Read his story
John Dunn (1802-1894) was an experienced flour miller when he emigrated from Devon to Adelaide with his family in 1840. From his base in Mount Barker he pioneered the milling business in South Australia. His company Dunn & Co. became profitable on a global scale. Its success allowed Dunn to take up a political career, and he served both in South Australia’s House of Assembly and its Legislative Council.
Dunn was renowned for his charitable largesse and his commitment to the local community. The high regard in which he was held was demonstrated by the respect displayed by the people of Mount Barker on the day of his funeral.
John Dunn was born in Devon in 1802. His parents, who worked a small farm, had nine sons and two daughters. John began flour-milling as an apprentice at the age of twelve and worked his way up to mill management.
In 1840 he emigrated to South Australia with his wife Ann (née Rowe, 1802-1870) and four children: John junior (10), Mary Ann (8), Elizabeth (6) and Eliza (2). Their last child, William Henry, was born upon their arrival in Adelaide. In 1842 they settled in the Hay Valley near Nairne, where Dunn built a wind powered mill. He was also working as an engineer for inventor John Ridley and reputedly contributed to the design of the famous Ridley grain stripper and reaper (see Walter Paterson History Post), but his principal interest was always in milling, and over time he succeeded in building up a flour milling and marketing empire. He opened over eighty mills in South Australia, making his company the largest milling business in the Southern Hemisphere. His mills exported flour to the east and west coasts of Australia, to Britain, South Africa, and even to the goldfields of California and the sugar plantations of Mauritius.
The success of Dunn’s family-run business made a significant contribution to the prosperity of South Australia and put Mount Barker on the map, strategically situated as it was between the wheat producers to the south of Adelaide and the markets in the city. Flour milling became one of the foundational industries of the town. But it was Dunn’s philanthropy and commitment to his community that earned him the esteem and affection of his adopted town. He gave hundreds of pounds a year to charitable causes in Mount Barker, materially improving the life of its residents.
Early in his career Dunn had helped quarry the stone for the construction of the first Wesleyan chapel in Mann Street in 1851; in 1884, after he had made his fortune, he entirely funded its handsome replacement, the Dunn Memorial Church (now the Dunn Memorial Uniting Church), organ and all, to the tune of some £4,000. In 1879 he paid for the construction of ten ‘Salem Cottages’ in Druids Avenue, providing accommodation for aged women and widows. He gifted Dunn Park to the community in 1892, providing the town with a green recreational space that is valued to this day. He represented the interests of the district in South Australia’s House of Assembly for eleven years (1857-1868) and in the Legislative Council for eight years (1869-1877). Meanwhile he maintained an interest in local affairs, serving regularly on the Mount Barker District Council including two years as Chairman.
Once Dunn had settled in Mount Barker in 1844 he never moved away, building his family mansion ‘The Laurels’ in 1857 (now the retirement village in Pridmore Terrace). After the death of his wife Ann in 1870 he married again, this time to 39-year-old Jane Williams (1833-1929), the eldest daughter of North Adelaide architect John Williams. The Williams family had emigrated in 1849 from Bideford, the Dunns’ hometown in Devon. Rather confusingly, Jane’s sister Elizabeth (1836-1928) had married John Dunn junior (1830-1892) seventeen years before Jane and John Dunn senior took their vows.
John Dunn died at ‘The Laurels’ at the age of ninety-two. On 15 October 1894, the day of his funeral, a special train was commissioned to bring mourners up from Adelaide, and over forty vehicles followed his hearse from the Laurels to the Dunn Memorial Church and on to the Wesleyan Cemetery (later the Mount Barker Cemetery). The Mount Barker Courier reported:
Mount Barker has long been proud of the man who did so much to bring prosperity and fame to it, and practically all the inhabitants joined in the obsequies. Shops and offices were shut, flags flew at half mast, and tokens of mourning were universal. There was nothing pretentious about the funeral pageant, but the sincere and spontaneous manner in which everyone who could possibly make it convenient to do so left business engagements to follow the body to its grave spoke more clearly than any outward pomp could do of the respect and esteem in which Mr. Dunn was held.
The paper summed up Dunn’s significance to the town with the observation that “Mount Barker and John Dunn were so wrapped up in one another that it was difficult to think of one without the other.”
Dunn was interred in the family crypt at Mount Barker Cemetery with the remains of his daughter, Eliza, and his first wife Ann. The substantial monument that sits above the Dunn crypt was completed in August 1895. Fashioned from five tons of Sicilian white marble, it was commissioned from C. Bom of Hahndorf, whose memorials can be seen throughout the Mount Barker Cemetery. The Express and Telegraph commented that “The design, which was executed in Italy to Mr. Bom’s order, is simple and tasteful, an urn surmounting a plain column resting on square marble tiers. The whole work is highly creditable to the monumental mason to whom Mrs. John Dunn entrusted her commission.” The second Mrs. John Dunn herself, Jane Dunn, died at the age of ninety-five and was buried in the Wesleyan cemetery at Walkerville Cemetery amongst other members of the Williams family.
The marble scroll to the side of the main obelisk memorialises two of John and Ann Dunn’s grandchildren, Eliza ‘Lilla’ Hill (1856-1868) and her brother Edgar William Hill (1869-1870). Lilla, who died aged twelve, was the second of four daughters born to William Hill (1830-1885) and his wife Mary Ann, née Dunn (1832-1912). Edgar was their youngest child and only son. He died at one year and four months of age.
Two more of Dunn’s many grandchildren are interred in the Cemetery, but the exact location of their graves is unknown. Eliza Dunn was born prematurely and passed away in 1857 at eleven months old; presumably she was named after her aunt Eliza, who died just a week before her birth. John Howard Dunn died in 1867 at the age of five. They were the first and fifth of sixteen children born to John Dunn junior and his wife Elizabeth. Although these two children were buried at Mount Barker, their parents were interred at the North Road Cemetery, Nailsworth.
Unfortunately, Dunn’s grave, which was once the focal point of the old cemetery precinct, has fallen into disrepair and is in urgent need of restoration. The Mount Barker Branch of the National Trust SA has launched an appeal for this purpose. We hope that the restoration of the grave will help to perpetuate the memory of Dunn’s generous support for the town he loved.
The success of this project is dependent upon the support of the public. For more information or to make a donation, please visit this site.
Related History Posts: