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MacBain, Sir James (1828–1892)

by J. Ann Hone

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

James MacBain (1828-1892), by unknown engraver

James MacBain (1828-1892), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN01/12/92/8

Sir James MacBain (1828-1892), businessman and politician, was born on 19 April 1828 at Kinrives, Ross-shire, Scotland, son of Smith MacBain, farmer, and his wife Christina, née Taylor. The family later moved to Invergordon. A sickly child, James blamed a bad fall from a horse for his slight education. In 1845 he was indentured to an Inverness draper and in 1852 he became a commercial traveller with John Milligan, Son & Co. of Bradford, visiting much of Scotland and Northern Ireland. In May 1853 he married Jessie Smith of Forres and in October they arrived in the Great Britain at Melbourne. MacBain worked in the branch of the Bank of New South Wales. He visited Britain in 1857 and on his return became managing partner of the mercantile and pastoral agency, Gibbs, Ronald & Co. which in 1863 amalgamated with Richards Gibbs & Co. In 1865 the Australian Mortgage (Mercantile) Land and Finance Co. bought the business and MacBain continued as chairman and managing director for twenty-five years. He bought Glen Nevis station near Kilmore and by the late 1870s owned 40,183 freehold acres (16,262 ha) and leased 85,365 acres (34,546 ha) in the Murrumbidgee and Lachlan districts, but he rarely visited his northern runs.

In 1864 MacBain won the Wimmera seat in the Legislative Assembly. He consistently opposed the McCulloch ministry, the Darling grant and the extension of railways to Gippsland. He opposed the 1873 Land Act amendment bill because he 'had formed [his] opinions on the land question before [he] ever became identified with pastoral pursuits'. The squatter, he claimed, must give way to the selector but must be justly compensated. MacBain was chairman of the Board for the Protection of Aborigines during a stormy period. He favoured the abolition of state aid but opposed the 1872 education bill and in the debate on payment of members displayed his conciliatory powers.

MacBain served on many finance committees and was a director of the Colonial Bank of Australasia, the Victorian Fire and Marine Insurance Co., the Australasian Fire, Marine and Life Assurance Co., the Australian Mutual Provident Society and at different times local director of the London Chartered and the English, Scottish and Australian Banks. He was a trustee of the Working Men's College and of the Public Library and National Gallery, a member of the Victorian Employers' Union, a founder and president of the Australian Club and president of the Kilmore Agricultural Society. In 1880 pressure of work obliged him to resign from the Legislative Assembly and in May he entered the Legislative Council as member for Central Province, which became South Yarra Province in 1882. From August 1881 to March 1883 he was member without portfolio of the O'Loghlen government, cajoled by Bent into accepting office, according to Deakin. MacBain was chairman of the Victorian Commission at the Amsterdam Exhibition in 1883 and next year succeeded Sir William Mitchell as council president. A surprise choice to some, MacBain's election was welcomed by the Argus for this citizen of 'credit and renown' had a legislative career unblemished by 'dereliction of duty' or unpleasantness. As president he had great social obligations and entertained Lord Rosebery and the Earl of Carnarvon. MacBain was knighted in 1886 and appointed K.C.M.G. in 1889. He was also president of the executive commission of the 1888 Centennial Exhibition.

An ardent but tolerant Presbyterian, Sir James belonged to the Chalmers Church congregation, donated the site and funds for the Toorak Presbyterian Church and manse, and was a prominent member of the General Assembly; he attempted to mediate in the Charles Strong heresy case. He was a trustee of Scotch College and the Presbyterian Ladies' College, a councillor of Ormond College and an executor of Francis Ormond's will. MacBain was an enthusiastic member of the Royal Caledonian Society and as its president gave an inaugural celebration in the Town Hall to which he invited 1000 guests. He also loved weddings and parties and, though his leisure was restricted, he was a keen golfer, attending the formative meetings of the (Royal) Melbourne Golf Club.

At the height of his career Sir James suffered severe hepatitis from which he did not completely recover. He died on 4 November 1892 at his home, Scotsburn, Toorak. His funeral procession was two miles (3.2 km) long and plans for a public memorial were discussed almost immediately. His estate was valued at £48,000. He was survived by his wife but was childless though he had adopted a nephew who took his name. Alfred Deakin described MacBain as a stolid, sturdy, honourable old Tory and the Argus wrote, 'if he was everywhere popular it was by no means because he was all things to all men … he had views of his own and a backbone of his own, only, as he never obtruded his ideas about racing, and about the amusements he considered dubious, he was respected when in a kind spirit he deemed it necessary to assert them'.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Humphreys (ed), Men of the Time in Australia: Victoria series, 1st ed (Melb, 1878)
  • T. W. H. Leavitt (ed), Australian Representative Men (Melb, 1887)
  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • J. D. Bailey, A Hundred Years of Pastoral Banking (Oxford, 1966)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1879-80, 3 (72)
  • Warrnambool Standard, 17 Jan 1880
  • Argus (Melbourne), 6 Sept, 28 Nov 1884, 10 Nov 1891, 5, 8 Nov 1892
  • Australasian, 12 Nov, 17 Dec 1892
  • Australasian Insurance and Banking Record, 17 Nov 1892
  • J. E. Parnaby, The Economic and Political Development of Victoria, 1877-1881 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1951).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. Ann Hone, 'MacBain, Sir James (1828–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/macbain-sir-james-4063/text6477, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 23 October 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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