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Fletcher, James (1834–1891)

by Robin Gollan

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

James Fletcher (1834-1891), by unknown photographer

James Fletcher (1834-1891), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23616382

James Fletcher (1834-1891), coalminer and owner, newspaper proprietor and politician, was born in August 1834 at Dalkeith, East Lothian, Scotland, son of William Fletcher and his wife Ann, née Crawford. As a boy he worked as a coal-miner. He reached Australia in February 1851, went to the goldfields and then settled in Newcastle where he worked in the Burwood and Borehole collieries. He concentrated on helping the miners and was responsible for the Australian Agricultural Co.'s sick and accident fund. In 1860 he was elected chairman of the new Hunter River Miners' Association. Within a year the union was involved in the colony's first serious industrial dispute after the men refused to accept a 20 per cent reduction in hewing rates. Disunity amongst the proprietors gave victory to the union. On 25 November 1861 the union established the New South Wales Co-operative Coal Co. Fletcher was chairman and manager until it failed. He then managed J. & A. Brown's Minmi collieries but soon returned to manage the revived Co-operative mine until 1880. He represented it on the Masters' Association which he helped to found. He also became managing director of the Wickham and Bullock Island Coal Co. and part-owner of Ferndale Colliery. In 1874-75 he was mayor of Wallsend and in 1876 of Plattsburg.

In the early 1870s Fletcher upheld the cause of the miners when the coal industry was depressed. He favoured the vend system of controlled marketing which also provided for a sliding scale of wages according to the price of coal. The scheme was adopted to the profit of the mine-owners. In 1876-89 Fletcher was proprietor of the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate. At one stage he ran into financial difficulties and was helped by the Browns; in 1884 James Brown sued for recovery of his money but Fletcher was saved from ruin by his friends who raised over £4000.

In 1880-91 as a protectionist he represented Newcastle in the Legislative Assembly. His 'rugged eloquence' and integrity commanded the respect of both sides in the House and he carried six private Acts. He opposed Alexander Stuart's government and the Sudan expedition. In February 1886 because of his mining interests he was strongly criticized for becoming secretary for mines under Patrick Jennings but he had accepted office on the understanding that later he was to be minister of railways. He resigned his portfolio on 23 December. He pleased his constituents with his success in abolishing excessive wharfage dues at Newcastle and advocating the eight-hour system. In March 1888 he won a court case after John Haynes had sued him for assault in parliament. In 1889 he was secretary for public works in Sir George Dibbs's government.

Fletcher had successfully mediated in strikes in the 1880s and in 1890 was appointed to the royal commission on strikes, but after a week poor health induced him to visit Tasmania and Victoria. He died from heart disease and apoplexy in Melbourne on 19 March 1891. He was survived by his wife Isabella, née Birrell, whom he had married at Wallsend in 1854, and by six sons and three daughters. Past master of St James's Lodge, Plattsburg, and a member of Lodge Harmony, Newcastle, he was buried in the Wallsend cemetery with Masonic rites. An editorial in the Daily Telegraph claimed that 'he has enriched the Browns and other colliery proprietors; he has advanced the prosperity of Newcastle as no other man has done; he has improved the condition of the miners; and in doing all this he had impoverished himself'. His last years were clouded by financial worries and his estate was valued at only £858. In 1897 a statue was erected by public subscription in Newcastle Lower Reserve 'to commemorate James Fletcher as a friend of the miners'.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Digby (ed), Australian Men of Mark, vol 1 (Syd, 1889)
  • G. H. Kingsmill, The Coal Miners of Newcastle, N.S.W. (Newcastle, 1890)
  • R. Gollan, The Coalminers of New South Wales (Melb, 1963)
  • Brown v Fletcher, New South Wales Law Reports vol 5, 1884, pp 393-405
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 1876-1891
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 27 Sept 1884
  • Town and Country Journal, 30 Apr 1887, 26 Jan 1889, 28 Mar 1891.

Citation details

Robin Gollan, 'Fletcher, James (1834–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fletcher-james-3538/text5455, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 2 November 2014.

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

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