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