John Downer

John Downer

Sir John William Downer, KCMG (6 July 18432 August 1915) was the Premier of South Australia from 16 June 1885 until 11 June 1887 and again from 1892 to 1893.

Early life

Downer was born in Adelaide, the son of Henry Downer who came to South Australia in 1838 and his wife Jane, "née" Field. John Downer was educated at St Peter's College, Adelaide, where he was a brilliant student. He studied for the bar, was admitted to practise on 23 March 1867, and was soon one of the leading Adelaide barristers.

outh Australian politician

Downer became a Queen's Counsel in 1878, and in the same year was elected to the House of Assembly for Barossa. He represented this constituency until 1901, only leaving it to enter federal politics. In the House of Assembly he soon made his mark and became attorney-general in John Bray's cabinet on 24 June 1881. He endeavoured to bring in several law reforms, and though his married women's property bill was not passed, he succeeded in carrying bills allowing accused persons to give evidence on oath, and amending the insolvency and marriage acts. The government was defeated in June 1884, but a year later, on 16 June 1885, Downer formed his first ministry taking the positions of premier and attorney-general. Although this ministry lasted two years and passed a fair amount of legislation, it was often in difficulties, and in June 1886 had to be reconstructed.

Downer represented South Australia at the Colonial Conference held in London in 1887, but during his return journey to Australia his ministry was defeated. This ministry was responsible for a tariff imposing increased protective duties. Downer was not in office again for several years, but in October 1892 again became premier, taking also the portfolio of chief secretary. In May 1893 he exchanged this for the position of treasurer, but was ousted in the April 1893 election by liberal Protectionist Kingston with the support of the new Labor Party led by John McPherson. Downer remarked of this party: 'They are very clever fellows. I have great respect for the way they use either side for their purposes with absolute impartiality'. For most of the period until 1899 Downer led the Opposition.

Downer was a strong federalist and had represented South Australia at the 1883 and 1891 conventions. At the latter he took an important part in protecting the interests of the smaller states and was a member of the constitutional committee. He was elected one of the 10 representatives of South Australia at the 1897 convention, and was again on the constitutional committee.

Federal politician and return to state politics

At the time of Federation in 1901, Downer was elected as one of the inaugural senators for South Australia in the first Parliament of Australia, but he did not seek re-election in 1903. He entered the South Australian Legislative Council as a representative of the southern district in 1905, and continued to be re-elected until his death on 2 August 1915.


Downer married twice: firstly to Elizabeth Henderson (daughter of the Rev. J. Henderson), and secondly to Una Stella Haslingden Russell, who survived him with one son of each marriage. He was created KCMG in 1887. A brother and partner in his business, Henry Edward Downer, entered the South Australian parliament in 1881 and was attorney-general in the John Cockburn ministry from May to August 1890.

Downer was described by Alfred Deakin as 'bull-headed, and rather thick-necked, … with the dogged set of the mouth of a prize fighter' and 'smallish eyes'. Downer was regarded a first-rate barrister, and some of his speeches to juries could hardly have been excelled as examples of forensic art. He was equally successful as a parliamentary speaker, one of his colleagues said of him that in his earlier days he was the best debater in a house that contained Charles Kingston, Frederick Holder, Cockburn, and John Jenkins. In politics he tended to be conservative, he once described himself as a Tory, and possibly on account of this often found himself in a minority during his later years in parliament. He was nevertheless constructive and always advocated the rights of married women to their own property, women's suffrage, protection of local industries, and federation.

Downer's son Alec and grandson Alexander have also both been Australian Federal politicians.


*Dictionary of Australian Biography|First=John William|Last=Downer|Link=|accessdate=2008-10-04
*Bartlett, P. ' [ Downer, Sir John William (1843 - 1915)] ', "Australian Dictionary of Biography", Volume 8, MUP, 1981, pp. 330-332. Retrieved on 4 October 2008.

Other sources listed by the "Australian Dictionary of Biography":
*"Parliamentary Debates" (South Australia), 1883-84, 2031; "Intercolonial Convention, 1883: Report of the Proceedings of the Intercolonial Convention, held in Sydney, in November and December, 1883" (Syd, 1883); "Proceedings of the Colonial Conference, 1887: Papers Laid before the Conference" (Lond, 1887); National Australasian Convention, 1891 to 1898, "Official Record of the Proceedings …" (Sydney, 1891, and Adelaide, 1897, and Sydney, 1898, and Melbourne, 1898); "British Australasian", 17 June 1887; Edmund Barton papers (National Library of Australia); Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia); P. M. Glynn diaries, 1880-1918 (National Library of Australia).

External links

* [ Parliament of South Australia - Downer]

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