DOWNER, Sir John William (1843–1915)
Senator for South Australia, 1901–03 (Protectionist)

John William Downer, federationist and defender of the smaller states, was born in Adelaide on 6 July 1843, the fourth son of Henry Downer, a tailor, and his wife Jane, née Field. His parents had emigrated from England in 1838. Downer was to live in Adelaide all his life.

Downer attended a private academy and then completed his education at St Peter’s College, where his subjects ranged from Greek to zoology. In 1862, he took first prize in the first-class competitive examinations, open to everyone in the colony under the age of twenty-one. Articled first to his elder brother Henry, and then to R. Ingleby, on 23 March 1867 he was admitted to the Bar. Another brother, George, was admitted in the following term. George and John then formed the firm of G. & J. Downer, which was to be one of the leading Adelaide law firms for the next sixty years. In 1878, John was made Queen’s Counsel. On 20 September 1871, at St Andrew’s Church, Adelaide, he married Elizabeth Henderson, the nineteen-year-old daughter of the Rev. James Henderson. In 1881, the family moved to a fine two-storey house in Pennington Terrace, North Adelaide, close to the Anglican Cathedral.[1]

In 1878, Downer entered the South Australian House of Assembly following an uncontested election. Barossa, which he was to represent until 1901, was a two-member electorate extending from Gawler to the Barossa Valley and eastwards as far as the River Murray. Although Downer never lost an election, he only topped the poll on one occasion (1890). He always had a strong following in Gawler, but in the Barossa Valley and the remoter parts of his electorate support for the city lawyer sometimes wavered.

On 24 June 1881, Downer became Attorney-General in the Bray Ministry. By South Australian standards, it was a stable ministry and in the next three years Downer was able to steer through some important legislation, such as the Married Women’s Property Bill. The Ministry fell in June 1884, following the general election. Some months later, Bray went overseas and Downer took over as the Leader of the Opposition. On 11 June 1885, at a time of worsening public finances, the Colton Ministry was defeated on a no-confidence motion and Downer became Premier and Attorney-General. His government introduced the first protective tariff in South Australia, as well as probate and succession duties, and extended railways and waterworks. He was also an early supporter of womanhood suffrage. In 1887, Downer travelled to London for the colonial conference and was appointed KCMG. Meanwhile his Ministry had been defeated on a no-confidence motion and he returned to Adelaide in June 1887 to find himself again Leader of the Opposition. Public criticism of him had been mounting for some time. Described in 1885 as popular and kind-hearted with few rivals as an orator and debater, he was now being referred to as ‘inconsiderate, and impatient, and impolitic, and hectoring, and bullying, and boisterous’.[2]

The emergence of the Labor Party led to the formation of the National Defence League in 1891 with Downer as its parliamentary leader. On 15 October 1892, he was commissioned to form a ministry following the collapse of the short-lived Holder Ministry. Downer was not only Premier but, until May 1893, Chief Secretary and, for a few weeks, Treasurer.

The Ministry was overshadowed by the banking crisis and the Broken Hill strike and the consequent loss of customs and railway revenue. Following a meeting with the premiers of New South Wales and Victoria in May 1893, Downer agreed to increase government regulation of banking, though promised legislation did not eventuate. A greatly amended Conciliation Bill was passed by the Assembly, but not the Legislative Council. Legislation for workshop and factory reform was promised, but after the general elections in April 1893 the Government found itself in a minority. Following his defeat in the Assembly on the motion of Charles Cameron Kingston, Downer resigned on 16 June 1893. Although he was to be a parliamentarian for another twenty years, he never held office again.[3]

During most of the six years of the Kingston Ministry, Downer was Leader of the Opposition. Sidney Webb, who visited Adelaide in 1898, claimed that the squatters saw Kingston as a more effective barrier against ‘the Trades Hall’ than ‘the easy-going nonchalance’ of Downer. Nevertheless, Downer remained a forceful and combative speaker and, assisted by a large Conservative majority in the Legislative Council, he was able to thwart some of Kingston’s major reforms. In June 1899, Downer stepped down as Leader of the Opposition and was succeeded by V. L. Solomon. He did not serve in Solomon’s brief Ministry later in the year and, while remaining a member of the Legislative Assembly until April 1901, made relatively few speeches.[4]

In May 1896, Downer’s wife died, and on 29 November 1899 he married Una Russell, daughter of Henry Russell, a Sydney banker and company director. Una was an accomplished artist. The wedding took place at St John’s Church, Milson’s Point, and one of the witnesses was Edmund Barton.

Downer had come to know and admire Barton at the federal conventions of 1891 and 1897–98. Downer’s interest in Australian Federation extended back to 1883 when he attended the intercolonial conference in Sydney, which resolved that a Federal Council of Australasia be formed. As Premier in 1885, he spoke in support of a Federal Council Bill, but the suggestion met with opposition and had to be withdrawn. In a speech in 1890, he advocated federation of the Australian colonies, although he questioned whether the colonies were yet ready for intercolonial free trade. In the following year, he was one of the seven South Australian parliamentarians who attended the National Australasian Convention at Sydney. (Some years later, Alfred Deakin would refer to Downer’s indolence, but nevertheless considered him a ‘suave, clear, courteous and effective [speaker] whenever he took pains to prepare’.) Downer took an active part in the critical debate on the respective powers of the Senate and the House of Representatives with regard to money bills, a debate that threatened to wreck the Convention.     He was a member of the constitutional machinery committee and among the small group of delegates who joined Sir Samuel Walker Griffith for a working cruise on the Lucinda, during which minor alterations to the Constitution were made.

At the Australasian Federal Convention (at Adelaide in1897), Downer was again one of the South Australian representatives. He was a member of the constitutional committee and, following some intrigue directed against Kingston, he was appointed with Barton and Richard O’Connor to the drafting committee. A number of meetings of the committee were held in Downer’s house, where Barton was staying, and it was there that the draft was completed which was presented to the full Convention on 12 April 1897. As in 1891, the respective powers of the two Houses were a major source of contention and Downer again was an outspoken advocate of the Senate as the protector of the interests of the smaller states. At the Convention’s Sydney session, he was in the minority in opposing the deadlock provisions, while in Melbourne in 1898 he was responsible for the inclusion of the word ‘reasonable’ in what became section 100 of the Constitution. This brought the debate on federal–state rights over the Murray–Darling river system to an end. Downer also argued strongly against retaining appeals to the Privy Council. In the South Australian Parliament in February 1899, he singled out the deadlock provision for special condemnation and, in a rather gloomy speech, argued that far too much had been conceded to New South Wales. He remained a supporter of Federation on the American model, but feared that the eventual result would be unification.[5]

In January 1901, the Australasian National League in South Australia selected Downer as one of its candidates for the first Senate election. He came fourth in the South Australian poll. He was a member of the Senate standing orders committee and the election and qualifications committee, chairing the latter when it considered the petition of Henry Saunders against the election of Alexander Matheson as a senator for Western Australia.[6]

Downer was far from punctilious in his attendance in the Senate, possibly confirming his reputation for an indulgent lifestyle. He was one of the more effective speakers, fluent, forceful, not easily distracted, and with a sense of irony not always appreciated by his colleagues. Apart from Sir Richard Baker, he was the only senator who had been a delegate at both the 1891 and the 1897–98 conventions. He often reaffirmed views that he had expressed during the previous decade. Above all, he stressed the independence of the Senate and its crucial role as the protector of the smaller states. At times, he seemed far more concerned with constitutional proprieties and procedures than with the substance of the legislation being considered.[7]

Downer was in the main a supporter of the Barton Government, considering that Barton had assisted the ‘smaller States in obtaining a fair constitution’. Ministers soon realised, however, that they could not take his support for granted. He dismissed the preamble of the 1901 Supply Bill as ‘a direct and intentional attack upon our rights’. He was equivocal about the 1901 Immigration Restriction Bill and the 1902 Franchise Bill, condemned the 1902 Electoral Bill and the 1903 Sugar Bonus Bill, and thought the 1903 Seat of Government Bill hardly worth discussing. On the other hand, he supported the 1903 Naval Agreement Bill, strongly defending the actions of the Australian delegates at the 1887 colonial conference. Although he had introduced a protective tariff in South Australia, he was far from being an ardent protectionist. In a speech in 1901, he had called himself ‘abstractedly a free-trader but by force of circumstance a fair trader’.[8]

The 1903 Judiciary Bill inspired Downer to make a long and eloquent defence of Federation and the role of the High Court as the defender of the smaller states. Almost certainly he had hopes of being appointed to the High Court and his name was considered by Cabinet. It became an unlikely possibility when the number of judges was reduced from five to three. In October 1903, Downer announced that he would not seek re-election to the Senate and would ‘return to the state . . . which alone has my perfect sympathy’. He was anxious, for financial reasons, to resume his legal practice and he hoped to return to the State Parliament. He may also have felt that, with the departure of Barton and O’Connor to the High Court, he had little affinity with most federal parliamentarians.[9]

Following his retirement from the Senate, Downer became an active senior partner in his law firm and for several years he appeared regularly in the Supreme Court in Adelaide. In 1906, he complained to Deakin that, despite the successful record of his firm in litigation, it received little business from the Commonwealth Government. He acknowledged differences of opinion with Deakin and in his later years he showed little sympathy for Deakinite liberalism, either at Commonwealth or state levels. At the South Australian elections of May 1905, he entered the Legislative Council as one of the representatives of the Southern District, retaining his seat at the 1912 election. In a speech in August 1905, he asserted that the Senate had failed completely to be the protector of the states and he now regretted that he had advocated adult suffrage for both Houses. He claimed that ‘the Federation had become the laughing stock of the civilised world’. With Lady Downer, he made a lengthy tour of Europe in 1911. His last speech in the Legislative Council was delivered on 13 November 1914.

Downer died at home on 2 August 1915, and was buried at the North Road Cemetery. Whereas his brother George had amassed a great fortune, Downer had never been particularly wealthy. His estate was valued at £14 190. Lady Downer and two of his four sons (one from each marriage) survived him. The youngest son, Alexander Russell, became a Commonwealth parliamentarian and minister and was also High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. A grandson, Alexander, became a member of the House of Representatives in 1984, and a minister in the Howard government in 1996. Downer’s home in North Adelaide was purchased by St Mark’s College in 1922 and was named Downer House.[10]


Graeme Powell


[1] Peter Bartlett, ‘Downer, Sir John William’, ADB, vol. 8; Pictorial Australian (Adelaide), July 1885, p. 123; Register (Adelaide), 3 August 1915, p. 9.

[2] T. A. Coghlan, Labour and Industry in Australia, Macmillan, South Melbourne, 1969, vol. 4, pp. 1801, 1921; Gordon D. Combe, Responsible Government in South Australia, Government Printer, Adelaide, 1957, pp. 116, 118–119, 196; J. J. Pascoe (ed.), History of Adelaide and Vicinity, Hussey & Gillingham, Adelaide, 1901, pp. 296–298; Edwin Hodder, The History of South Australia from its Foundation to the Year of its Jubilee, vol. 2, Sampson Low, Marston & Company Limited, London, 1893, pp. 83, 85, 103, 117; Adelaide Observer, 12 December 1885, p. 36, 10 July 1886, p. 41.

[3] Coghlan, Labour and Industry, pp. 1921, 2165–2167, 2272–2274, 2090; Combe, Responsible Government, pp. 124, 196; Pascoe, History of Adelaide and Vicinity, p. 297.

[4] Coghlan, Labour and Industry, p. 2274; A. G. Austin (ed.), The Webbs’ Australian Diary 1898, Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Melbourne, 1965, pp. 100–101; Advertiser (Adelaide), 7 June 1899, p. 4.

[5] Pascoe, History of Adelaide and Vicinity, pp. 297–298; SAPD, 20 October 1885, pp. 1173–1181; Adelaide Observer, 3 May 1890, p. 37; Alfred Deakin, The Federal Story, Robertson & Mullens, Melbourne, 1944, p. 13; J. A. La Nauze, The Making of the Australian Constitution, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1972, pp. 31, 43–44, 64–65, 129, 135–136, 142, 189, 211, 337, 341; SAPD, 28 February 1899, pp. 1226–1227; CPD, 8 October 1902, pp. 16589–16590.

[6] P. Loveday, A. W. Martin & R. S. Parker (eds), The Emergence of the Australian Party System, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1977, p. 266; CPP, Reports of the committee of elections and qualifications upon the petition of Henry John Saunders,12 July, 3 Oct., 11 Oct. 1901.

[7] CPD, 23 May 1901, p. 247, 6 February 1902, p. 9768, 26 February 1902, pp. 10328–10334.

[8] Register (Adelaide), 27 February 1901, p. 9; CPD, 20 June 1901, p. 1341, 14 November 1901, pp. 7235–7242, 9 April 1902, pp. 11479–11480, 26 February 1902, p. 10325, 24 June 1903, pp. 1250–1254, 14 October 1903, pp. 6050–6054, 20 August 1903, pp. 3943–3952.

[9] CPD, 5 August 1903, pp. 3050–3058; Register (Adelaide), 13 October 1903, p. 5.

[10] Letter, Downer to Deakin, 10 November 1906, Deakin Papers, MS 1540/15/635, NLA; SAPD, 15 August 1905, p. 18; Advertiser (Adelaide), 4 August 1915, p. 8. 


This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 1, 1901-1929, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Vic., 2000, pp. 148-152.

DOWNER, Sir John William (1843-1915)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, SA, 1901–03

South Australian Parliament

Member of the House of Assembly, Barossa, 1878–1901

Member of the Legislative Council, Southern District, 1905–15

Senate Committee Service

Standing Orders Committee, 1901–03

Committee of Elections and Qualifications, 1901–03

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1903