Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ewan, James (1843–1903)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

James Ewan (1843-1903), financier, was born on 18 July 1843 near Leith Walk, Edinburgh, son of James Ewan, headmaster and author of geography books, and his wife Mary, née Blair. In March 1849 he arrived at Sydney with his parents in the Zemindar. He was educated at his father's school in York Street and at the West Maitland Presbyterian High School. In November 1857 he entered the warehouse of his brother-in-law, John Frazer, where he became a partner in 1869 with another brother-in-law, James Watson, in John Frazer & Co., wholesale merchants. After Frazer's death in 1884 Ewan and Watson ran the firm until it was liquidated in 1891, 'all the partners retiring on fairly ample fortunes'. They remained trustees of Frazer's vast estate which included five important city buildings. On 25 April 1875 Ewan became a director of the United Insurance Co. and was its chairman in 1877-1903. In January 1878 he became a director of the Australasian Steam Navigation Co. and chairman six months later. He was also a director of the Waratah Coal Co. and sat on the committee of the Chamber of Commerce. By 1879 he had moved to Ranelagh, Darling Point. In March 1882 on medical advice he reluctantly agreed to visit the East and England, after threatening to stay in Sydney if Watson resigned the Treasury to attend to the additional business caused by his absence.

In January 1884 Ewan resumed the unenviable post of chairman of the A.S.N. Co. It had paid no dividends for many years and its shares were far below par. Since the seamen's strike in 1879, which had been directed against the company, and the seamen's agreement of 1884, he foresaw more trouble with labour organizations and decided to realize the company's assets. Its fleet was sold for £200,000, and the appreciation of its landed property and wharves enabled the company to pay its shareholders over 20s. in the £. Ewan himself negotiated with Sir Henry Parkes the sale of their Circular Quay wharf property to the government for £275,000. After the liquidation Ewan retained his interest in shipping and owned with Watson the Grafton wharf property, which was leased to Burns, Philp & Co. for £14,000 a year until resumed by the government in 1900. In 1885 he became a director of the City Bank and as its chairman in 1892-1903 guided it through the crisis of 1893; it was one of four banks in Sydney which did not close their doors, although its dividend was reduced to 4 per cent.

Ewan was public spirited and 'privately an ardent politician' but he never tried to enter parliament. He was a magistrate, a trustee of the Savings Bank of New South Wales, a director and honorary treasurer of Sydney Hospital, a member of the Sydney Benevolent Society and on the committee of the Sydney Bethel Union in 1876. He largely contributed to building the Nepean Cottage Hospital and to Hope House, a convalescent home next to Glenleigh, his country home on the Nepean River. By 1880 he had acquired two stations in Queensland, Gunnawarra, carrying 10,000 cattle, and Waterview; in 1891 he bought Gunningbland near Forbes and later acquired three other stations which were managed by his sons. In 1899 he shore over 60,000 sheep with machines.

Ewan was a member of a tightly-knit family group of Scottish merchants. With 'keen business ability', he was a 'greatly trusted financial man'. He was also a staunch member and a generous supporter of the Presbyterian Church. He died of influenza on 1 August 1903 at Glenleigh and was buried in the Presbyterian section of Rookwood cemetery. He had suffered from chronic bronchitis and nephritis for thirty years. He was survived by his wife Marion Jane, daughter of Rev. John Reid and sister of G. H. Reid, whom he had married in 1872, and by their two sons and six daughters. He left nearly £48,000 to his widow, providing that she did not remarry, and to his children; his eldest son had been disinherited in 1902.

Select Bibliography

  • Report of the Royal Commission on Strikes (Syd, 1891), p.196
  • The City Bank of Sydney 1863-1913 (Syd, 1913)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1887-88, 3, 981
  • Banking and Insurance Review, Sept 1900, Aug 1903
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Aug 1903
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Ewan, James (1843–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ewan-james-3490/text5349, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 22 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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