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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Hunter, John McEwan (1863–1940)

by D. J. Murphy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

John McEwan Hunter (1863?-1940), businessman and politician, son of Daniel McEwan Hunter and his wife Jane, née Dampsey, was born on a Scottish migrant ship in Queensland waters. His parents had been enticed to migrate to Queensland by the speeches of the emigration agent Henry Jordan who promised free grants of land in 'the future cotton field of England'. The family settled at Pittsworth on the Darling Downs. John later attended state primary schools at Redbank and Clifton.

Hunter was to exemplify the virtues of the Scottish migrant: hard work, thrift, ambition for financial success. Failing in an attempt to become an engineer, he entered the grocery trade as an employee of McLeish & Co., Toowoomba. In 1888, when he was western Queensland manager for the company, he opened his own business as a general merchant at Roma. Despite the depression and drought of the following decade, Hunter's influence in the west expanded. He opened three branch stores at Mitchell, Yuleba and Amby; he promoted the successful Roma Co-operative Milling Co. and became chairman of directors; and he was elected president of the Western Queensland Pastoral and Agricultural Society. By 1915 he was employing 100 people.

At Roma Hunter was prominent in the Masonic lodge, the Presbyterian Church and the School of Arts. In 1898 he was elected to the Roma Town Council at the top of the poll and became mayor in 1900. Because of his local standing Hunter was invited to nominate as the ministerial candidate for Maranoa in the 1899 Legislative Assembly elections but declined and allowed (Sir) Arthur Rutledge to run. The coalition of the Labor Party and a number of Liberals in 1903 brought a significant change in Queensland politics. In 1907 Hunter was one of several prominent people from rural areas who, though lacking trade union background, stood successfully as Labor candidates. His closest friend in politics was to be the barrister T. J. Ryan, elected for Barcoo in 1909.

When the Ryan government was formed in 1915 Hunter was made secretary for public lands. His two major contributions in that portfolio were the introduction of perpetual lease instead of freehold title and the provision of land for closer settlement and soldier settlement. However it was to be as Ryan's principal aide that Hunter left his mark. He managed the administration of the Chief Secretary's Department and deputized for Ryan as chairman of important public committees like the War Council. The state butchery and state stations which were to be controversial but successful during the war were administered by Hunter. They lost heavily under less efficient managers and were ultimately disposed of.

The close friendship between Hunter and Ryan survived the sectarian animosities of the two conscription referenda and the constant charges of Popish domination of the cabinet. When Ryan and his wife went to England in 1919 Hunter became guardian of their children and executor of Ryan's will.

Although elected by caucus to be agent-general in 1916, Hunter did not take up his post until 1919 because Ryan needed him. During 1918-19 he was minister without portfolio assisting the premier. His health was poor in England, he was unpopular with the trade union faction in caucus who disliked his non-union background, and he was personally disliked by E. G. Theodore. After Ryan's death, he was recalled in 1922.

Hunter returned to business and in 1935-40 was president of the Queensland United Chamber of Agricultural Societies and chairman of Queensland Country Traders. At Booroodabbin he played bowls and served the Presbyterian church as an elder. He died in Brisbane on 18 April 1940, leaving an estate valued for probate at £38,533 to his wife Ellen Guthrie, née Moffat, whom he had married at Toowoomba on 2 June 1890, and their only daughter. He was cremated after a state funeral.

Select Bibliography

  • D. J. Murphy, T J. Ryan (Brisb, 1975)
  • Australian Jane's Annual, 1919
  • Queenslander, 10 Mar 1900
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 20 Apr 1940
  • Worker, 23 Apr 1940.

Citation details

D. J. Murphy, 'Hunter, John McEwan (1863–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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