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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Watson, John Andrew (1879–1953)

by Malcolm I. Thomis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

John Andrew Watson (1879-1953), insurance commissioner, was born on 14 December 1879 in South Brisbane, eldest of three children of English-born parents Andrew Hendry Watson, clerk, and his wife Hannah Harriett Louisa, née Priest. John attended Kelvin Grove and Petrie Terrace State schools before entering Brisbane Grammar School in 1893 on a scholarship. He left next year, with a report containing the parting assessment: 'school career spoilt by irregular attendance'. From 1897 he worked for a firm of insurance agents, Holmes & Church, moving in 1904 to the Yorkshire Insurance Co. Ltd as chief clerk and accountant. In 1912 he was admitted as a fellow of the Queensland (Commonwealth from 1921) Institute of Accountants. That year he opened a local branch of the Australian Mutual Fire Insurance Society Ltd; he managed the office for four years. On 8 August 1914 at Wesley Methodist Church, Kangaroo Point, he married Minna Pauline Maurice, a typiste.

In 1916 Watson was elected president of the Insurance Institute of Queensland and was appointed deputy insurance commissioner of the new State Accident Insurance Office, established to handle workers' compensation. In February 1917 the office was authorized to transact all classes of insurance business; it became known as the State Government Insurance Office. Watson succeeded John Goodwyn as State insurance commissioner in 1920. The very antithesis of his more brilliant and flamboyant predecessor, he was short of stature, blunt and direct in manner, respected rather than loved. Most of his years in office were times of severe financial stringency, encompassing the Depression and World War II. He was subjected to the close scrutiny of his ministers, first the attorney-general, and later the treasurer. Additionally, A. E. Moore's Country and Progressive National Party's government of 1929-32 had severe ideological reservations about the very existence of the S.G.I.O. The private insurance companies were also antagonistic as, under Watson's direction, the office became a substantial competitor for business.

In June 1945 the Australasian Insurance and Banking Record observed that a less cautious administrator than Watson might have captured more than a 13.5 per cent share of the fire, accident and marine insurance market. He retired on 31 December that year. Although he had been unwilling to take risks, he left a strong, decentralized organization that had survived the political traumas of its early decades and was poised for major expansion in postwar years. Retirement gifts of a watch, and silver and china teasets, were somewhat at variance with his outdoor hobbies of motoring, gardening, and bushcraft. Elected (1935) a fellow of the Incorporated Australian Insurance Institute, he was also a trustee (1939-46) of Brisbane Grammar School and a founding member and president of the Coorparoo Bowling Club. He died on 12 January 1953 in Brisbane and was buried in Bulimba cemetery. His wife had died twelve days earlier. He was survived by his daughter and three of his four sons; his son John had died on active service with the Royal Australian Air Force in 1944.

Select Bibliography

  • M. I. Thomis and M. Wales, From SGIO to Suncorp (Brisb, 1986)
  • SGIO Official Journal, Jan 1931, Nov 1945, Jan 1946
  • Australasian Insurance and Banking Record, 21 June 1945, p 273
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 14 Jan 1953
  • A/54106, item F3361 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

Malcolm I. Thomis, 'Watson, John Andrew (1879–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 2 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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