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Brunker, James Nixon (1832–1910)

by W. G. McMinn

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

James Nixon Brunker (1832-1910), by unknown photographer

James Nixon Brunker (1832-1910), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 29244

James Nixon Brunker (1832-1910), businessman and politician, was born on 28 April 1832 at Port Macquarie, New South Wales, the son of John Nixon Brunker, wine and spirit merchant, and his wife Mary Ann, née McGreavy. He was educated at Christ Church School, Newcastle, and at Sydney College, commenced articles in a Sydney solicitor's office but abandoned them apparently for reasons of health, and in 1851 set up a butchery in East Maitland. In 1856 he entered a stock and station agency in West Maitland and later founded the firm of Brunker, Wolfe & Badgery, with branch offices in Newcastle and Sydney. After the partnership was dissolved he became sole proprietor of the Maitland business; the Sydney branch later became Pitt, Son & Badgery. Brunker expanded his interests into produce marketing and the pastoral and coal-mining industries: he was a founder of the Hunter River Farmers' Association in 1882 and about the same time was prominent in attempts to settle a series of coal strikes. He speculated successfully in urban subdivision on the Maitland coalfields; for some years after 1890 he was a director of the Mutual Life Assurance Corporation.

Early in his residence at Maitland Brunker became prominent in local politics. He was made a justice of the peace in 1865 and was an original member of the East Maitland Municipal Council. He also became Henry Parkes's principal electoral agent in the Hunter district. In 1861 when Parkes stood against the attorney-general, (Sir) John Darvall, for East Maitland in a most bitter contest, Brunker nominated him, organized meetings for him and finally commiserated with him in defeat. In several later elections Brunker acted as agent for Parkes's supporters. He was also a local organizer in support of his principal's policies: he was particularly active in the cause of the 1866 education bill, preparing, circulating and forwarding petitions and keeping Parkes in touch with local opinions. On this subject he held clear personal views, and in later years he retained a very strong interest in the public schools: he watched the local schools carefully and reported defects, apparently anxious to meet criticism by promoting efficiency.

In 1880 Brunker himself was returned for East Maitland. He served as secretary for lands from August 1888 until the fourth Parkes ministry resigned in January 1889, and was again given the portfolio when Parkes resumed office in March. He was largely responsible for the Crown Lands Act of 1889, designed to close gaps in the Act of 1884 without making substantial alteration in its principles which had involved the abandonment of the Robertson philosophy. Brunker's Act dealt with two major administrative grievances, the oft-exercised power of the minister to alter pastoral rentals fixed by the district Land Boards and the uneconomic size of selections. The former problem was solved by the establishment of a Land Appeals Board to take over the appellate functions of the minister; the latter by an increase in the maximum size of selections to double the acreage formerly allowed in the eastern and central districts of the colony and to quadruple the previous maximum in the western district.

Although Brunker was one of the ministers who resented Parkes's action in making public federal approaches to the other colonies without having consulted his colleagues, the two men remained on good terms after Parkes's resignation, and even after Brunker joined the Reid government in 1894. In this government he was colonial secretary; during Reid's visit to London for the Diamond Jubilee he was acting premier. He was a member of the Federal Convention in 1897-98; there and later he substantially supported Reid's policies.

With the establishment of the Commonwealth Brunker was approached to stand as a free trade candidate against Barton for the federal seat of Hunter, but he decided to remain in State politics. When his seat was amalgamated with West Maitland in 1904, however, he was defeated. (Sir) Joseph Carruthers nominated him to the Legislative Council, where he remained, representing the government in 1905-07, until his retirement in 1909. He died at his home, Mandeville, West Maitland, on 5 June 1910, after a long illness. He was survived by his wife Elizabeth Hewlett, née Weiss, whom he had married in 1851, and by five of their ten children.

Brunker was a dour, rather unimaginative businessman with little capacity for policy making but with a talent for administration. The 1889 Land Act for the elimination of administrative abuses, and his thorough but unspectacular management of the Colonial Secretary's Department were typical of him. He had a marked strain of altruism which expressed itself in patronage not only of the public schools but also of churches, charitable institutions and particularly the East Maitland Mechanics' Institute—something of a model of its kind—as well as in a devotion to the private problems of his constituents. A life-long teetotaller, he had the reputation among his parliamentary colleagues of being rather a 'wowser'.

Select Bibliography

  • W. F. Morrison, The Aldine Centennial History of New South Wales, vol 2 (Syd, 1888)
  • H. Parkes, Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History (Lond, 1892)
  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • S. H. Roberts, History of Australian Land Settlement, 1788-1920 (Melb, 1924)
  • A. W. Martin, ‘Henry Parkes: Man and Politician’, ‘Faction Politics and the Education Question in New South Wales’, in E. L. French (ed), Melbourne Studies in Education 1960-1961 (Melb, 1962), pp 3-24
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 6 June 1910
  • Lord Carrington's diary (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

W. G. McMinn, 'Brunker, James Nixon (1832–1910)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/brunker-james-nixon-3095/text4585, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 13 December 2018.

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

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