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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Forsyth, James (1852–1927)

by Ruth S. Kerr

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

James Forsyth (1852-1927), company director and politician, was born in 1852 at West Plean, Stirling, Scotland, son of John Forsyth, farmer, and his wife Janet, née Munnock. Leaving the county school early, he worked with Henderson Bros, merchants in Stirling, and then spent five years with Arnott & Co. in Glasgow.

Forsyth stayed almost a year in Sydney after arriving early in 1875, then moved to Brisbane on Christmas eve. Employed by James Burns & Co. as their manager at Normanton from 1880, he was mainly responsible for the expansion of the firm's business in North Queensland. By 1884 he was paid more than any other employee and in 1883, when the business interests of Burns and (Sir) Robert Philp were amalgamated, he and his brother Adam became directors of Burns Philp & Co. Ltd. As the only director resident in Queensland from about 1893, he became very influential.

Forsyth's heavy investment in North Queensland mining started with the financing of a ten-head stamper battery on the Hodgkinson goldfield in 1876. His negotiations in Sydney with T. H. Kelly and G. S. Caird, in an attempt to establish Burns & Co.'s smelting works at Watsonville near Herberton, were indirectly responsible for excluding Kelly from the field as a competitor to John Moffat. Forsyth was a director of the Wild River Tin Mining Co. Ltd at Herberton in 1881 and was associated with Burns in financing Baker, Daniels and Denny's Monarch tin battery at Herberton in 1882-84. With J. V. Mulligan, he acquired the Mount Molloy copper-mine in 1896 when it was abandoned by its discoverer. They sold it to a Melbourne syndicate financed by (Sir) Alexander Peacock. The syndicate paid £6000, obtained a geologist's report indicating meagre copper reserves and, after sinking the shaft to 180 feet (55 m), abandoned the mine. As the property had not been legally transferred, Forsyth regained control and sold it again in 1902 to John Moffat for £1500.

Forsyth won Carpentaria in the Queensland Legislative Assembly in 1899 as a ministerial supporter. He was defeated in 1907 but won Moreton at a by-election in 1909; in 1912 he transferred to Murrumba and held it until his retirement in 1918. Lucid but not brilliant, he spoke rapidly in a broad Scots accent, judged all propsals by possible profit and relied for effect on the constant reiteration of simple ideas. Though an intimate friend of Philp (he was later an executor of his will) and an acknowledged authority on finance, Forsyth was never in a ministry. He and Philp invested together after 1911 in Thylungra and Kyabra consolidated runs in the Eromanga district west of Charleville. With Philp, Simon E. Munro, J. M. and P. L. Tully, solicitors, and John Cordner, manager of Kyabra, Forsyth formed the Kyabra Pastoral Co. in 1911 to take over the leases from Bodkin and Pepper. The lease of Thylungra was transferred from the Union Bank of Australia to Forsyth, Philp and Munro on 10 December 1913 and taken over on 13 November 1919 when the Thylungra Pastoral Co. was formed. Forsyth was a director of the North Queensland Insurance Co. (later the Queensland Insurance Co.). In 1919-27 he was honorary consul for Japan in Brisbane.

On 13 January 1882 Forsyth had married Helen Morrison Campbell; they had no children. He was a member of the Toowong Bowling Club and Indooroopilly and Stanthorpe golf clubs. He worshipped regularly at St Paul's Presbyterian Church and was a member of both the Queensland and Brisbane clubs.

Forsyth died at his Toowong home on 14 October 1927 and was buried in Toowong cemetery. His estate, valued for probate at £154,546 in Queensland and £103,044 in New South Wales, provided bequests for some of Burns Philp staff, war-widows and their children, the Brisbane Children's Hospital, Presbyterian homes and the Young Women's Christian Association. The University of Queensland received a bequest of £5000 towards endowment of a chair of agriculture. After his death the family gave the university a further £10,000 towards a building for its central library. The library now has a James Forsyth Reading Room and the librarian is officially designated 'the James Forsyth Librarian'.

Select Bibliography

  • G. C. Bolton, A Thousand Miles Away (Brisb, 1963)
  • Queenslander, 28 Oct 1876, 17 Sept 1881
  • Cairns Post, 23 Oct 1884, 28 June 1907
  • Brisbane Courier, 15 Oct 1927
  • Letters 3/404-526, 902, Philp papers (State Library of Queensland)
  • Company file, 26 of 1911, 45 of 1919, and LAN/N148, p 114, and SCTP/1591, file 851/1927 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

Ruth S. Kerr, 'Forsyth, James (1852–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 24 September 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 8

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