John Downer

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.

Sir John Downer

16th Premier of South Australia
Elections: 1893
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. 18711896)

Una Russell (m. 1899)
RelationsGeorge Downer (brother)
Henry Downer (brother)
Alick Downer (son)
Alexander Downer (grandson)

Early life

Born in Adelaide, John Downer (the son of Henry Downer who came to South Australia in 1838 and his wife Jane, née Field) was educated on a scholarship at St Peter's College, Adelaide, where he was a brilliant student.[1] Later (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

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 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 the Protectionist Party in South Australia at the first Parliament of Australia, but 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.[2]


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.

Family and Legacy

Downer married twice: firstly in 1871 to Elizabeth Henderson (c. 1852 – 3 May 1896), daughter of the controversial Rev. James Henderson;[3] and secondly, in Sydney 29 November 1899 to Una Stella Haslingden Russell, daughter of Henry Edward Russell.[4] With Elizabeth he had three children, John Henry (born 1872), James Frederick (born 1874) and Harold Sydney (born in 1875 and died in infancy).[5] 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.[6]

A brother and partner in his business, Henry Edward Downer (18361905), 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 (18391916) was his partner in the legal firm G & J Downer and a prominent businessman.[7]

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.[8] During retirement, he joined the Adelaide University Council and became president of the Commonwealth Club.[9]

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.[10]

See also


  1. Downer, Alick (2012). The Downers of South Australia, p. 35. Wakefield Press, Adelaide. ISBN 9781743051993
  2. "Family Notices". The Register (Adelaide). LXXX, (21, 446). South Australia. 5 August 1915. p. 11. Retrieved 7 June 2016 via National Library of Australia.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  3. "Obituary". The Observer. LXII, (3, 316). South Australia. 22 April 1905. p. 31. Retrieved 8 June 2016 via National Library of Australia.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  4. Una Stella Haslingden Russell (b. 1871 at Goulbourn), is not related to Henry Chamberlain Russell, notwithstanding the report in the article 'Interesting Weddings' ("Interesting Weddings". Sunday Times (Sydney, NSW : 1895 - 1930). Sydney, NSW: National Library of Australia. 2 March 1919. p. 2. Retrieved 3 February 2016.. Her parents being Henry Edward Russell and Frances Emily Russell nee Robey ("Family Notices". The Goulburn Herald And Chronicle. New South Wales, Australia. 8 June 1870. p. 2. Retrieved 7 June 2016 via National Library of Australia.). Frances Emily Russell being the daughter of Ralph Mayer Robey, MLC (1809 - 1864)
  5. Downer, Alick (2012). The Downers of South Australia, p. 36. Wakefield Press, Adelaide. ISBN 9781743051993
  6. Downer, Alick (2012). The Downers of South Australia, p. 37. Wakefield Press, Adelaide. ISBN 9781743051993
  7. "A Splendid Citizen". The Chronicle. Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 19 August 1916. p. 37. Retrieved 13 November 2012.
  8. Downer, Alick (2012). The Downers of South Australia, p. 44. Wakefield Press, Adelaide. ISBN 9781743051993
  9. "The Commonwealth Club". The Advertiser. LV, (17, 035). South Australia. 22 May 1913. p. 11. Retrieved 6 June 2017 via National Library of Australia.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  10. "Father and Son Sculpture, Garema Pl, Canberra, ACT, Australia". Australian Heritage Database. 2014. Retrieved 2 May 2014.


  • Bartlett, P. 'Downer, Sir John William (1843–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, Melbourne University Press, 1981, pp. 330–332. Retrieved on 4 October 2008.
  • Serle, Percival (1949). "Downer, John William". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Sydney: Angus and 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
Political offices
Preceded by
John Cox Bray
Leader of the Opposition of South Australia
Succeeded by
Jenkin Coles
Preceded by
John Colton
Premier of South Australia
Succeeded by
Thomas Playford
Preceded by
Thomas Playford
Leader of the Opposition of South Australia
Succeeded by
John Cockburn
Preceded by
Frederick Holder
Premier of South Australia
Succeeded by
Charles Kingston
Preceded by
Frederick Holder
Leader of the Opposition of South Australia
Succeeded by
William Copley
Preceded by
William Copley
Leader of the Opposition of South Australia
Succeeded by
Vaiben Solomon
South Australian House of Assembly
Preceded by
John Dunn Jr.
Member for Barossa
Served alongside: Martin Basedow, James Hague
Succeeded by
Ephraim Coombe
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