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Cameron, James (1846–1922)

by R. C. Duplain

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

James Cameron (1846-1922), farmer, entrepreneur and politician, was born probably early in 1846 at Logie-Almond, Perthshire, Scotland, eldest child of Alexander Cameron and his wife Anne, née Pullar. Heeding the advice of a brother already in Victoria, Alexander and his wife and children left Liverpool in the Oliver Lang as unassisted migrants, arriving at Geelong in 1854. During nine years of tenant farming at Batesford, the children received a rudimentary education at home from an itinerant parson. Eventually the family was able to select six small blocks totalling 250 acres (101 ha) at Beremboke, but this failed to provide sufficient livelihood for a large family of eleven; hence James and two other brothers sought work as contractors, surveyors and leasehold farmers in the Western District. Angered at restrictions on small farmers, the brothers turned to the remote wilds of East Gippsland. In 1877 they each selected 340-acre (138 ha) blocks, with leasing rights to higher ground, on the Snowy River estuary at Orbost. On 30 April 1879 at Colac, James married 19-year-old Sarah Scouller, of Birregurra.

With a Highlander's perseverance, Cameron set to work draining and clearing the rich Orbost flats. Pioneering difficulties were compounded by labour shortages, distance to markets and flooding. He experimented with flax, beans and tobacco while relying on maize, pig-rearing and scientific dairying. Several times he resorted to hiring 'Hindoo' harvesters, a measure which was later to cause political embarrassment. He diversified into grazing and marble extraction at South Buchan and mining investment at Nowa Nowa; he became a director of the Orbost Butter and Produce Co., a distributor of farm-machinery and a manager of the schooner service to Melbourne.

In 1882 Cameron was the first Orbost councillor of the newly constituted Tambo Shire. In the next twenty years he served as justice of the peace, shire councillor, guardian of St James's Anglican Church, Sunday school superintendent, and president of the local agricultural society and railway league. His home was a large barn-like structure, built to serve as guest-house, hospital, post office, church and community hall. Cameron called it Lochiel after his traditional clan residence. Its grounds were the centre for community gatherings, agricultural fairs and sports such as tossing the caber. During floods he had '300 pigs in the loft … a family on top of that, and 10 to 12 feet of water under them'. By 1895 Cameron paid rates of £192 on thirteen properties; had a family of eight children; employed house-servants and farm-hands, and had time to lecture on Dickens and Sir Walter Scott to the local debating society. He was never too busy to conduct Melbourne officials over the bad roads with his skilfully driven four-in-hand team.

In 1902 Cameron won a by-election for Gippsland East and took his seat in the Legislative Assembly amid the cry for retrenchment created by the Kyabram reform movement. He was typical of the 'parish pump', 'roads and bridges' member who gave support to country-oriented Liberal and National ministries for concessions to his vast riding. During his eighteen years in parliament, Cameron proved to be a pragmatic, argumentative man, devoid of humour, who defended the small entrepreneurial designs of rural Victoria. He was unsympathetic to the urban unemployed, the aged poor and village settlers who, he considered, had not shown themselves to be thrifty. His proudest accomplishments were securing £1 million for East Gippsland development, bringing the railway to Orbost in 1916 and fathering the Country Roads Board.

Cameron was remembered for his startling no confidence motion against Sir Thomas Bent in December 1908, which took all the adversaries by surprise and ushered in the John Murray-W. A. Watt ministries. He had petitioned Bent in vain 'to buy an estate, put such families as you would find in Brighton … market gardening types' on the land and to develop a broader railway programme. As minister without portfolio in 1909-13 he tackled levee building on Victorian rivers, sewerage and harbour works and agricultural inspection. Although he initially felt that 'there was really too much talk in Parliament' and was 'opposed to

Royal Commissions', he proved a vigorous debater and served on five inquiries relating to the Lands Department, the Melbourne police (as chairman), vaccination efficiency, smallholdings and the drift of rural population. After winning six elections, he lost to a Victorian Farmers' Union candidate in 1920.

Cameron spent his last days at his beloved Lochiel suffering from a prolonged illness which was aggravated by a botched operation. Three of his sons served with distinction on the Western Front. He died on 13 July 1922, heart-broken at the loss of his youngest son from a riding accident. Cameron was buried in the Orbost cemetery, leaving an estate valued at £30,436 to his wife and seven surviving children who had managed his many enterprises.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vols 1-3 (Melb, 1903-05)
  • E. H. Sugden and F. W. Eggleston, George Swinburne (Syd, 1931)
  • Snowy River Mail, 18 Jan 1898, 14 June 1902, 9 Mar, 13 Apr 1895, 16 Jan 1916, 4 Nov 1920
  • Gippsland Times, 3 Dec 1908
  • Argus (Melbourne), 15 July 1922
  • M. Gilbert (ed), Personalities and Stories of the Early Orbost District (Orbost)
  • private information.

Citation details

R. C. Duplain, 'Cameron, James (1846–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cameron-james-5476/text9307, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 26 September 2017.

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

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