Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Brown, James (1816–1894)

by J. W. Turner

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

This is a shared entry with Alexander Brown

James Brown (1816-1894) and Alexander Brown (1827-1877), colliery proprietors and merchants, were born in Lanarkshire, Scotland, sons of Alexander Brown and his wife Mary, née Hart. Like his father, James (b.3 August 1816) was a hand-loom weaver and agricultural labourer before the family migrated to Sydney in 1842. As a bounty immigrant he had engaged to work on a farm but the family settled at Newcastle and James worked in James Mitchell's tweed factory at Stockton. In 1843 he leased eighty acres (32 ha) of land at Four Mile Creek, near East Maitland, and assisted by his brothers John (1823-1846) and Alexander (b.26 June 1827) began to mine outcropping coal for sale in Maitland and Morpeth.

Since the coal in this land had been reserved by the Crown in an agreement with the Australian Agricultural Co. designed to protect its investment in mines at Newcastle, the Browns were warned to stop mining or face prosecution for intrusion. The company had been tolerating small-scale mining for local use but took action when the Hunter River Steam Navigation Co. accepted Brown's tender to supply about 4000 tons of coal a year at 5s. 11d. a ton: it had been paying 13s. a ton for Australian Agricultural Co. coal. Other producers were entering the Sydney market and competition had reduced the price of coal to 7s. by 1847. These price reductions and the threat of legal action drove almost all the newcomers from the industry but James Brown persisted.

In the Supreme Court in August 1845 Brown's counsel argued that the agreement between the company and the British government was illegal as it tended to promote a monopoly, and also disputed the Crown's right to reserve coal on land which it sold. James Brown was found guilty of intrusion, fined 1s. and ordered to pay the costs of the action. To recover costs the bailiff forced the family from the lease at such short notice that the twelve dwellings built there had to be left and a further £147 was lost in the move. The barristers, Richard Windeyer and Robert Lowe, who had represented Brown in the first trial, sought a retrial. Similar legal arguments were used and again rejected by the Full Court: 'a variety of topics … with which we have, as Judges, nothing to do and which were of too popular a character, merely, to justify further notice by us'. The Australian Agricultural Co., anticipating further difficulty in maintaining its position, hastened to negotiate the end of the agreement on advantageous terms and its termination was announced in Sydney on 17 August 1847. The advent of open competition and the lower price of coal in 1845-52 were largely due to the challenge of James Brown.

Meanwhile James had formed a partnership with John Eales, whose land grant predated the company's agreement, and continued to supply the steamships which linked Sydney and Maitland. After several more years of small-scale mining in the East Maitland area James and Alexander Brown, now partners, moved to the Burwood estate south of Newcastle in 1852 to develop a new mine which yielded large quantities of coal at a time when it was selling for as much as £1 10s. a ton in Newcastle. By 1857 the brothers owned valuable property in Newcastle, a ship-chandlery and import-export business, and at least one ocean-going ship. Alexander emerged as the more enterprising of the partners and after the amalgamation of the Burwood estate mines in 1856 he became the manager before taking one of their own ships to Java in 1857. His outward cargo was coal and on the homeward run the ship carried rum, sugar and coffee, the first direct import of such goods to Newcastle.

The brothers returned to mining in 1859 by acquiring the Minmi colliery and its railway to Hexham. They increased its output from 44,000 tons in 1860 to 111,000 tons in 1862. This increase in sales was achieved by reducing prices and by shipping coal on their own account to New Zealand, China and North America as well as to colonial ports. Simultaneously the Minmi private township was developed and one of the most elaborately equipped engineering workshops in the colonies was set up there to service their locomotives and steamships. The firm was already employing the first screw collier used in Australian waters and had bought a tug, the second in Newcastle and first of a long line operated by the Browns. These achievements enabled the brothers to sell a half interest in their Minmi property for £75,000 in 1863 to a company formed for the purpose. Some of this money was then invested in pastoral properties in Queensland and elsewhere; managed by James Brown they did not prosper, but involved losses estimated at £25,000 over the next two decades.

The failure of the Minmi Co. and their financial problems forced them back to mining in 1865 and preoccupied them thereafter. Two new mines were developed and, though one failed, J. & A. Brown was once more the largest producer in the colony in 1868. These were difficult years for the Browns as coal was selling for about 7s. a ton and the low price hampered their complete recovery until the first coal vend was formed in 1872. This organization shared trade between the proprietors and enabled them to raise the price of coal to 14s. a ton and to maintain it near this level until 1880, thus making a golden period of mining in the Newcastle district. In these years James devoted himself to colliery management while Alexander continued his efforts in the foreign trade, visiting England in 1874 and being acclaimed by his peers the businessman of Newcastle on his return, for meeting 'the merchant princes of England' and impressing them with their claims for 'reciprocity of trade' and for his advocacy of the port. Among his many other ventures Alexander had bid for a franchise of coal mining in Tasmania in 1861, visited the United States on a business tour in 1863 and acquired valuable gold leases on the Gulgong field in 1872. He also gave evidence to a large number of select committees on railways and mining. He dominated the firm until his death at Newcastle on 31 May 1877. He was buried in the Presbyterian cemetery at East Maitland. He was unmarried and his property, popularly estimated at £250,000 but sworn for probate at £100,000, was left principally to his nephews.

At St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, on 20 December 1847 James Brown had married Elizabeth Foyle. He died at Newcastle on 27 September 1894, survived by his wife, four sons and a daughter. In 1886 he had made over his interest in the firm to his sons. The most influential of them was John who managed J. & A. Brown until his death in 1930.

In 1843-86 James and Alexander Brown produced more than three million tons of coal and so well established their firm that by 1914 its total output exceeded sixteen million tons, about 8 per cent of the total production of New South Wales for the period. Their success can be attributed to their early start and to the complementary talents of the brothers, one an experienced, able and persistent mine manager and the other a shrewd, enterprising man of commerce. Alexander Brown in particular appears to have played a significant role in the development of the overseas trade which was to absorb about a third of all coal produced in New South Wales in 1860-1914.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Digby (ed), Australian Men of Mark (Syd, 1889)
  • J. G. Legge (ed), A Selection of Supreme Court Cases in New South Wales from 1825 to 1862, vol 1 (Syd, 1896)
  • New South Wales Dept of Mines, Annual Report, 1875-1914
  • Bank of Australasia (Newcastle branch), London correspondence, 1854-67
  • J. W. Turner, The Influence of the Firm of J. & A. Brown … 1843-1914 (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1967).

Citation details

J. W. Turner, 'Brown, James (1816–1894)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/brown-james-3078/text4547, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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