John Downer

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John Downer
16th Premier of South Australia
In office
16 June 1885 – 11 June 1887
GovernorSir William Robinson
Preceded byJohn Colton
Succeeded byThomas Playford II
In office
15 October 1892 – 16 June 1893
GovernorEarl of Kintore
Preceded byFrederick Holder
Succeeded byCharles Kingston
3rd Leader of the Opposition (SA)
In office
Preceded byJohn Cox Bray
Succeeded byJenkin Coles
In office
Preceded byThomas Playford II
Succeeded byJohn Cockburn
In office
Preceded byFrederick Holder
Succeeded byWilliam Copley
In office
Preceded byWilliam Copley
Succeeded byVaiben Louis Solomon
Senator for South Australia
In office
30 March 1901 – 31 December 1903
Personal details
John William Downer

(1843-07-06)6 July 1843
Adelaide, South Australia
Died2 August 1915(1915-08-02) (aged 72)
North Adelaide, South Australia
Political partyNational Defence League
Protectionist (1901–03)
Liberal Union (1910–15)
Elizabeth Henderson
(m. 1871⁠–⁠1896)
Una Russell
(m. 1899)
RelationsGeorge Downer (brother)
Henry Downer (brother)
Alick Downer (son)
Alexander Downer (grandson)

Sir John William Downer, KCMG, KC (6 July 1843 – 2 August 1915) was an Australian politician who served two terms as Premier of South Australia, from 1885 to 1887 and again from 1892 to 1893. He later entered federal politics and served as a Senator for South Australia from 1901 to 1903. He was the first of four Australian politicians from the Downer family dynasty.

Early life[edit]

Born in Adelaide, John Downer (the son of Henry Downer who came to South Australia in 1838 and Jane Downer née Field) was educated on a scholarship at St Peter's College, Adelaide,.[1] On 23 March 1867 he was admitted to the bar, and soon won a reputation as being among Adelaide's most talented and eloquent lawyers.

South Australian politician[edit]

Downer in 1898

Downer became a Queen's Counsel in 1878, the same year in which he was elected to the House of Assembly for Barossa. He represented this constituency until 1901, leaving it only to enter federal politics.

In the House of Assembly he soon made his mark and became Attorney-General in John Cox 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 himself became Premier for the first time, as well as being Attorney-General once again.

While Premier, Downer oversaw the construction of the first train line from Adelaide to Melbourne. He also 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.

At the Colonial Conference held in London during 1887, Downer represented South Australia, but during his return journey to Australia his government 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 of South Australia, but was ousted at the 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 meeting, 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 Australasian Federal Convention of 1897-8, and sat, again, on the constitutional committee. He was the most senior and significant representative of the conservative portion of the Convention's ideological spectrum. In this period he formed a close personal bond with several leading Federationists. Robert Garran, an eminence grise of the Federalist cause, was the best man at Downer's wedding in 1898. Richard O'Connor and Edmund Barton were among the attendees. The bride and groom had first met at Barton's house, and in these years Barton would stay at Downer's house when in Adelaide.[2]

Federal politician and return to state politics[edit]

In the inaugural election of the parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, Downer stood for the Senate, without party label, but campaigning closely with fellow candidate and conservative, Sir Richard Baker. On the hustings he declared he "was not a Free Trader, and not a Protectionist", but "a Fair Trader".[3] He won one of the six vacancies, but, badly disappointed in not being appointed to the High Court, he did not seek re-election in 1903. He entered the South Australian Legislative Council as a National Defence League (Liberal Union from 1910) representative of the southern district in 1905, and continued to be re-elected until his death on 2 August 1915.[4][5]

Character and views[edit]

Alfred Deakin assessed Downer in the following terms: '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 were singled out by contemporaries as laudable examples of forensic art. He was equally successful in parliamentary debate; one of his colleagues called him the best debater in a house that contained Charles Kingston, Frederick Holder, John Cockburn, and John Jenkins.

In politics Downer tended to be conservative without being obstinate. He described himself as a Tory, and partly on account of this he often found himself in a minority during his later years in parliament. Nevertheless, he consistently advocated the rights of married women to their own property, female suffrage, protection of local industries, and federation.

Historian Tony Roberts, in his 2005 award-winning book Frontier Justice: A History of the Gulf Country to 1900, described the nature of massacres and violent encounters with Aboriginal peoples in the Gulf Country as part of the Australian frontier wars. His research showed that senior colonial politicians, including premiers Downer and Sir John Colton, along with South Australian police, "masterminded, condoned or concealed... atrocities" in the NT Gulf Country, which led to the deaths of at least 600 Aboriginal people.[6][7][8][9][10][11] According to Henry Reynolds, Roberts concluded that Downer's name occurred with greater frequency than any of his colleagues, and he pointed out that Downer, as a trained lawyer, attorney-general between 1881 and 1884, and both premier and attorney-general 1885–1887, he must have deliberately ignored the Aboriginal rights which were embodied by law in the pastoral leases in that area. He also personally defended William Willshire, a policeman known for his brutality who was acquitted of the murder of a group of Aboriginal people in 1891[12] at Tempe Downs Station in the NT. Even at the time, there was outrage at the not guilty verdict, and questioning of the validity of the process, which took place in Port Augusta.[13]

Family and legacy[edit]

Downer in 1901

Downer married twice: firstly in 1871 to Elizabeth Henderson (c. 1852 – 3 May 1896), daughter of the controversial Rev. James Henderson;[14] and secondly, in Sydney 29 November 1899 to Una Stella Haslingden Russell, daughter of Henry Edward Russell.[a] With Elizabeth he had three children, John Henry (born 1872), James Frederick (born 1874) and Harold Sydney (born in 1875 and died in infancy).[18] The son of his second marriage was Alexander Russell "Alick" 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.[19]

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.[20]

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.[21] During retirement, he joined the Adelaide University Council and became president of the Commonwealth Club.[22]

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 Sir Alick in 1964.[23]

Electoral history[edit]

South Australia[edit]

House of Assembly[edit]

Election year Electorate Party Votes % Result
1878 Barossa Independent unopposed Elected
1881 Elected
1884 502 24.0% Steady n/a Elected
1887 unopposed Elected
1890 658 25.4% Steady n/a Elected
1893 National Defence League 1,008 30.3% Increase 4.9 Elected
1896 1,549 24.5% Decrease 5.8 Elected
1899 1,786 33.8% Increase 9.3 Elected

Legislative Council[edit]

Election year Electorate Party Votes % Result
1905 Southern District Independent 3,800 28.3% Steady new Elected
1912 Liberal Union 7,073 36.7% Increase 8.4 Elected

Australian Senate[edit]

Election year State Party Votes % Result
1901 South Australia Protectionist 30,493 60.6% Steady new Elected (4th)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Una Stella Haslingden Russell (born 1871 at Goulburn), is not related to Henry Chamberlain Russell, notwithstanding the report in the article "Interesting Weddings".[15] Her parents being prominent accountant Henry Edward Russell[16] and Frances Emily Russell née Robey[17] daughter of Ralph Mayer Robey, MLC.


  1. ^ Downer, Alick (2012). The Downers of South Australia, p. 35. Wakefield Press, Adelaide. ISBN 9781743051993
  2. ^ William Coleman,Their Fiery Cross of Union. A Retelling of the Creation of the Australian Federation, 1889-1914, Connor Court, Queensland, 2021, p. 396.
  3. ^ "The Federal Campaign",Southern Argus, 28 March 1901, p.1. Retrieved 15 September 2022.
  4. ^ Powell, Graeme. "Downer, Sir John William (1843–1915)". The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate. Retrieved 27 December 2022.
  5. ^ "Family Notices". The Register (Adelaide). 5 August 1915. p. 11. Retrieved 7 June 2016 – via Trove.
  6. ^ Borschmann, Gregg (9 September 2009). "Tony Roberts: history wars in Australia". ABC Listen. RN Breakfast.
  7. ^ "Skeletons are out". The Age. Melbourne, Australia: Fairfax Digital. 2 July 2005. Archived from the original on 9 April 2008.
  8. ^ Marks, Greg (2005). "Frontier Justice: A History of the Gulf Country to 1900". Indigenous Law Bulletin 19. 6 (11). Retrieved 5 November 2023 – via Australasian Legal Information Institute (AustLII).
  9. ^ Roberts, T. (2005). Frontier Justice: A History of the Gulf Country to 1900. None. University of Queensland Press. ISBN 978-0-7022-4083-6. Retrieved 5 November 2023.
  10. ^ "2009 History Lectures". Blackheath History Forum. 2009. Retrieved 5 November 2023.
  11. ^ "Chief Minister's Northern Territory History Book Award". Library & Archives NT. Retrieved 5 November 2023.
  12. ^ Reynolds, H. (2021). Truth-telling: History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement. NewSouth Publishing. p. 222-223. ISBN 978-1-74223-694-0. Retrieved 5 November 2023.
  13. ^ "The Willshire Trial". Evening Journal (Adelaide). Vol. XXIII, no. 6513. South Australia. 7 August 1891. p. 2 (Second Edition). Retrieved 5 November 2023 – via National Library of Australia.
  14. ^ "Obituary". The Observer. 22 April 1905. p. 31. Retrieved 8 June 2016 – via Trove.
  15. ^ "Interesting Weddings". The Sunday Times. 2 March 1919. p. 2. Retrieved 3 February 2016 – via Trove.
  16. ^ "The Late Mr H. E. Russell". The Sydney Morning Herald. 23 January 1918. p. 9. Retrieved 21 July 2022 – via Trove.
  17. ^ "Family Notices". The Goulburn Herald and Chronicle. New South Wales, Australia. 8 June 1870. p. 2. Retrieved 7 June 2016 – via Trove.
  18. ^ Downer, Alick (2012). The Downers of South Australia, p. 36. Wakefield Press, Adelaide. ISBN 9781743051993
  19. ^ Downer, Alick (2012). The Downers of South Australia, p. 37. Wakefield Press, Adelaide. ISBN 9781743051993
  20. ^ "A Splendid Citizen". The Chronicle. 19 August 1916. p. 37. Retrieved 13 November 2012 – via Trove.
  21. ^ Downer, Alick (2012). The Downers of South Australia, p. 44. Wakefield Press, Adelaide. ISBN 9781743051993
  22. ^ "The Commonwealth Club". The Advertiser. 22 May 1913. p. 11. Retrieved 6 June 2017 – via Trove.
  23. ^ "Father and Son Sculpture, Garema Pl, Canberra, ACT, Australia". Australian Heritage Database. 2014. Retrieved 2 May 2014.


  • Bartlett, Peter (1981). "Downer, Sir John William (1843–1915)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol. 8. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. pp. 330–332. ISSN 1833-7538. Retrieved 14 August 2022.
  • Serle, Percival (1949). "Downer, John William". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Sydney: Angus & Robertson. Retrieved 4 October 2008.
  • 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 Leader of the Opposition of South Australia
Succeeded by
Preceded by Premier of South Australia
Succeeded by
Preceded by Leader of the Opposition of South Australia
Succeeded by
Preceded by Premier of South Australia
Succeeded by
Preceded by Leader of the Opposition of South Australia
Succeeded by
Preceded by Leader of the Opposition of South Australia
Succeeded by
South Australian House of Assembly
Preceded by Member for Barossa
Served alongside: Martin Basedow, James Hague
Succeeded by