Story: Potter, John Lishman

Page 1: Biography

Potter, John Lishman

1834–1931

Goldminer, stonemason, builder

This biography, written by C. N. Connolly, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

John Lishman Potter was born in Sunderland, County Durham, England, on 25 July 1834, the son of Matthew Potter, brewer, and his wife, Catharine Lishman. Apprenticed as a stonemason, he migrated to Victoria, Australia, in 1854. He worked at several goldfields, including Ballarat, where on 22 April 1858 he married Elizabeth Driver, daughter of Elizabeth Driver and her husband, Robert, saddler, of Dublin, Ireland. In 1861 or soon afterwards they moved to New Zealand, where he joined the rush to Gabriels Gully. By 1864 he had resumed his trade as a stonemason in Christchurch, where he worked as foreman on the construction of the Anglican cathedral. In about 1871 he moved to Timaru, where he became well known as a master builder.

In old age Potter became a minor celebrity by claiming to be the last survivor of those who fought in the diggers' uprising at Eureka on the Ballarat field in 1854. No one disputed this claim while he lived, but it was just an old man's romancing. When the battle occurred, he was on the Falcon travelling from Liverpool to Melbourne. He arrived over two weeks later, and finding that the rebels were heroes he may well have wished that he had been one of them. But there is no evidence that he even went to Ballarat until he took out a miner's right there in August 1856.

While Potter was in Victoria, the stonemasons there won the eight hour working day. Potter claimed that he initiated the reform in Christchurch when he persuaded an old friend, Ralph Timpson, to hire him as a mason at the reduced hours. He said that this concession led to a meeting at which 'contractors and men agreed to finish the contracts they had on hand, and then start on the eight-hour system'. Potter had probably outlived anyone who might have told a different tale, and his story was printed without contradiction in the New Zealand Worker in 1930. However, this account was false. Major centres in New Zealand pioneered the shorter hours years before Victoria adopted them, and they were introduced in Canterbury even before the arrival of the First Four Ships in 1850.

Whatever his part in the Eureka revolt and the eight hour movement, Potter is significant as a representative of the half million or more British migrants who arrived in Australia and New Zealand during the goldrushes. A disproportionate number were artisans, many were imbued with Chartist ideals, and they helped to lay the foundations of white, male democracy on both sides of the Tasman. He may not have fought at Eureka, but his pleasure in associating himself with the revolt reflected its importance as a symbol of the popular rights established by the goldrush generation.

As Victoria's goldfields waned and New Zealand's boomed, Potter was just one of 50,000 adult males who in the three years 1861–63 left Victoria for New Zealand. Like most, he missed out on a fortune, but he found that the goldrushes had created other opportunities. By causing an upsurge in demand for housing, the rushes facilitated the formation of unions in the building industry, and all were determined to defend and extend the eight hour day. Potter may not have instigated the eight hour movement in Canterbury, but there is not the slightest doubt that he endorsed its objectives.

Although Potter became a master builder, he remained sympathetic to labour. It is not surprising that when he was almost 90 he wrote to the leader of the parliamentary Labour party, H. E. Holland, rejoicing in the election of a labour government in Britain and saying, 'I hope I will live to see that success repeated here, and that you will be the first Labour Premier of Maoriland'. His wish was not fulfilled, but Potter was regarded as living testimony to the continuity of almost 80 years of labour and populist struggle on both sides of the Tasman. He died at Timaru aged 97 on 24 October 1931, survived by three sons and two daughters. Three days later, at a Labour Day carnival in Caroline Bay, C. L. Carr, MP for Timaru, referred to him as 'one of the great and grand old-timers' and the men in the large crowd removed their hats briefly as a sign of respect.

How to cite this page:

C. N. Connolly. 'Potter, John Lishman', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1p26/potter-john-lishman (accessed 18 October 2019)