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Gillies, James Hynds (1861–1942)

by Allan Knight and Ann G. Smith

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

James Hynds Gillies (1861-1942), inventor and industrialist, was born on 11 November 1861 at Millers Forest, New South Wales, son of Malcolm Gillies, farmer, and his wife Margaret, née McPherson, migrants from the Isle of Skye, Scotland. With a strong Presbyterian upbringing, Gillies intended to study for the ministry; but instead, from about 1887 until 1894 he sold real estate through the Eastern Suburbs Agency Co. at Paddington, Sydney. On 25 August 1886 at East St Leonards he married Annie Griffiths with Congregational forms; they had six children.

In the mid-1890s Gillies qualified as a metallurgist in Sydney, and spent several years working on various mining fields. In 1905 he became manager of the Gillies Sulphide Concentrating Machine Ltd. The company erected a plant, including mechanical patents invented by Gillies, to treat tailings from the Block 10 Mine at Broken Hill, using the (C.V.) Potter process: the attempt failed. Next year Gillies moved to Melbourne and in 1907 took out patents in the United States of America, Germany, Belgium, Mexico and Australasia for an electrolytic process for the treatment of refractory zinciferous ores. After an experimental plant in Melbourne succeeded he floated the Complex Ores Co. in 1908 and proposed to set up a full-scale works in Tasmania, utilizing hydro-electric power from the waters of the Great Lake and the Ouse and Shannon rivers.

The hydro-electric scheme had been suggested to Gillies by Harold Bisdee and Professor Alexander McAulay and was the subject of negotiations with the Tasmanian government in 1908 and 1909. Gillies's original proposal was for the government to harness the power and sell it to the Complex Ores Co. at a cheap rate; when this proved unacceptable he sought the right for the company to generate the electricity itself at Waddamana. Gillies had to contend with much local opposition: although he insisted that he needed the cheap power only in order to operate his metallurgical reduction works, he was attacked as a monopolist, especially by the Hobart Gas Co. and Edward Mulcahy, later minister for lands and mines; the Hercules Mining Co. also withdrew support for the scheme in favour of its own proposed method of zinc extraction. The requisite authority was granted in the Complex Ores Act of 1909, which allocated a site at Electrona, a deep-water port on North West Bay, for the proposed refining plant, but clauses were inserted requiring completion of the scheme by January 1914 and the company's continuous use of 3000 horsepower in metallurgical works.

To finance the hydro-electric development the Complex Ores subsidiary Hydro-Electric Power and Metallurgical Co. Ltd was formed in January 1911. Gillies, who travelled to London to raise the capital, found it expedient to include a calcium carbide works in the scheme as added security to shareholders. He was later to argue, successfully, that completion of these works, even without the zinc treatment plant, would fulfil the requirements of the Act. Work began in August and contracts were let for the lighting of Hobart streets and the operation of flour and woollen mills.

By the end of 1912 an expansion of the original hydro-electric project, coupled with bad weather and trouble with carriage, trade unions and the contracting engineers from British Westinghouse Co., plunged the company into serious financial difficulty. Gillies believed that matters were worsened by adverse publicity and that the parliamentary resolution setting up a select committee of inquiry that year was prejudicial to the company: 'It is not advisable when a man is hard up to advertise it from the housetops'. An intransigent man, he reacted violently against attempts by Henry Jones to gain control of the company. Unexpectedly, Gillies could not raise further capital in London and in May 1914 the hydro-electric undertaking was purchased by the Earle Labor government at cost price and a State Hydro-Electric Department established.

After the sale of the concession Gillies abandoned his zinc extraction scheme and concentrated on his carbide enterprise at Electrona; but difficulties in obtaining materials retarded progress and it was not until after World War I that production began. In 1921 Gillies was managing director of Carbide & Electro Products Ltd with his eldest son Percy McPherson manager of the works. Meanwhile, in 1916, the government, with surplus electricity supply on its hands, entered into a contract with Amalgamated Zinc (De Bavay's) Ltd to produce zinc at Risdon.

In 1924 Gillies's company went into receivership and was taken over by the Hydro-Electric Department. Gillies moved to Sydney where he continued to exercise his inventive bent, taking out patents for improved car lighting, sound-proofing with diatomaceous earth and for a new type of refrigeration using dry ice. In 1935, when virtually bankrupt, he was granted an annual pension of £350 by the Tasmanian government for services rendered to the State. He died, 'disillusioned … frail, disappointed', on 26 September 1942 at South Camberwell, Melbourne, and was cremated, survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter. Gillies was a member of the Royal Society of Tasmania from 1920. Ida McAulay described him in his younger days as 'a sanguine, enthusiastic little man with bright eyes', 'an inventor and a dreamer—a gentleman who took no account of the ways of big business and men with financial power'.

Select Bibliography

  • Hydro-Electric Dept (Tas), Souvenir Programme … Inauguration of the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Power Scheme … (Hob, 1916)
  • Votes and Proceedings (House of Assembly, Tasmania), 1909 (38), 1912 (45), 1914 (9) (10)
  • Papers and Proceedings of the Tasmanian Historical Research Association, 6 (1957), no 2, 8 (1959), no 1, 8 (1960), no 4
  • Institute of Engineers, Australia, Transactions, 7 (1926), p 3ff
  • Mercury (Hobart), 28 Sept 1942
  • Examiner (Launceston), 14 Sept 1951
  • Gillies papers (University of Tasmania Archives): I. McAulay, Kanna Leena (typescript, NS 374/14, Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • private information.

Citation details

Allan Knight and Ann G. Smith, 'Gillies, James Hynds (1861–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gillies-james-hynds-6386/text10913, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 19 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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