John Henry Want

John Henry Want

John Henry Want (4 May 184622 November 1905) was an Australian barrister and politician, attorney-general in New South Wales.

Early life

Want was born at Glebe, Sydney, the son of Randolph John Want, a solicitor. He was educated at Sydney Grammar School and in Caen, Normandy, France where he learned to speak French fluently. He worked in is father's office but soon tired of the monotony of the law, went on the land in Queensland, and afterwards worked in a mine at Lithgow. He then returned to Sydney and studied in the chambers of Sir Frederick Darley. Want was called to the bar in November 1869 and established a large practice as a barrister.Serle (1949)] He also engaged in many profitable commercial ventures, some of a "suspicious character".Simpson (1984) "p."20]

"The Mignonette"

Want was a keen yachtsman, his father had been a founding member of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron in 1862, and in 1883 Want travelled to England to look for a new vessel. He purchased the "Mignonette" at Cowes, a 19.43 net tonnage, 52 foot cruiser built in 1867. [Simpson (1984) "pp"18, 20-21] The yacht could only reasonably be transported to Australia by sailing her there but she was a small vessel and the prospect of a 15,000 mile voyage hampered Want's initial attempts to find a suitable crew. However, she finally set sail for Sydney from Southampton on May 19, 1884 with a crew of four: Tom Dudley, the captain; Edwin Stephens; Edmund Brooks; and Richard Parker, the cabin boy. Parker was aged 17 and an inexperienced seaman. [Simpson (1984) "pp"37-40]

On July 5, the yacht was running before a gale at 27°10' south, 9°50' west, around 1,600 miles northwest of the Cape of Good Hope. Though the weather was by no means extreme and the vessel was not in any difficulties, a wave struck the yacht and washed away the lee bulwarks. Dudley instantly realised that the yacht was doomed and ordered the single 13-foot lifeboat to be lowered. The "Mignonette" sank within five minutes of being struck and the crew abandoned ship for the lifeboat, only managing to salvage vital navigational instruments along with two tins of turnips and no fresh water. [Simpson (1984) "pp"46-49] There have been various theories about the structural inadequacies of the yacht that led to such a catastrophic failure in routine weather.Simpson (1984) "pp"50-53]

The crew were adrift for 24 days and were compelled to resort to survival cannibalism by killing the cabin boy Parker. After their rescue, they were tried for murder in the important case of "R v. Dudley and Stephens". They were convicted, necessity being held to be no defence to a charge of murder. [Simpson (1984)]

Political career

Lower house

Want entered the New South Wales Legislative Assembly as member for Gundagai in 1885 and afterwards represented Paddington. His parliamentary skills were at once recognised and he became attorney-general in the George Dibbs ministry (October to December 1885) and in the Patrick Jennings ministry (February 1886 to January 1887). But he was not anxious for office and temporarily retired from politics in 1891. On one occasion he moved a motion for adjournment which the then premier, Henry Parkes, treated as a vote of no confidence and was defeated. Want was sent for by the governor but declined the task of forming a ministry. He was a staunch free-trader and could not continue to work with Dibbs and Jennings who were protectionists, but neither could he work under Parkes. For a while he formed a small corner party which he facetiously referred to as "the home for lost dogs". He had become a Queen's Counsel in 1887 and now had an immense practice particularly in "nisi prius" and criminal law cases. No other barrister of his period in Australia earned more in fees or had a greater reputation.

Upper house

Want was nominated to the New South Wales Legislative Council in 1894 and in December of that year became attorney-general in the George Reid ministry. He returned to politics partly because he wanted to keep the freetrade party together and partly because he had always been opposed to Federation, and could carry on the fight better in parliament. He believed in the pre-eminence of his own colony, New South Wales, and he feared that under any kind of union it would lose its position. How strongly he felt can be seen by a quotation from one of his speeches:—"I would rather see almost anything than see this hydra-headed monster called federation basking in its constitutional beastliness--for that is what it is--in this bright and sunny land. . . . I was the first public man to assert my intention of opposing to the bitter end any system of federation, because there can be none which would not involve the surrender of our independence and liberty." Want was still a member of Reid's ministry when Reid made his famous Yes-No speech on 28 March 1898, and could not understand how his leader could conclude without asking his hearers to vote against a measure which this very speech had shown to be "rotten, weak, and unfair". He resigned from the ministry a few days later, but joined it again in June after the defeat of the first referendum. He left Australia on a visit to England in December 1898 and resigned from the ministry in the following April.

Later life

At the second referendum held in June 1899, New South Wales voted in favour of federation. After its achievement Want continued to fight for the rights of his state, but was never in office again. He died of appendicitis on 22 November 1905.

Personality and assessment

Want was over six feet in height with a rugged jaw and flashing eyes. He was "flamboyant and ostentatious, usually going by the name of "Jack" or "Jimmy". It was said of him that he was "as honest and honourable as he was bluff and unconventional, a generous foeman and a true friend". In politics he found it impossible to be a party man, and though he was capable as an administrator he had little ambition. He might have been premier on one occasion and chief justice on another, but desired neither position. He felt strongly only on the question of federation. He was, however, a great advocate unequalled in his presentation of his evidence to the jury, taking it into his confidence with an appealing frankness, emphasizing the strong points of his case, and gently sliding over its weaknesses. He used his wide knowledge of human nature with great effectiveness both in his addresses to the jury and in cross-examination, in which he was a master. In arguing before the full court he could adapt his methods to his audience, and though like so many great advocates not really a great lawyer his knowledge was sufficient for his purposes. He was married twice and left a widow, there were no children.



**"The Sydney Morning Herald", 6 May 1846, 23 November 1905;
**"The Daily Telegraph", 23 November 1905; ; .----
*Paul Finn, ' [ Want, John Henry (1846 - 1905)] ', "Australian Dictionary of Biography", Volume 12, MUP, 1990, pp 380-381.
* cite book | author=Piddington, A. B | title=Worshipful Masters | publisher=Angus & Robertson | location=Sydney | year=1929
* cite book | title=Cannibalism and the Common Law: The Story of the Tragic Last Voyage of the Mignonette and the Strange Legal Proceedings to Which It Gave Rise | author=Simpson, A. W. B. | publisher=University of Chicago Press | location=Chicago | year=1984 | id=ISBN 9780226759425 | pages="pp"20-21
* cite book | author=Wise, B. R. | title=The Making of the Australian Commonwealth, 1889-1900. A Stage in the Growth of the Empire | id=ISBN 9780543925176 | publisher=Adamant Media | location=Boston | year=2002 | origyear=1913

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