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Johnson, Sir William Elliot (1862–1932)

from Mercury (Hobart)

William Elliot Johnson, by T. Humphrey & Co, 1920s

William Elliot Johnson, by T. Humphrey & Co, 1920s

National Library of Australia, 23439035

The death of Sir Elliot Johnson, twice Speaker of the House of Representatives, recalls memories of a cultured and erudite English gentleman, who (says a writer in the Melbourne "Herald") seemed to belong to the late Victorian era of elegance and oratory, and was a contrasting figure in the hectic times of the war and after.

He often took sanctuary in his intellectual pursuits and art; lived like a recluse in the Speaker's suite when the Federal House sat in Melbourne.

Occasionally he cooked his own breakfast. A widower, he had learned to be independent of the domestic arts of women.

As an artist he sketched in black and white for the pleasure of creative work, and gave his sketches to friends who appreciated them.

When he was Speaker he made several hundred pen sketches and sent them to his friends with Christmas greetings.

A singleness of purpose and outlook kept him devotedly to many a lost cause and forlorn hope. One of these was the Single Tax movement. Convinced in his youth that Henry George was right, he took a prominent part in Sydney among those who inaugurated the movement. He was instrumental in prevailing on Henry George to visit Australia, and accompanied him on his Australian tour. As secretary of the Free trade and Liberal Association of New South Wales, he was elected for the Lang division in the suburbs of Sydney in 1903, and was soon chosen as a suitable secretary of the Liberal Party. With others, he visited London in 1911 to see the Coronation of King George. He was Speaker in 1913-14 and 1917-23, when he retired from the Speakership.

Few people knew of the varied and adventurous life that this reticent man led before coming to Australia, but when he was a member of the Royal Commissions on the pearling industry, and on the New Hebrides in 1913-15 his intimate knowledge of seamanship and of the islands brought the admission that he had had a seafaring interlude in his life.

William Elliot Johnson, who was born at Newcastle-on-Tyne, never went to school. He was educated privately, and remained a student all his life, in boyhood he assisted his father, who was a scenic artist at the Covent Garden Theatre, London. He took up wireless telegraphy when it was little known, entered the British Civil Service, and for a time was operator at the Royal Exchange, London. He resigned that job to go to sea; was shipwrecked three times; got his mate's certificate; was stranded in the United States, and managed to live as a newspaper reporter and artist until he got another ship.

He fought in the Chili-Peruvian war — why, he never disclosed, unless it was in search of copy as a journalist and subjects as an artist.

It was in his early thirties that he settled down to a political life in Sydney. The honour of knighthood came to him in 1920 in recognition of his services as Speaker.

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Citation details

'Johnson, Sir William Elliot (1862–1932)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/johnson-sir-william-elliot-6858/text37121, accessed 20 November 2019.

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