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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wright, John James (1821–1904)

by E. J. Lea-Scarlett

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

John James Wright (1821-1904), storekeeper, was born on 20 February 1821 at Ballina, County Mayo, Ireland, son of John Wright. After a childhood visit to Australia he migrated to New South Wales about 1837; in December 1842 he became poundkeeper at Queanbeyan; postmaster in February 1844, he opened the Post Office Store in 1849. On 30 September next year at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, he married Mary Anne Clarke. His store prospered and in 1856 he opened a second shop in Queanbeyan, part of a chain that expanded briefly into near-by towns and numbered thirteen during the Kiandra gold rush in 1859-60. He leased the Dodsworth Mill in 1858 and acquired the modern and efficient Severne Mill in November. A founding member of the Queanbeyan Parochial Association in 1848, he was an office-bearer in the Oddfellows' Happy Home Lodge and Literary Institute and president of the District Hospital.

Wright supported (Sir) John Robertson's 1859-61 land bills but declined to run for parliament until 1874, pleading the demands of his store. In December he defeated William Forster for the Queanbeyan seat in the Legislative Assembly and was the first townsman to occupy it. Although elected as a friend of (Sir) Henry Parkes and 'the bitterest of orangemen', he was passive in parliament and by supporting Robertson's ministry obtained amenities for the town, notably a permanent Post and Telegraph Office. But he was arrogant, choleric and spiteful, and his popularity began to wane after his eviction of the public school from his rented premises in September 1875, and his prosecution of Rev. A. D. Soares in January 1876 for the return of four pigeons which had nested in the church spire. He withdrew from the 1877 election according to L. F. de Salis because he had 'no one to whom he can confide the management of his peculiar complicated store', and from a by-election in 1881; in 1885 he was defeated by E. W. O'Sullivan.

In 1877 with William Affleck of Gundaroo Wright founded the Queanbeyan Free Selectors' Association, and in 1879-82 led the agitation which brought the railway through the town, of which he was first mayor in 1885-88. His career on the council was marked by inaction and unconcern. He controlled several important stations in the district and in 1880 was a sheep director but there was a steady decline in his affairs after the death of his eldest son James in 1886; in 1891 the store was sold and the Severne Mill failed. His wife and daughters soon quit Queanbeyan and he was left only with his son Douglas.

Wright continued to act as a justice of the peace, a member of the local Land Board, a guardian of minors and as returning officer for Queanbeyan from 1890; but he drank heavily, became an eccentric and was often seen with a rifle driving pedestrians from the vicinity of his home. He died of apoplexy on 22 October 1904 and was buried in the Anglican section of the Queanbeyan Riverside cemetery with his two sons, who are alone commemorated on the monument above the grave. He was survived by three of his five sons and four daughters. His intestate estate was valued at £48. Self made, an opportunist, an egocentric bigot and a misfit, Wright nevertheless contributed substantially to the development of Queanbeyan.

Select Bibliography

  • A. M. Fallick & Sons, The Story of Queanbeyan 1838-1938 (Queanbeyan, 1938)
  • E. J. Lea-Scarlett, Queanbeyan: District and People (Queanbeyan, 1968)
  • A. W. Martin, ‘Electoral contests in Yass and Queanbeyan in the 'seventies and 'eighties’, JRAHS, 43 (1957)
  • Queanbeyan Age, 25 Oct 1904
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

E. J. Lea-Scarlett, 'Wright, John James (1821–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 22 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

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