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Cuming, James (1861–1920)

by John Lack

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

James Cuming (1861-1920), businessman, was born at Portland, Maine, United States of America, second son of James Cuming (1835-1911) and his wife Elizabeth, née Smith, of Aberdeenshire, Scotland, who had migrated first to St John, New Brunswick, Canada. In 1862 the family went to Melbourne and Cuming senior prospered as a farrier. He worked on the construction of acid works, studied chemistry at the public library and in 1872 joined his brother-in-law George Smith and a fellow Aberdonian, the merchant Charles Campbell, in purchasing a chemical works at Yarraville. In 1875 Cuming Smith & Co. leased adjoining bone-mills and entered the fertiliser trade, manufacturing bone dust and bone and guano superphosphate. In the next twenty-five years they adopted overseas innovations in acid manufacture, substituted rock phosphate for bone in the production of fertiliser, and established a network of distributors in the Victorian wheat-belt. In 1881 George Smith left the partnership.

Cuming senior's eldest son, Robert Burns (1859-1910), established in 1882 the Adelaide Chemical Works Co., a joint venture of Cuming, Alfred Felton, F. S. Grimwade and Campbell. James junior, educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School in 1876-79, furthered his study of industrial chemistry with a tour of the United States, Europe and Great Britain in 1884. Admitted to partnership in Cuming Smith, he became head chemist and later manager.

James senior retained a keen interest in the business, but his activities as a Footscray councillor and as a patron of societies, churches and charities absorbed much of his time. He also travelled extensively overseas. His other sons, George, Mari and William, attended Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and received a practical education at Yarraville, in technical institutes and on tour with their father. They were works managers at Yarraville, Port Melbourne and Yarra Junction.

James junior became general manager of the new company upon the amalgamation in 1897 of Cuming Smith & Co. and Felton, Grimwade & Co.'s acid and chemical works at Port Melbourne. He prevented ruinous competition with rivals Wischer & Co. (1895), Federal Fertilisers (1904), and Mount Lyell (1905) by securing adoption of gentlemen's agreements on prices and marketing, formalized in 1907 by the creation of the Victorian Fertilizer Association. He was a founder of the Society of Chemical Industry of Victoria and president in 1903 and 1914. During a world tour in 1904 he studied new developments in fertiliser and chemical plants; in 1907 he established at Yarra Junction a wood distillation works to produce chemicals previously imported. He also initiated sickness and retirement benefits for employees, but the increasing scale of business, the intervention of wage-fixing tribunals and militant unionism gradually eroded the old paternalist relations. His notes and addresses as president of the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures, 1917-20, and of the Old Melburnians, 1918-19, reveal the social and political fissures opened by the conscription and strike issues during World War I. He was not only angered by the disloyalty of militant unionists and political radicals but saddened by the collapse of the partnership of capital and labour.

Upon his death, aged 58, on 31 May 1920, James Cuming junior was acknowledged as one of Australia's foremost industrialists. On 3 February 1885 he had married Alice, daughter of W. M. Fehon, and their daughter and four of their five sons lived to maturity—the eldest, William Fehon (1886-1933), became on his father's death general manager of Cuming Smith & Co., and subsequently of Cuming Smith & Mount Lyell Farmers Fertilisers Ltd and of Commonwealth Fertilisers and Chemicals Ltd, created as a result of amalgamation of the major fertiliser interests in Western Australia and Victoria in 1928 and 1929. The youngest son Mariannus Adrian (1901-1988) became manager in Western Australia in 1933 and in Victoria in 1943, and was subsequently chairman of the associated fertiliser companies. James Cuming senior, who died on 18 October 1911, is commemorated in Footscray by a marble bust, commissioned by public subscription and executed by Margaret Baskerville; a portrait is in the possession of the City of Footscray. In memory of James junior, Cuming Smith & Co. Ltd financed a lecture theatre and research laboratory in the School of Chemistry at the University of Melbourne; a portrait is held by M. A. Cuming of Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • M. A Cuming (ed), James Cuming: An Autobiography (priv print, 1916)
  • J. R. Poynter, Russell Grimwade (Melb, 1967)
  • J. F. Lack, Footscray: An Industrial Suburban Community (Ph.D. thesis, Monash University, 1976), and for bibliography
  • Cuming Smith & Co. papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

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Citation details

John Lack, 'Cuming, James (1861–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cuming-james-5844/text9931, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 9 December 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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