DOWNER, Sir John William (1844 1915)


DOWNER, Sir John William (1844 1915)
orator and premier of South Australia
son of Henry Downer who came to South Australia in 1838, was born at Adelaide on 5 July 1844. He was educated at St Peter's College, Adelaide, and was probably the most brilliant school boy of his time. He studied for the bar, was admitted to practise on 23 March 1867, and was soon one of the leading Adelaide barristers. He became a Q.C in 1878, and in the same year was elected to the house of assembly for Barossa. He was never defeated at an election and represented this constituency until 1901, only leaving it to enter federal politics. In the house of assembly he quickly made his mark and became attorney-general in Bray's (q.v.) cabinet on 24 June 1881. He endeavoured to bring in several law reforms, and though his married women's property bill was shelved, 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 formed his first ministry taking the positions of premier and attorney-general. Though 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. Downer represented South Australia at the colonial conference held in London in 1887, but his ministry was defeated while he was on his way back to Australia. 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, also taking the portfolio of chief secretary. In May 1893 he exchanged this for the position of treasurer, but resigned on 16 June 1893 and never held office again. He was a strong federalist and had represented South Australia at the 1883 and 1891 conventions. At the latter 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. When federation came Downer was elected in 1901 as one of the South Australian senators, but did not seek re-election in 1903. He entered the South Australian legislative council as a representative of the southern district in 1905, and continued to be re-elected until his death on 2 August 1915. He married (1) Elizabeth, daughter of the Rev. J. Henderson, and (2) Una, daughter of H. Russell, who survived him with one son of each marriage. He was created K.C.M.G. in 1887. A brother and partner in his business, Henry Edward Downer, entered the South Australian parliament in 1881 and was attorney-general in the Cockburn (q.v.) ministry from May to August 1890.
Downer was a big man physically and mentally. He was a first-rate advocate, and some of his speeches to juries could hardly have been excelled as examples of forensic art. He was equally successful as a parliamentary speaker, one of his colleagues said of him that in his earlier days he was the best debater in a house that contained Kingston (q.v.), Holder (q.v.), Cockburn, and Jenkins (q.v.). He believed in what he was saying, and though earnest could be witty and humorous, and both as a lawyer and a politician was always lucid and logical. In politics he tended to be conservative, he once described himself as a Tory, and possibly on account of this often found himself in a minority during his later years in parliament. He was nevertheless constructive and always advocated the rights of married women to their own property, women's suffrage, protection of local industries, and federation. Though strong in his opinions he was innately kindly, was widely read, an excellent conversationalist, and in all his actions was governed by a strong sense of duty and justice.
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.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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