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John Percy Jones (1872–1955)

by Bruce Paule

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

John Percy Jones (1872-1955), businessman and politician, was born on 22 October 1872 in Hobart Town, son of Thomas John Jones, coachman, and his wife Bridget, née Costello, both Irish Catholics. Jones's mother and two siblings died before he was 3 and he was brought up by his father and elder brother while friends took care of his two sisters. From 8 he worked in stables at Oatlands and delivered chemists' prescriptions before and after school. At 11 he became a rouseabout and boundary rider on R. Q. Kermode's sheep-station, Mona Vale, near Ross, and determined to 'get on'. In 1888 his father died; Jones sold a pony and saddle given to him by Kermode and left for Melbourne.

He worked there for a butcher, became an early member of the Butchers' Union and attended the Working Men's College. Rejecting Catholicism he joined a variety of progressive and labour associations and developed an admiration for Henry George whom he met in 1890; but Ruskin's ideas and Fabianism attracted him most. After spending the early 1890s as a drover and as a canvasser of his own brand of brass polish he established Melbourne's first pay-as-you-wear tailoring business in 1893: his Eureka-inspired motto was 'Be true to the Southern Cross'. At the same time, for both health and advertisement he took up cycling, competing in the Austral Wheel Race against Charles Kellow and 'Plugger Bill' Martin. Later he exchanged cycling for boxing and wrestling and was knocked out in a practice round with Bill Squires. Late in the 1890s he employed a team of cyclists to collect money owing to him, using some of his profits to subsidize the weekly Tocsin of which he was founding secretary in 1897. That year he became secretary of the North Melbourne branch of the Political Labor Council and on 22 December, at Charles Strong's Australian Church, married Mary Ann Worrall, daughter of an ink manufacturer.

Jones helped to sponsor the visit of Ben Tillett to Australia in 1897, and in 1901, when he took his first trip to England, he met other European socialists. He also arranged to bypass the Flinders Lane cloth merchants by setting up a direct cloth supply from Bradford, Yorkshire. On his return to Melbourne he met Tom Mann and subsequently supported him financially. With Mann he established the Social Questions Committee (soon the Victorian Socialist Party) in 1905 and was president until June 1907. Jones influenced the committee to aim for an investigation of poverty in Victoria. Meanwhile, as his business boomed, he bought tenement housing, built a factory and acquired rural property. In 1907 he was chairman of the Australian Manufacturing Exhibition.

Jones left the V.S.P. in 1910 to stand successfully against William Pitt for the Legislative Council seat of East Melbourne as a Labor candidate, admitting to those suspicious of his business practices that 'whilst a Socialist on the outside he was a Capitalist on the inside'. In the council he soon became leader of the Labor contingent. His main concern was with common diseases such as the tuberculosis from which he had himself suffered, and gonorrhoea. In December 1913 he was a minister without portfolio in the ephemeral Elmslie administration; and in 1924 he was commissioner of public works, minister of public health and in charge of immigration and vice-president of the Board of Land and Works under Prendergast. In the Hogan ministry of 1927-28 he exchanged public health for mines, holding the same offices in Hogan's second ministry (1929-32). He was acting treasurer in 1931-32.

Jones travelled to Europe in 1911, represented Victoria at a conference on tuberculosis at Westminster, London, in 1921, and attended the King George V jubilee celebrations in London in 1935. He bought a country estate, Ruskin Park, at Croydon in 1911 and lived there until 1921 when he purchased a mansion at Kew, Ruskin Hall. A cultured man whose collection of Labor literature was highly rated, he was the Legislative Council representative on the Council of the University of Melbourne from 1923. He was a justice of the peace, and a director of the Eagle Star Insurance Co. and the Great Ocean Road Trust.

Gradually his political views changed. A strong supporter of the Melbourne (financial) Agreement of August 1930, Jones was one of only five Victorian Labor parliamentarians who refused to sign a pledge to maintain government spending. At the 1931 Premiers' Conference, in a move which he saw as the pinnacle of his career, he called for an urgent conference to find ways to maintain Commonwealth solvency. He chaired the sub-committee which produced the Copland plan, the basis for the Premiers' Plan which he saw as promising economic salvation. After the government was forced to election in 1932 Jones resigned from cabinet, claiming it supported repudiation. Although not due for re-election until 1934, he campaigned for the Premiers' Plan on United Australia Party platforms and was expelled from the Labor Party.

Reallocated his portfolios in the Argyle ministry, Jones remained a minister until March 1935 when he resigned along with the Country Party members. In 1940, having represented South-Western Province from 1934, he retired from the council, whose abolition he now advocated, to rule over a family empire of real estate and grazing properties. In his later years his ideas seemed confused: he claimed both Tory and radical sympathies. Jones died on 12 October 1955, his death unnoticed in parliament. Survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter, he was buried in Box Hill cemetery, leaving an estate valued for probate at £160,541.

Select Bibliography

  • Labour History, May 1975, no 28
  • Advance Australia, 15 Sept 1904
  • Punch (Melbourne), 27 Mar 1924
  • Labor Call, 30 Oct 1924
  • Smith's Weekly, 6 June 1931
  • Herald (Melbourne), 8 Mar 1934, 15 May 1938
  • Argus (Melbourne), 28 Mar 1939
  • Industrial Workers of the World, correspondence (National Library of Australia)
  • Central Executive, Political Labor Council (Melbourne), minutes, book 4, 17 Oct 1909 to 12 Nov 1910 (State Library of Victoria)
  • Democratic Labor Party papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • J. P. Jones papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Bruce Paule, 'Jones, John Percy (1872–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 May 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012