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Huxham, John Saunders (1861–1949)

by G. N. Logan

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

John Saunders Huxham (1861-1949), politician, was born on 14 May 1861 at Ivybridge, Devonshire, England, son of Simon Huxham, labourer, and his wife Agnes, née Chapman. She was illiterate. He was registered as Samuel John Chapman Huxham and adopted the names of John Saunders later. He was educated at Ivybridge at a 'harsh and desolate Dame School' where punishment consisted of 'confinement in a dark cellar', and in London. After occasional visits to Australia in six years as a merchant seaman, he settled in Sydney in 1879 as a bookseller's accountant. On 25 December 1884 at St Silas Anglican Church, Waterloo, he married Eliza Jane Bubb; they had five children.

Huxham went to Townsville, Queensland, in 1889 as accountant for Alfred Shaw & Co., general merchants, and transferred in April 1893 to their Brisbane office. He became manager of Pollard & Co., music and instrument retailers. When the firm closed, he and a partner, Alex McKenzie, in 1908 founded John Huxham & Co., importer and sporting and musical goods retailer. After his wife died in 1896 he married on 13 October 1897 a widow Helen Julia Meiklejohn, née Dougherty; they had one daughter.

Huxham contested the Legislative Assembly seat of South Brisbane for Labor in May 1907 and won it in February 1908. In November the party moved to direct opposition of the Kidston-Philp coalition and at the October 1909 general election Huxham lost his seat. He returned to business life but won the adjacent suburban seat of Buranda in April 1912 and held it till 1924.

Teaching in Sydney 'ragged schools' in the 1880s gave Huxham a deep concern for welfare, especially that of the handicapped or disadvantaged. His daughter's blindness, caused by meningitis when 7, encouraged his active interest in the Queensland Blind, Deaf and Dumb Institute where his daughter taught; he was a life member by 1915. Quiet, moderate, a teetotaller and a Baptist lay-preacher, in parliament he would sit quietly for long periods, 'legs crossed, head bent slightly forward, arms folded'. He was not, he said, 'a straight from the shoulder man', and preferred conciliation. Quoting such philosopher-poets as Goethe, he often urged moderation and inter-party co-operation for 'the good of the people'. As a successful businessman he asserted that 'the friends of the workers' were not all in the Labor Party. This conciliatory trait was not a disguise for weakness. On 'Black Friday', during the general strike of February 1912, 'Honest John' was in the thick of the unionists and claimed to have lost friends and business in consequence.

Huxham was particularly interested in charitable institutions, hospitals, prisons and the Aboriginals, areas administered by the home secretary J. G. Appel whom he admired. As early as 1912 he expressed interest in succeeding to this portfolio. Though not an original member of the Ryan ministry, formed on 1 June 1915, on 10 July he was appointed minister without portfolio to assist home secretary David Bowman, and on Bowman's death became home secretary on 23 March 1916. Though Huxham was circumscribed by tight finances, the first baby clinics were created in March 1918. He secured public control of the Brisbane General Hospital in April 1917 and the transfer of the Blind, Deaf and Dumb Institute to the Department of Public Instruction in 1918. The achievements which satisfied him most were the opening in January 1919 of the Willowburn Epileptic Home at Toowoomba and in September of Westwood Sanatorium near Rockhampton which was designed mainly to cope with miner's phthisis.

Despite economic difficulties exacerbated by large salary increases for teachers in November 1919, as minister for public instruction from 9 September 1919 to 14 July 1924 Huxham encouraged important developments in vocational education and the treatment of disadvantaged children, especially of the isolated and handicapped. State education for the handicapped began at South Brisbane school in 1923. The primary correspondence school was introduced for rural children in 1922 and travelling vocational railway schools in 1923. Agricultural education was reorganized in 1923 by transfer of the Queensland Agricultural College to Huxham's department and the initiation of a Home Project Club scheme in schools.

Influenced probably by pressure to appoint a businessman and to create cabinet vacancies for younger members, E. G. Theodore chose Huxham in July 1924 to be agent-general in London; his wife died soon after their arrival. Returning to Brisbane in August 1929, Huxham lived quietly in retirement until his death on 4 August 1949. He was buried in South Brisbane cemetery with Baptist forms. His estate, valued for probate at £22,372, financed the Helen Huxham Hostel for blind girls in memory of his second wife. A pastel portrait by G. Harrington is held by the family and a plaster bust is in the collection of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland.

Select Bibliography

  • The Labour Government of Queensland (Brisb, 1915)
  • Administrative Actions of the Labour Government in Queensland (1915-26) (Brisb, c1927)
  • Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 8 Sept 1919
  • Daily Mail (Brisbane), 15 Nov 1919
  • Peak Downs Telegram, 20 Mar 1920
  • Brisbane Courier, 3, 11 July, 19 Aug 1929
  • newsclipping books, 1915-24 (Queensland Dept of Education Archives, Brisbane)
  • private information.

Citation details

G. N. Logan, 'Huxham, John Saunders (1861–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/huxham-john-saunders-6781/text11729, accessed 26 September 2017.

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