WANT, John Henry (1846-1905)


WANT, John Henry (1846-1905)
advocate and politician
son of Randolph John Want, a solicitor, was born at the Glebe, Sydney, on 4 May 1846. He was educated at Sydney Grammar School and Caen, Normandy, where he learned to speak French fluently. Entering his father's office he tired of the monotony of the law, went on the land in Queensland, and afterwards worked in a mine at Lithgow. He then returned to Sydney, studied in the chambers of (Sir) Frederick Darley (q.v.), was called to the bar in November 1869, and established a large practice as an advocate. He entered the legislative assembly as member for Gundagai in 1885 and afterwards represented Paddington. His parliamentary ability was at once recognized and he became attorney-general in the Dibbs (q.v.) ministry from October to December 1885 and in the Jennings (q.v.) ministry from February 1886 to January 1887. But he was not anxious for office and temporarily retired from politics in 1891. On one occasion he moved a motion for adjournment which the then premier, Parkes (q.v.), treated as a vote of no confidence and was defeated. Want was sent for by the governor but declined the task of forming a ministry. He was a staunch freetrader and could not continue to work with Dibbs and Jennings who were protectionists, but neither could he work under Parkes. For a time he formed a small corner party which he facetiously referred to as "the home for lost dogs". He had become a Q.C. in 1887 and now had an immense practice particularly in nisi prius and criminal law cases; no other barrister of his period in Australia earned more in fees or had a greater reputation as an advocate.
In 1894 Want was nominated to the legislative council and in December of that year became attorney-general in the Reid (q.v.) ministry. He returned to politics partly because he wanted to keep the freetrade party together and partly because he had always been opposed to federation, and could carry on the fight better in parliament. He believed in the pre-eminence of his own colony, New South Wales, and he feared that under any kind of union it would lose its position. How strongly he felt may be suggested by a quotation from one of his speeches:—"I would rather see almost anything than see this hydra-headed monster called federation basking in its constitutional beastliness—for that is what it is—in this bright and sunny land. . . . I was the first public man to assert my intention of opposing to the bitter end any system of federation, because there can be none which would not involve the surrender of our independence and liberty." Want was still a member of Reid's ministry when Reid made his famous Yes-No speech on 28 March 1898, and could not understand how his leader could conclude without asking his hearers to vote against a measure which this very speech had shown to be "rotten, weak, and unfair". He resigned from the ministry a few days later, but joined it again in June after the defeat of the first referendum. He left Australia on a visit to England in December 1898 and resigned from the ministry in the following April. At the second referendum held in June 1899 New South Wales voted in favour of federation. After its achievement Want continued to fight for the rights of his state, but was never in office again. He died of appendicitis on 22 November 1905. He was twice married and left a widow. There were no children.
Want was over six feet in height with a rugged jaw and flashing eyes. It was said of him that he was "as honest and honourable as he was bluff and unconventional, a generous foeman and a true friend". In politics he found it impossible to be a party man, and though he was capable as an administrator he had little ambition; he might have been premier on one occasion and chief justice on another, but desired neither position. He felt strongly only on the question of federation. He was, however, a great advocate unequalled in his presentation of his evidence to the jury, taking it into his confidence with an appealing frankness, emphasizing the strong points of his case, and gently sliding over its weaknesses. He used his wide knowledge of human nature with great effectiveness both in his addresses to the jury and in cross-examination, in which he was a master. In arguing before the full court he could adapt his methods to his audience, and though like so many great advocates not really a great lawyer his knowledge was sufficient for his purposes.
The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May 1846, 23 November 1905; The Daily Telegraph, 23 November 1905; B. R. Wise, The Making of the Australian Commonwealth; A. B Piddington, Worshipful Masters.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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