GRAY, John Proctor (1840–1914)
Senator for New South Wales, 1904–10 (Free Trade)

John Proctor Gray, businessman and federationist, was born in Stonegate, Yorkshire, England, on 1 December 1840, the son of Henry Gray, a joiner and cabinet-maker, and Mary, née Proctor. On 25 April 1865, he married Elizabeth, née Durning, at Christ Church, Southport, England; they had three daughters and three sons. Gray managed several branches of Lever Brothers in England, and in 1888 emigrated to Sydney with his family to open up agencies for the company in Australasia.

As Lever Brothers’ first agent in Australia, Gray discovered that it was not an opportune time and place to establish an import–export company. The primary producing colony of New South Wales, which had enjoyed years of prosperity, was suffering from the effects of a severe drought accompanied by economic depression, political turmoil and intercolonial rivalry over tariff policy. However, with the support of Elizabeth and William Lever, Gray bought waterfront land at Balmain and built mills and factories, and in December 1899 Lever Brothers (Australia), manufacturers, distributors and exporters of linseed oil, copra, soap, candles and timber, was incorporated. Gray formed his own contracting firm (Gray Brothers) which brought him into conflict with his works manager, but Lever supported Gray in the dispute. Late in 1900, he resigned from Lever Brothers ‘in order to enter the less demanding and wide open field of national politics’.[1]

By then, Gray was well known as an enthusiastic worker for free trade and Federation; he was also a member of the council of the Liberal Association. While lacking the political acumen and pragmatism of his ‘close personal acquaintance’, George Reid, Gray, the hard-working, practical Yorkshireman, held a broader view than did many of his contemporaries. Gray’s political ideas may have been influenced by extensive travel throughout Australasia, and by his position as chairman of a British subsidiary company in which he had to cope with the morass of intercolonial duties, customs and tariffs.

The launching pad of Gray’s political career was the work he undertook in support of Federation. He was vice-chairman of the United Federal Executive of the Australasian Federation League of New South Wales which managed the 1899 referendum campaign. He was also chairman of the executive’s organising committee whose members included the Premier and Leader of the Opposition in the New South Wales Parliament, George Reid and Edmund Barton respectively. The committee played a significant role in helping to ensure the ‘yes’ vote in the New South Wales Federation referendum of 1899. For this it received a resolution of thanks from the Mayor of Sydney, Sir Matthew Harris.[2]

Gray, who was elected to the Senate at the 1903 federal election, had been an unsuccessful candidate for the first Senate in 1901. He was also a nominee in 1903 for the New South Wales Senate casual vacancy which was filled by Charles Mackellar.

Often absent from sittings, Gray’s speeches were infrequent. However, his contributions to debate were characterised by directness and independence of thought. While not a temperance man, on 7 December 1904, he argued in vain for prohibition in New Guinea on the grounds that the use of alcohol by the whites would lead to the blacks regarding the whites as ‘humbugs’. ‘If the figures we have heard quoted are true’, he said, ‘the 400 white men in British New Guinea must be the most drunken set of men on the face of the earth . . . they might have a bath every morning in the quantity of liquor which is imported . . .’. He urged the establishment of a military school along the lines of England’s Sandhurst, America’s West Point and Japan’s military training establishment, basing this proposal on Australia’s distance from England.

On 29 June 1905, he called Deakin a ‘political jelly-fish’ for his unfair treatment of New South Wales, and for failing to bring to politics the high elevation and true spirit of Federation which Deakin had eloquently expressed in the campaign prior to the passing of the Commonwealth Bill. On White Australia, Gray was one of the few who opposed the legislation. On 13 December 1905, he described the dictation test of fifty words in a European language as ‘insulting legislation . . . obnoxious to Eastern nations’. He said that he believed the Japanese to be equals with those of Western nations ‘in everything that comprises civilization’. Commenting that the Japanese were not encouraged to emigrate, he affirmed: ‘we may therefore take it that they do not favour . . . coming to Australia’.[3]

Gray was at his most vocal from July 1907 to June 1908. He spoke on a wide range of topics such as the federal capital, the Bounties Bill, Supply Bills, the Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta Railway Survey Bill, the Women’s Work Exhibition, and the schedule of the Customs Tariff Bill—on items ranging from ammonia to musical instruments.

Perhaps the incident that most clearly illustrates Gray’s political convictions occurred in 1906 during his membership of the royal commission on tobacco monopoly, whose terms of reference included examining the possible nationalisation of the tobacco industry. Gray submitted a minority report, in complete disagreement with the majority report that had recommended nationalisation. Gray’s report concluded that if ‘the mere existence of a combination of employers justifies its suppression, then the same reasoning would approve the suppression of trade unions . . . ’.[4]

In poor health, Gray was defeated at the 1910 general election and retired from public life. John Proctor Gray, of ‘independent means’ and for a term president of the Yorkshire Society, died at his home at Ashfield, Sydney, on 18 April 1914, and after a Church of England service was buried at Rookwood Cemetery. Gray’s wife and five of their six children, Grace, Isabel, Elizabeth, William and Thomas, survived him. His obituary described him as being ‘of a genial, kindly nature, and highly respected’.[5]

Jan Roberts

[1] Kristine Bak, A Lever & Kitchen Album, Lever & Kitchen Pty Ltd, Balmain, NSW, 1988, pp. 10–11, 19–22; D. K. Fieldhouse, Unilever Overseas: The Anatomy of a Multinational 1895–1965, Croom Helm, London, 1978.

[2] Australasian Federation League of New South Wales, Sixth Annual Report, Government Printer, Sydney, 1899, p. 19; United Federal Executive of New South Wales, ‘Resolution of Thanks’, n.d.; CPD, 8 September 1904, p. 4393.

[3] CPD, 7 December 1904, p. 7941, 3 March 1904, pp. 65–67, 9 December 1904, p. 8182, 29 June 1905, p. 25, 13 December 1905, pp. 6794–6795; Geoffrey Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 1901 –1929, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1956, p. 43.

[4] CPD, 11 July 1907, pp. 375–376, 28 August 1907, pp. 2419–2434, 15 August 1907, pp. 1946–1947, 21 November 1907, pp. 6308–6311, 12 March 1908, pp. 8922–8923, 31 July 1907, pp. 1159–1161, 18 October 1907, pp. 4893–4895, 19 March, pp. 1908, 9244, 20 February 1908, p. 8276, 31 March 1908, pp. 9833–9835, 14 February 1908, p. 8082, 25 March 1908, p. 9570; CPP,. Report of the royal commission on tobacco monopoly, 1906.

[5] SMH, 21 April 1914, p. 7.


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. 42-44.

GRAY, John Proctor (1840–1914)

Commonwealth Parliamentary Handbook

Commonwealth Parliament
Senator, NSW, 1904–10
Senate Committee Service

Select Committee on Privilege: Case of Senator Lieutenant Colonel Neild, 1904

Select Committee on the Provision for Old-age Pensions through Tobacco Monopoly, 1904

Select Committee on Tobacco Monopoly, 1905