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Verran, John (1856–1932)

by Arnold D. Hunt

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

John Verran (1856-1932), by James Howe & Co., c1927

John Verran (1856-1932), by James Howe & Co., c1927

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23514388

John Verran (1856-1932), miner and premier, was born on 9 August 1856, and baptized in the pit at Gwennap, Cornwall, England, twin son of John Spargoe Verran, copperminer, and his wife Elizabeth Jane, née Harvey. The family migrated to South Australia in 1857, living for eight years in Kapunda before moving to the Cornish settlement at Moonta. Having received only a few months elementary education, at the age of 10 John started work as a 'pickey-table boy' in the copper-mines. The ministers of the Primitive Methodist Church encouraged him to read and influenced him by their support of trade unionism. Through teaching in the Sunday School and through preaching, he learned to argue a case in public and was later to say, 'I am an M.P. because I am a P.M.' After a short spell gold-mining in Queensland, Verran returned to Moonta where he was a miner for over thirty years and a popular president of the Amalgamated Miners' Association (1895-1913). As a gradual reformist, he was suspicious of direct action. On 21 February 1880 at Moonta he had married Catherine Trembath (d.1914); they were to have eight children.

Defeated in the elections of 1896 and 1899, Verran was returned as Labor member for Wallaroo in the South Australian House of Assembly by-election of 1901. In 1909, on the death of Tom Price, premier of a Labor-Liberal coalition, Verran took over the Labor leadership and the coalition was dissolved. Labor won the subsequent election and on 3 June 1910 he became premier of the first all-Labor government in South Australia; he was also commissioner of public works.

His administration lasted less than twenty-one months. Shortly after taking office, it faced a drivers' strike which led to riots in the streets of Adelaide and to criticism of Verran's handling of the problem. The ministry spent considerable sums on railways and harbours, and its Advances for Homes Act (1911) allowed the State Bank of South Australia to grant loans to poorer people, but the Legislative Council thwarted the government's attempt to establish state brickyards and timber mills. Relations between the assembly and the council bedevilled the government; Verran petitioned the British parliament to legislate to override the council; in January 1912 he called an election over the Upper House's power to veto legislation passed by the Lower. Labor lost. One factor in his defeat had been the transport strike on the eve of the elections which divided the labour movement and frightened voters. Having lost support within his party, Verran resigned the leadership. He was excluded from Crawford Vaughan's Labor cabinet in 1915-17.

During World War I Verran became a vituperative critic of South Australians of German birth or descent. He made no allowances for those from pioneer families or for those who had been naturalized: 'They have German names and a German is a German. I have no bowels of compassion on this matter'. Wishing such persons to be removed from government departments, he also supported the closure of Lutheran schools and introduced a bill to prevent 'Germans' from voting in State elections, unless their sons had enlisted.

The bluff, flamboyant Verran was short and stout, with a goatee that had been full and black in his youth. While he often used Cornish idiom, his grammatical lapses gave a comical dimension to his repartee: 'Ef yore brains wuz dynamite and they wuz to iggsplode, 'twouldn't blaw yer 'at off'. His parliamentary speeches were replete with Biblical allusions and stories were repeated for years about his idiosyncratic sermons: 'There are no flies on God' was one of his comments on the divinity. 'Honest John' was an 'unconventional champion of the conventions' who was respected even when he espoused unpopular causes.

In the national debates over conscription in 1916-17 Verran supported W. M. Hughes and became a Nationalist. Campaigning for conscription, he alienated his Moonta constituency and lost his seat in 1918 to R. S. Richards, a fellow Methodist and future Labor premier. Verran lost when he again contested Wallaroo as an Independent in 1921 and a Liberal in 1924. President of the National Party in South Australia in 1922, he unsuccessfully stood for the Senate that year and for the House of Representatives in 1925. The South Australian parliament appointed him to a casual vacancy in the Senate in 1927; he was defeated at the elections next year. He found it hard to get work, but was employed briefly as a timekeeper for a construction company and as a supervisor on the wheat stacks at Wallaroo.

Apart from the Methodist Church and Freemasonry, Verran's main interest was the temperance movement. He had signed the pledge as a young man and joined the Rechabites. 'Your signboard has fallen down', he once said to a publican, pointing to a drunkard in the gutter. Verran often appeared on temperance platforms, especially during the State referendum on early-closing in 1915. Survived by three sons and four daughters, he died at Unley on 7 June 1932; after a State funeral he was buried in Moonta cemetery.

His son John Stanley (1883-1952) was born on 24 December 1883 at Moonta. With his brothers and sisters, he experienced a strict Methodist upbringing which was relieved by his mother's wit and flexibility. Having worked in the mines as a youth, he took a job as a clerk at Port Adelaide and became president of the State branch of the Federated Clerks' Union and of the Australian Government Workers' Association. On 21 April 1913 in the Methodist manse, South Terrace, Adelaide, he married Ethel Clara Watson; they were to have two children before they divorced. He was a Labor member of the House of Assembly for Port Adelaide in 1918-27, but failed in his bid to enter the Senate in 1931. Survived by his son and daughter, John Stanley Verran died of a coronary occlusion on 30 August 1952 and was buried in Moonta cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1907)
  • O. Pryor, Australia's Little Cornwall, (Adel, 1962)
  • D. J. Murphy (ed), Labor in Politics (Brisb, 1975)
  • D. Dunstan, Felicia, the Political Memoirs of Don Dunstan (Melb, 1981)
  • D. Jaensch (ed), The Flinders History of South Australia (Adel, 1986)
  • Parliamentary Debate (South Australia), 24 Nov 1915, 31 Oct 1917
  • Mail (Adelaide), 20 July 1912
  • Australasian, 8 July 1922
  • News (Adelaide), 7 July 1931
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 16 July 1931
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 8 June 1932, 2 Sept 1952, 16 June 1984
  • Australian Christian Commonwealth, 17 June 1932
  • R. J. Miller, The Fall of the Verran Government, 1911-12 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1965).

Citation details

Arnold D. Hunt, 'Verran, John (1856–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/verran-john-8917/text15669, accessed 23 November 2017.

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