John Downer

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The Honourable
Sir John Downer
John Downer (Australian politician).jpg
16th Premier of South Australia
Elections: 1893
In office
16 June 1885 – 11 June 1887
Monarch Victoria
Governor Sir William Robinson
Preceded by John Colton
Succeeded by Thomas Playford II
In office
15 October 1892 – 16 June 1893
Monarch Victoria
Governor Earl of Kintore
Preceded by Frederick Holder
Succeeded by Charles Kingston
Senator for South Australia
In office
30 March 1901 – 31 December 1903
Personal details
Born (1843-06-06)6 June 1843
Died 2 August 1915(1915-08-02) (aged 72)
Political party Conservative (second term)
Protectionist Party

Sir John William Downer, KCMG, KC (6 July 1843 – 2 August 1915) was the Premier of South Australia from 16 June 1885 until 11 June 1887 and again from 1892 to 1893. He was the first of three Australian politicians from the Downer family dynasty.

Early life[edit]

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 on a scholarship at St Peter's College, Adelaide, where he was a brilliant student.[1] He studied for the bar, was admitted to practise on 23 March 1867, and was soon one of the leading Adelaide barristers.

South Australian politician[edit]

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. As premier, Downer oversaw the first train line from Adelaide to Melbourne and made significant contributions to establishing irrigation settlements along the Murray River. 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[edit]

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 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.

Family and Legacy[edit]

Downer married twice: firstly in 1871 to Elizabeth Henderson, daughter of the Rev. J. Henderson; and secondly, in Sydney 29 November 1899 to Una Stella Haslingden Russell, daughter of H. E. Russell,.[2] With Elizabeth he had three children, John Henry (born 1872), James Frederick (born 1874) and Harold Sydney (born in 1875 and died in infancy).[3] The son of his second marriage was Alexander Russell Downer (born 1910), who served in the Menzies government, was knighted, and served as Australian High Commissioner in London, and whose son, Alexander Downer served as leader of the (Opposition) Liberal party in 1994 and Foreign Minister in the Howard government.

The home he purchased in 1880 at 42 Pennington Terrace, North Adelaide, is now St Mark's College and the original part of the building is known as Downer House. A draft of the Australian Constitution was prepared in the ballroom in 1897.[4]

A brother and partner in his business, Henry Edward Downer (1836–1905), entered the South Australian parliament in 1881 and was attorney-general in the John Cockburn ministry from May to August 1890. Another brother, A(lexander) George Downer (1839–1916) was his partner in the legal firm G & J Downer and a prominent businessman.[5]

In 1887, at the Imperial Conference in London (now the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting), Downer was created KCMG, recommended to the Queen by the Marquis of Salisbury.[6] During retirement, he joined the Adelaide University Council and became president of the Commomwealth Club.[7]

The Canberra suburb of Downer, Australian Capital Territory was named after him in 1960. On Garema Place, Canberra stands a commemorative sculpted fountain titled Father and Son and was presented by his son Alick in 1964.[8]


  1. ^ Downer, Alick (2012). The Downers of South Australia, p. 35. Wakefield Press, Adelaide. ISBN 9781743051993
  2. ^ "Marriages" The Times (London). Wednesday, 10 January 1900. (36035), p. 1.
  3. ^ Downer, Alick (2012). The Downers of South Australia, p. 36. Wakefield Press, Adelaide. ISBN 9781743051993
  4. ^ Downer, Alick (2012). The Downers of South Australia, p. 37. Wakefield Press, Adelaide. ISBN 9781743051993
  5. ^ "A Splendid Citizen". The Chronicle (Adelaide: National Library of Australia). 19 August 1916. p. 37. Retrieved 13 November 2012. 
  6. ^ Downer, Alick (2012). The Downers of South Australia, p. 44. Wakefield Press, Adelaide. ISBN 9781743051993
  7. ^ Downer, Alick (2012). The Downers of South Australia, p. 72. Wakefield Press, Adelaide. ISBN 9781743051993
  8. ^ "Father and Son Sculpture, Garema Pl, Canberra, ACT, Australia". Australian Heritage Database. 2014. Retrieved 2 May 2014. 

Other sources:

  • 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, Adelaide 1897, 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)
  • The Register, Adelaide, 3 August 1915
  • The Advertiser, Adelaide, 3 August 1915
  • E. Hodder, The History of South Australia
  • Quick and Garran, The Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth
  • P. Mennell, The Dictionary of Australasian Biography

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
John Colton
Premier of South Australia
16 June 1885 – 11 June 1887
Succeeded by
Thomas Playford
Preceded by
Frederick Holder
Premier of South Australia
15 October 1892 – 16 June 1893
Succeeded by
Charles Kingston