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Ashton, James (1864–1939)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

James Ashton (1864-1939), newspaperman, politician and businessman, was born on 8 May 1864 at Ashby near Geelong, Victoria, fifth child of James Ashton, coffee-roaster and later a sharebroker, and his first wife Mary Ann Kinsman, née Brittan. About 1871 the family moved to Sandhurst (Bendigo) where James was educated at the Sandhurst Grammar School until he was 10, when he started work in a printing office and was paid 2s. 6d. for a 54-hour week. At 13 he went with his family to Echuca, and worked on two local newspapers before moving to New South Wales where he became a compositor on the Hay Standard at £2 5s. a week. Two years later he joined Cramsie, Bowden & Co., station suppliers, and as relaxation ran in amateur athletics; in 1884-88 he worked in their Melbourne office and was active in 'a big church debating society'.

In 1888 Ashton returned to Hay and for £1000 bought a half-share in the Riverine Grazier. He sold out in 1892 and bought the Narrandera Argus. As a free trader and supporter of (Sir) George Reid, in 1894 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Hay, which he represented until 1898. He had campaigned vigorously in his newspaper against 'landlordism' and advocated a perpetual leasing system and a tax on land based on its unimproved value. An able debater, he refused office under Reid. On 6 March 1899 at Sutton Forest he married Helen Willis, granddaughter of J. S. Willis and a relation of E. W. Knox.

In 1897 Ashton had strongly opposed equal representation of the States in a powerful Senate. He proposed that no alteration to the Constitution be made without the consent of every State, proportional representation for electing the Senate and a national referendum to break deadlocks. Realizing that his constituents thought differently on Federation, in 1898 he won Goulburn, which he represented until August 1907. In 1901 he was defeated narrowly for Riverina in the House of Representative elections, in part because of his 'expressed sympathies with the Boers' in the South African War.

In 1904-07 Ashton was secretary for lands under (Sir) Joseph Carruthers. He was harassed throughout his term by the allegations of bribery and improper conduct against W. P. Crick, his predecessor, which culminated in a royal commission into the administration of his department and in criminal charges being laid against Crick. In 1906 he introduced a bill, which lapsed, to transfer the routine administration of the Department of Lands to three commissioners, because he believed that a man with political duties and 'tempestuous disputes to attend to' had no time to attend to necessary detail. That year he reduced the number of staff in an effort to improve efficiency. Long an advocate of closer settlement on scientific lines, he ably administered land resumptions made under the Closer Settlement Acts. Sickened by politics, he did not stand for election in 1907 and was nominated to the Legislative Council on 24 September. When the ministry was reformed by (Sir) Charles Gregory Wade in October he was minister without portfolio until he resigned on 25 June 1909, having been briefly acting premier.

As 'a protective measure' Ashton qualified for the Bar but was not admitted. In 1910 with Sir Samuel McCaughey he became a shareholder in and director of the Coreena Pastoral Co., which owned Coreena sheep-station near Barcaldine and cattle-stations elsewhere in Queensland. It was an investment which 'put me on Easy Street, and made possible everything that happened afterwards'. He became attorney and adviser to McCaughey and to the New Zealand & Australian Land Co. Ltd of Edinburgh, and later was chief executor of McCaughey's will.

During World War 1, as an executive of the Australian Red Cross Society, Ashton became closely associated with its president Lady Helen Munro Ferguson; later he often consulted her about McCaughey's bequest of £500,000 to benefit the dependants of ex-servicemen. In 1919 Ashton's wife was appointed O.B.E. for her work for the Red Cross. In 1920-24 he was a senator of the University of Sydney and in 1920-21 chairman of the Commonwealth board of inquiry into Federal and State taxation. He contributed articles to the Sydney Morning Herald on closer settlement, the Northern Territory and current political issues in the 1920s and 1930s.

Assiduous in attendance at the Legislative Council, Ashton organized opposition to J. T. Lang's attempts to abolish the Upper House in 1926 and attempted radical legislation such as the mortgages bill of 1932. He did not stand for election to the reconstructed council in 1934. A Labor member paid tribute to his 'wonderful knowledge and an extraordinary gift of self-expression … he was relentless in his criticism, but … was always fair and logical'.

After World War I Ashton was chairman of the Mutual Life & Citizens Assurance Co. Ltd in 1927-39, and of the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney in 1933-38, was sometime chairman of the Union Trustee Co. of Australia Ltd and a director of Anthony Hordern & Sons Ltd. By 1933 he had acquired properties in New South Wales for each of his four sons, James, Robert, Geoffrey and Philip, who formed a famous international polo team from 1927. Ashton, who had twice been to the United States of America, visited England in 1930 when his sons went there to play. He was also 'an enthusiastic cricket fan'.

Survived by his wife (d. 24 October) and sons, he died of cancer on 6 August 1939 at his waterfront home, Tueila, Double Bay, where he had lived since 1903, and was cremated with Anglican rites. His estate was valued for administration at £23,279.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1906, 2, 73-4, and evidence
  • Farmers and Settlers' Assn (New South Wales), Reports, 1905-06
  • Australian Magazine (Sydney), 1 Aug 1910
  • Pastoral Review, 16 Sept 1939
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Dec 1924, 3 Feb 1925, 13, 14 Feb, 7 July 1930, 1 June 1932, 26 Apr, 22 Sept 1933, 7 Aug 1939
  • Goulburn Evening Penny Post, 12 July 1933
  • Country Life and Stock and Station Journal, 11 Aug 1933
  • private information.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Ashton, James (1864–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ashton-james-5069/text8453, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 23 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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