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Gregson, Jesse (1837–1919)

by Robin Gollan

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

Jesse Gregson (1837-1919), company superintendent, was born in Kent, England, son of William Gregson, solicitor, and his wife Caroline Augusta, née Hilder. Educated privately and in schools at Rochford, Hadleigh, London and Salisbury, he was articled at 15 to his father. Uninterested in the law and unsettled by his mother's death in 1852 and his father's remarriage in 1855 he left for Sydney in January 1856 and arrived with £50 in gold and letters of introduction to Robert and Frederick Tooth and others. He was coolly received by the Tooths but assisted warmly by Alexander Busby, a fellow passenger.

Unable to find suitable work in Sydney, Gregson accepted Busby's invitation to visit him at Llangollen station near Cassilis. He then worked for Dr Traill at Collaroy, a near-by station, where he learnt stock management, helped with the lambing for 15s. a week and in 1858 became head overseer at £80 a year. In May 1860, as Busby's partner, he overlanded 5000 ewes to a new station, Rainsworth, near the future town of Springsure in Queensland. In his memoirs Gregson recalled the hard first years: by 1867 plant and buildings had been established but 'we had made no progress in reducing the station debt or in bettering our position'. In that year he entered a new term of partnership of seven years and celebrated it by investigating the use of wire fencing in Victoria. With the decision and resolution which characterized his whole career, he soon fenced 20,000 acres (8094 ha) on Rainsworth: 'I was very proud of this exploit, the more so because I was the first to start wire fencing in that district'.

In 1870 Gregson accompanied Busby, who had been elected to the board of the Australian Agricultural Co., on a visit to Warrah, the company's station on the Liverpool Plains. Four years later Busby recommended him as superintendent of the company to replace Edward Merewether. Invited to England, he was appointed to the position and held it from 1875 to 1905. Under the London court of directors, he had charge of one of the most important enterprises in Australia. He applied himself with vigour to the care of the company's extensive pastoral and mining properties and his detailed reports to London reveal his energy and precise knowledge. In 1877-78 at Warrah 25,000 sheep died in a severe drought, a disaster which made Gregson doubt the value of pastoral investment, but by 1880 Warrah had 113,000 sheep and complete rabbit-proof fencing. He was responsive to increases in the value of company land that followed railway extensions and began the sale of property that in May 1893 culminated in the disposal of the Port Stephens estate. With Nelson Brothers he built a chilling and freezing works at Aberdeen.

Gregson soon mastered the coal-mining industry and became the outstanding spokesman of the colliery proprietors. In his dealings with the miners' union Gregson was both just and hard. He believed that it was wrong for miners employed by different companies to make common cause in a single union, and notably in 1882 he attempted several times to split the union by cutting the hewing rate and precipitating a strike. His aim was a union restricted to employees of his company: 'my objection was not therefore to trade unionism as a principle but to the Borehole Miners [A.A. Co.] continuing to join lots with those whom they have really very little in common'. His policy was opposed to the essential principle of unionism and Gregson was seen by unionists as their most determined opponent. On the other hand he was respected as a man of his word.

In the late 1880s Gregson began to take a leading part in the preparation of employers for the conflict between capital and labour which broke out in 1890. From 1888 he corresponded with shipowners and other employers, advocating the importance of united action. In the maritime strike he joined the intercolonial conference of employers which directed the strike on the employers' side and in 1890-91 he served on the royal commission on strikes. His knowledge of mining and industrial relations was also called on when he was appointed to the royal commission which prepared the case for the Coal Mines Regulation Act, 1896. This Act laid down much more rigorous regulations for health and safety of miners than any provided by previous Acts.

In 1870 Gregson had married Catherine, née Woore, widow of Alexander McLean, surveyor-general of New South Wales. He died aged 82 on 3 August 1919 at Katoomba and was buried in the Anglican section of Sandgate cemetery. Most of his estate of £17,500 was left to his surviving children. Much of his family life had been centred on a home built in 1880 at Mount Wilson in the Blue Mountains where they summered each year from December to April and Gregson pursued his amateur but informed interest in botany. The director of the Botanic Gardens wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald soon after Gregson died: 'Not only did he send large collections of dried plants and seeds on his own initiative, but nothing gave him greater pleasure than to hunt the neighbourhood for plants unrecorded from the area. He was a splendid correspondent, and followed up the life histories of a number of plants concerning which we had but little information, and in a few cases they turned out to be new to science'. His specimens are preserved by the National Herbarium of New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Gollan, The Coalminers of New South Wales (Melb, 1963)
  • Gregson papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • A.A. Co. papers (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

Robin Gollan, 'Gregson, Jesse (1837–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 29 October 2016.

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

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