John Henry Want

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John Henry Want (4 May 1846 – 22 November 1905)[1] was an Australian barrister and politician, as well as the 19th Attorney-General of New South Wales.

Early life[edit]

Want was born at Glebe, Sydney, the fourth son of nine children of Randolph John Want, a solicitor, and his wife, Hariette, née Lister.[1] Want was educated at Rev. W. H. Savigny's Collegiate School, Cooks River, and reportedly in Caen, Normandy, France,[1] where he learned to speak fluent French. Want worked in his father's office but soon became bored with the legal practice, went on the land in Queensland, and afterward worked in a mine at Lithgow.[1] Want then returned to Sydney and read in the chambers of Sir Frederick Darley.[1] Want was called to the bar on 13 November 1869[1] and established a large practice as a barrister.[2] He also engaged in many profitable commercial ventures, some of a "suspicious character".[3]

The Mignonette[edit]

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.[4] 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 19 May 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.[5]

On 5 July, 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.[6] There have been various theories about the structural inadequacies of the yacht that led to such a catastrophic failure in routine weather.[7]

The crew were adrift for 24 days and resorted to cannibalism, with Parker being killed and eaten and Dudley and Stephens later prosecuted in England in a landmark case.

Political career[edit]

Lower house[edit]

Want entered the New South Wales Legislative Assembly as member for Gundagai in 1885 and afterwards represented Paddington. His parliamentary skills were 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". Want became 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.[2]

Upper house[edit]

Want was nominated to the New South Wales Legislative Council in 1894 and from 18 December 1894 until April 1889 (apart from 10 weeks in 1898) was attorney-general in the George Reid ministry. Want returned to politics partly because he wanted to keep the free trade 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. Want left Australia on a visit to England in December 1898 and resigned from the ministry in the following April.[2]

Later life[edit]

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.[2]

Personality and assessment[edit]

Want was over six feet (180 cm) in height, had a rugged jaw and flashing eyes. He was "flamboyant and ostentatious, usually going by the name of "Jack" or "Jimmy".[3] 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. Want could 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.[2]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Finn, Paul (1990). "Want, John Henry (1846 - 1905)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. 12. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 2010-02-23.
  2. ^ a b c d e Serle (1949)
  3. ^ a b Simpson (1984) p.20
  4. ^ Simpson (1984) pp.18, 20-21
  5. ^ Simpson (1984) pp37-40
  6. ^ Simpson (1984) pp46-49
  7. ^ Simpson (1984) pp50-53


  • Obituaries:
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May 1846, 23 November 1905;
    • The Daily Telegraph, 23 November 1905; ; .

  • Piddington, A. B (1929). Worshipful Masters. Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
  • Serle, Percival (1949). "Want, John Henry". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
  • Simpson, A. W. B. (1984). 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. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. pp20–21. ISBN 978-0-226-75942-5.
  • Wise, B. R. (2002) [1913]. The Making of the Australian Commonwealth, 1889-1900. A Stage in the Growth of the Empire. Boston: Adamant Media. ISBN 978-0-543-92517-6.