John Francis Hills (1867 1948) [by Charles Stevenson]

‘Peace advocates in trouble’
‘Riotous crowd in Botanic Park’

‘Throw him in the Torrens’

‘anti-War-Advocate Molested’

‘Police use their batons’

‘Constables and Soldiers Fall Out’

John Hills

These were some of the Adelaide newspaper headings written about John Hills. Passionate about the evil of war, John Hills spoke fearlessly at Speaker’s Corner in Adelaide’s Botanic Park of a Sunday. Public halls and churches were denied to Friends, pacifists, and other peace workers, so strong was the jingoistic war fever in Adelaide, during the First World War; thus the recourse to addressing crowds in open air meetings. The newspapers were filled with excessive military and war news. Moreover, censorship forbade publication of pacifist views. Even official statements by the Society of Friends could not be published. Hills received adverse publicity in the press, only protection by the police saving him from being thrown into the Torrens. This anti-pacifism culminated in a newspaper editorial ‘Quakerism and the War’ in the Register, Advertiser’s rival newspaper at the time. The editorial identified the Society of Friends as ‘a querulous and unjust little minority of narrow-minded cavillers’. Nothing daunted, Hills publicly continued his opposition to war, even though he had been dismissed from the Education Department and arraigned before the Police Court.

Thoroughly aware of the power of publicity, Hills organised wide publicity for many peace events. One notable occasion was the release from Adelaide Gaol of a fellow Quaker, William Ingle, who had refused to allow his fifteen year old son to undertake military training. Hills was branded a liar by the military commander in South Australia, supported by the Advertiser in an article ‘False Charge by a Cadet’. The Society of Friends in South Australia, however, stoutly supported Hills and Ingle. The release was publicised by means of a new medium, the cinematograph. This occasion, outside the Adelaide Gaol, provides one of the few extant records of John Hills public addresses. In it he declared that:

by panic legislation Australia was throwing overboard her most priceless inheritance, those fundamentals of British justice, British fair play, and British liberty, which had made the British flag all over the world the symbol of progress, which had placed the British nation in the van of the world’s progress. This “Conscription Act”, to give it its right name, would, if it remained in the present form, crash conscience, and the only way of saving the rights of conscience was to abolish the compulsory clauses, which had led to the gaoling of William Ingle. If this sort of thing went on gaol would become an honourable place.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography says: ‘Of his many pamphlets the most powerful probably was Child conscription: our country’s shame (1912) which not only condemned military training but, implicitly, war itself.’ These pamphlets, on peace and also on finance – Hills became increasingly aware of the dangers of economic greed – have been kept, fortunately for posterity, by the Australian Intelligence Office.

Conscription Under Camouflage. Compulsory Military Training in Australasia, was written jointly with John Percy Fletcher. Although written in early 1915, could not be published until 1919 because of military censorship ‘which naturally would keep out of the press nearly everything considered by it likely to prejudice a plan of Defence on which our leading military men have so set their hearts’.

Crown Solicitor’s opinion, 4 Dec 1912
concerning the above leaflet: “Although it
contains untrue statements and mis-
represents an Act of Parliament [it]
is not specifically disqualified under
the Act.”

Together with John Percy Fletcher, a young English Friend, John Hills founded the Australian Freedom League, which undertook a huge civil rights campaign. It was founded in April 1912 in the North Adelaide Meeting House. Its object was the repeal of the compulsory clauses of the 1909 Defence Act, which came into operation in 1911. The Act, said Friends, ‘constitutes a grave menace to our civil rights and religious liberties’. Many fifteen year old Quaker boys (who would now be known as Junior Young Friends) were given solitary confinement in military detention camps for refusing to obey military orders or to perform military drill. London Yearly Meeting supported this campaign, sending out a number of well-concerned young Friends, and Joshua Rowntree prepared a memorandum to the Prime Minister, ‘for his mature consideration’. The Prime Minister took no notice. Friends then decided to test the issue in the High Court, however, the case was lost. Thus the importance of Hills’ Australian Freedom League.

John Hills had been sent out to the Friends’ School in Hobart in 1898 as a capable teacher who could relieve the headmaster of much of his work. He was progressive in his views of education who strongly supported sport and natural history, but he was also a firm disciplinarian. Following his wife’s appointment to South Australia as Inspector of Schools for Domestic Economy, Hills resigned from the Hobart school and moved to Adelaide. He resigned his membership in Friends, presumably because of the crisis at the Friends’ School over Samuel Clemes headmastership. In 1903 he established Largs Bay College and later Holdfast Bay College, (1917-1936) in Sea Wall, Glenelg. While his wife ran these schools, Hills taught at high schools in Adelaide, and was the Deputy Headmaster at Woodville High, ‘always given the most difficult classes’.

John Hills was reinstated in membership in 1912 and became a faithful member of the Meeting, serving in numerous capacities: the Social and International Relations Committee, Registering Officer (for marriages), the Ministry Committee, and Clerk 1934-35. He was a tall, commanding figure, described in his testimony as ‘a man of kindly, gentle nature, nevertheless he would oppose what he felt was wrong even to the risk of his personal safety…he was a regular attender at the Adelaide Meeting for worship where his ministry and help was much appreciated’.

Charles Stevenson


Advertiser (Adelaide) 16 Aug 1915, 23 Aug 1915

Argus (Melbourne) 20 Aug 1915

Australian Archives. Defence Intelligence files.

Australian Dictionary of Biography

Barrett, J,. Falling in. Australians and ‘Boy Conscription’ 1911-1915, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1979.

Friends House Library (London).

.Jauncey, L, The story of Conscription in Australia, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1935.

‘Testimony to the Grace of God in the Life of John Francis Hills’, Minutes of Adelaide Monthly Meeting, 1948.

Oats, W, The Rose and the Waratah, The Friends’ School, Hobart. Formation and Development 1832-1945. The Friends’ School, Hobart,1979.

Oats , W, ‘The Campaign against Conscription in Australia 1911-1914’ in Journal of Friends Historical Society, London. Vol 55 No 7 1989.

Stevenson, C, With Unhurried Pace. A Brief History of Quakers in Australia, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Australia, 1973.

Stevenson, C, The Millionth Snowflake A History of Quakers in South Australia , The Religious Society of Friends, Adelaide Meeting, 1987.

Stevenson, C, ‘From Pariah to Pacesetter: The Adelaide Media and the Quakers 1915-1923’, Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, Vol 19, 1991.

The Register (Adelaide) 16 Aug 1915, 23 Aug 1915, Editorial Aug 20 1915.

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