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Byrnes, James (1806–1886)

by G. P. Walsh

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

James Byrnes (1806-1886), by unknown photographer

James Byrnes (1806-1886), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

James Byrnes (1806-1886), manufacturer, politician and public servant, was born on 15 January 1806 at Edgeworthstown, County Longford, Ireland, son of James Byrnes, a pensioner of the 8th Regiment, and his wife Frances, née Moorhouse. His father volunteered for garrison duty in New South Wales and in July 1808 arrived with his family in the Recovery at Sydney, where he was attached to the New South Wales Corps and later to the 73rd Regiment.

Byrnes was apprenticed as a carpenter to James Smith and later carried on business as a builder with great success. In the 1830s in association with his brother William he was a pioneer of steam ferry transport on the Parramatta River. In 1840-41 they erected a steam flour-mill on land leased from William Macarthur and in 1844-46 built an adjoining cloth factory which produced the first tartans manufactured in the colony; this venture was quite lucrative, but after the discovery of gold the mill had to close for five years. In 1862 Byrnes told the select committee on manufactures and agriculture that he employed about fifty persons and that his tweed mill represented a capital investment of some £40,000. He was also engaged with his brother in general commerce. Among Byrnes's other business interests were the Illawarra Steam Navigation Co. and the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society, in both of which he was a director.

Byrnes had a somewhat chequered political career partly because of his intolerant and irascible nature. He was elected to the Legislative Council for the County of Cumberland in March 1850 but was defeated in 1851. In October 1856 he was elected for Cumberland (South Riding) to the first Legislative Assembly and in January 1858 for Parramatta. In the elections of December 1860 he was returned with John Lackey, a newcomer who polled some fifty votes more than Byrnes. At the declaration of the poll when the other candidates returned their thanks to the electors Byrnes upbraided them: 'You have thought fit to decide in placing Mr. Lackey at the head of the poll … I can see in him no such virtue as would warrant such a course like that'. He said he would take the advice of his friends on this severe vote of censure and if they concurred with his interpretation he would retire from the constituency. He did, and resigned his seat on 26 March 1861. Meantime he had tried his fortune at Windsor but was defeated, and in May 1861 he was one of the new nominees to the Legislative Council but was unable to take his seat. In 1862-66 he had to be content with the office of mayor of Parramatta, though in November 1864 he was elected for Parramatta to the assembly. From January 1866 to October 1868 and from December 1870 to 13 May 1872 he was secretary for public works in the second and third Martin ministries. Early in 1872 the Martin government was defeated on border customs duties which Byrnes favoured, and in the elections of February Byrnes was defeated by James Farnell and Hugh Taylor. He took his defeat with customary bad grace and in an ill-natured speech at the declaration of the poll castigated the electors who 'had plumped and voted for the broomstick man, the umbrella man … if all Parramatta were to go on their knees and request me to accept a seat in the Legislative Assembly as their representative I would not'. Byrnes never returned to parliament but became a public servant; on 20 July 1875 he was appointed valuer in the Public Works Department in connexion with the resumption of land by the government for railway purposes, and held the office until 1886.

Although uneducated and not particularly astute on the hustings Byrnes had administrative ability and his personal and political character won high praise from Henry Parkes who informed John Dunmore Lang in 1868 that Byrnes was 'an influential Colonist and an influential member of a Christian Church [who] enjoyed a large share of public esteem' and generally subscribed to 'the same articles of political faith' as Lang himself. Whatever the last phrase meant, Byrnes was certainly a prominent Methodist. He took a leading part in building the first Wesleyan church at Parramatta, where for some years he was a Sunday school teacher and circuit steward. For his local importance he also won offices of trust; he was a magistrate, trustee of the Parramatta Savings Bank, president of the district hospital 1869-73, and with his brother was associated with the Parramatta Benevolent Society.

He was twice married; first in 1826 at Parramatta to Ruth Barber, by whom he had five sons and a daughter; second on 30 September 1852 at Mudgee to Ann Harris, by whom he had one daughter. The youngest son, Charles Joseph (1835-1917), took over the woollen mill, represented Parramatta in the Legislative Assembly in 1874-77 and 1880-82 and was many times mayor of Parramatta. Byrnes died at his home, Edgeworth Cottage, Macquarie Street, Parramatta, on 17 September 1886 and was buried in the Wesleyan cemetery, Rookwood; his wife died on 10 August 1889, aged 75.

His brother William was born on 2 June 1809 at Parramatta. He was apprenticed to Richard Hunt, saddler. He was later associated with James in various enterprises but unlike his brother he was very retiring and took little interest in public affairs. However, he was appointed to the Legislative Council in August 1858 and in September 1861 became a member for life. Ill health prevented his constant attendance and during at least his last ten years he never spoke on a measure. At his death on 25 October 1891 at Parramatta he had the distinction of being both the oldest member of the Legislative Council and the oldest Freemason in the colony. At St John's Church, Parramatta, on 6 December 1834 he had married Ann, second daughter of Francis Oakes; she died on 5 October 1880, survived by four sons and five daughters of their fourteen children.

Select Bibliography

  • Select Committee on Roads and Bridges, Evidence, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1846, 2, 525
  • Select Committee on Manufactures and Agriculture, Evidence, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1862, 5, 1047
  • J. Jervis, ‘A History of Politics and Politicians in Parramatta’, Journal and Proceedings (Parramatta and District Historical Society) vol 3, 1926, pp 19-38
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 May 1840, 3 Nov 1843, 28 Oct 1844, 9, 15, 18 Mar 1850, 8, 10 Dec 1860, 22 Feb 1872, 18 Sept 1886, 26 Oct 1891, 20 July 1921
  • Cumberland Mercury, 22 Sept 1886
  • Weekly Advocate (Sydney), 23 Oct 1886
  • Town and Country Journal, 31 Oct 1891
  • J. D. Lang papers, vol 22, p 49 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • J. & W. Byrnes, letters and papers 1840-82, Macarthur papers, part 3 other estates (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Byrnes, James (1806–1886)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/byrnes-james-3135/text4673, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 19 November 2017.

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

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