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Smith, John Thomas (1816–1879)

John Thomas Smith, T. F. Chuck, 1872

John Thomas Smith, T. F. Chuck, 1872

State Library of Victoria, 49205654

The late Hon. John Thomas Smith, M.L.A. for West Bourke, who died on January 30, was in his way one of the most familiar of local landmarks. He was a native of Australia, having been born at Sydney, New South Wales, in 1816, so that at the time of his death he had passed his 62nd year. The education provided in the young colony in those days was not of the most liberal description, but his parents afforded him the benefit of the best obtainable, and he was educated at Cape's school, Sydney. Referring to his youthful days, Mr. Smith has been heard to say, that though he had gained honours from his fellow Victorians of which he was proud, he felt certain that had his early instruction been more comprehensive and complete he would have occupied still higher positions. An impartial estimate, however, of the deceased's natural abilities hardly justifies the belief that he could ever, under any circumstances, have taken a leading place in controlling the affairs of any large community of men, for though possessing great natural shrewdness, it cannot be said that he was endowed with a statesman's breadth of intellect. Mr. Smith's first start in life after leaving school was as a clerk in the Bank of Australasia, where, however, he did not remain very long, resigning his position for a situation in the colonial store department. His next position explains the somewhat clerical dress which Mr. Smith has always worn in Victoria, and which often led those who saw him for the first time to believe that he was a minister of religion. In 1837 he was offered the position of assistant teacher in the Church of England Aboriginal Mission Station, Melbourne, the site of which is now occupied by the Botanical-gardens. Having from his early youth taken a great interest in the aborigines — who, he used to say, should be most kindly dealt as the real possessors of the soil, from which they were being gradually driven by the steady advance of the tide of civilisation — Mr. Smith at once accepted the appointment, and came to Melbourne in the James Watt steamer, near the end of 1837; thus having been at the time of his death a citizen of Melbourne for over 40 years. Melbourne in those days was, it need hardly be said, but a very small place indeed — an oasis in the almost desert wilderness of forest-clad hills and plains; and to use Mr. Smith's words in the Assembly only a few years ago, he had been one of those early pioneers who have had the happiness of living to see 'a wilderness where the noble savage held almost undisputed sway transformed into a city almost second to none, and surpassing all whose existence dates from (then) only 36 years ago.' He quitted the mission-station after having done good work to become manager for the late Hon. J. Hodgson, and subsequently entered into business on his own account. It is unnecessary in a notice of this kind to dwell upon the early business pursuits which the deceased in those rough times entered on, but it may be said that he was successful in his object of gaining a considerable competency. He catered for the entertainment of a not very aesthetic public; but among one of his enterprises which deserves to be remembered was his building of the Queen's Theatre, of which Mr. George Coppin was among the early lessees. In 1842 Melbourne was incorporated a city, and Mr. Smith was one of the first councillors — a position he has continued to fill without intermission until his death. He has held the honourable office of mayor of Melbourne no less than seven times, but the majority of his elections to that post took place in the earlier years of the City Council, when there was not the same rivalry for the distinction which has for some years existed among the city fathers. At present it is well known there is little chance of any mayor being re-elected to the office, and a second re-election might be looked upon as an impossible occurrence. During the Ballarat riots the mayoralty of Melbourne was no sinecure, owing to the excitement which prevailed, and the rumours flying about of intended assaults on the Treasury and banks. Mr. Smith did good service in restoring the confidence of the population by organising a system of special constables, and for his energy on the occasion he received the thanks of the Governor, Sir Charles Hotham. When mayor in 1858 the deceased was delegated by the City Council to go to England for the purpose of presenting an address of congratulation to the Queen on the occasion of the marriage of the Princess Royal to the Crown Prince of Prussia. It was expected by many that Mr. Smith would return from his trip Sir John Smith, but the expected honours were not bestowed. If any disappointment was experienced by the mayor himself in the matter, it is but fair to say that he showed no traces of it.

It will be mainly by his connexion with Melbourne, and the services which he rendered to the city in its youthful growth, that the deceased will be remembered; but it is needless to say, besides being a city councillor, Mr. Smith has, since the establishment of constitutional government in this colony, been a member of the Legislative Assembly. At the time of his death he was entitled to the name of Father of the Assembly, as since his first election for North Bourke, in 1851, to the old nominee-elective Assembly, he has never been out of Parliament. He has had a seat in one Government — viz., as Minister of Mines in the Macpherson Administration, in 1869. Notwithstanding his long Parliamentary experience, however, the deceased could not be said ever to have taken a leading position in the House. His best work was done in other and less prominent places. His shrewdness and good humour and knowledge of colonial life made him a useful magistrate, and for many years he was a constant attendant at the City Bench, where his great delight was to talk to the persons to the suit in a private room, and induce them to sink their differences, and settle their disputes out of court. He was an official visitor at the lunatic asylums, and paid assiduous attention to his duties as a member of the Central Board of Health. In the establishment of our principal charities, such as the Melbourne Hospital, the Benevolent and Orphan Asylums, and others, he took an active part, and on several occasions when help was needed in other countries, and Victorians were appealed to, the deceased energetically applied himself to the task of collecting, always supplementing the collections with a liberal donation of his own. The deceased also took great interest in the initiation and progress of the friendly societies, and was a leading member of several of them, besides being a prominent Freemason. For many years he has been Provincial Grand Master under the Irish Constitution. Mr. Smith leaves a widow and a family, the eldest of whom is Mr. J. T. T. Smith, Crown prosecutor.

A full-length portrait of Mr. John Thomas Smith in his robes of office is hung up in the Town-hall, and no doubt he will occupy a place in local history as 'seven times mayor.'

Original publication

  • Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil (Melbourne), 15 February 1879, p 183 (view original)

Additional Resources

Citation details

'Smith, John Thomas (1816–1879)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/smith-john-thomas-4609/text35951, accessed 26 March 2019.

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