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Mirams, James (1839–1916)

by S. M. Ingham

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

James Mirams (1839-1916), promoter and politician, was born on 2 January 1839 at Lambeth, London, third son of James Mirams, Congregational minister, and his wife Elizabeth, née Cole. Educated at a Congregational school at Chishall, he trained as an ironmonger and worked at Royston. When his father accepted the position of minister at the Independent Church, Collins Street, Melbourne, Mirams sailed with the family and arrived in June 1857. He tried dairy farming at Braybrook until all his cattle died, and then became a teacher at the National school in Fitzroy and in 1863-74 a bookseller, stationer and newsagent at Collingwood.

In 1874 Mirams was the promoter and secretary of the Premier Permanent Building, Land, and Investment Association, which had a flourishing business by the mid-1880s. In that decade he became involved in numerous speculations, such as the Freehold Farms Co. and the Essendon Land and Tramway Co. Ltd. A Sabbatarian and a leading temperance advocate, he was also the promoter of the flamboyantly designed Federal Coffee Palace which was opened in time for the 1888 Exhibition.

Between 1871 and 1875 Mirams had made four unsuccessful attempts to enter the Legislative Assembly, but represented Collingwood from February 1876 to February 1886 and Williamstown from November 1887 to March 1889. Politically he was a staunch Liberal and at first a committed follower of Graham Berry. A founder of the Liberal party, he was secretary of the Central Council of the Victorian Protection League in 1875-76 and of the National Reform and Protection League in 1877. The Sydney Bulletin described him as one of the most 'uncompromising democrats' of the 1880s. No doubt his long political association with the distinctly working-class suburb of Collingwood helped to shape his views. A consistent critic of the Legislative Council during the constitutional crisis in 1877-80, he opposed plural voting and supported payment of members and uniform electorates. He was an ardent protectionist and sought to improve the new system of state schools. He advocated the leasing of remaining crown lands (a principle partly accepted in 1884) and the establishment of a national bank of issue. In 1885, a time of rampant 'jingoism', he opposed aid to the British government in the Sudan and in 1886, with the apparent success of Parnell at Westminster, he was one of the few Protestant politicians openly to favour Home Rule. Yet apart from appointment as chairman of the royal commission on the tariff in 1881-83 Mirams's political fortunes did not prosper. Perhaps he was too doctrinaire to be trusted in a Liberal party which represented a coalition of interests. He quarrelled with Berry over the compromise settlement of the constitutional question, and condemned the formation of the coalition Conservative-Liberal ministry in 1883. He hoped to succeed Berry as party leader but Alfred Deakin was preferred in 1885. The election of 1886 revealed his frustrations and was a portent of his later political affiliations. Under the auspices of a hastily-formed National Liberal League, Mirams and F. H. Bromley, president of the Trades Hall Council, ran on the same ticket for Collingwood but both were defeated.

Mirams's political reverses coincided with his frenetic role as one of the pace-makers of the land boom. In 1887 £300,000 was placed on deposit with the Premier Building Association; the amount doubled next year when its affairs were in utter disorder; the society had borrowed more than the legal limit of three times its paid-up capital. Much of the new money was borrowed on the security of the society's own loans to borrowers. In November he resigned as secretary; the first signs of the 'pricking' of the land boom, his mismanagement of the society's finances and his embarrassing involvement in other speculations forced the issue. The society closed its doors in December 1889. Meanwhile Mirams had invested £1 million in land purchases; in March 1890 he filed his application for liquidation by arrangement, the schedule showing debts of £373,485. His estate eventually paid 2d. in the £1. In November 1890 he was convicted of issuing a false balance sheet with intent to defraud on behalf of the Premier Building Association, and was sentenced to a year's imprisonment.

After his release Mirams continually protested his innocence; in 1896 he lost a protracted libel action against the Argus. For a time he was a milkman and then an accountant. In 1900 he published A Generation of Victorian Politics in Melbourne. In 1901 he failed dismally in the first elections for the House of Representatives. In 1911 he was the unsuccessful Labor candidate for the state seat of Evelyn. He died on 21 June 1916, survived by his wife Mary Ann, née Paterson, whom he had married in 1859, and by seven sons and three daughters.

In passing sentence in 1890, Chief Justice Higinbotham had summed up Mirams's main failing: 'you are in the position of a man who will not look at the facts, and who is determined not to consider that it may be possible that he has done wrong'. With strong opinions and inflexible views, he was less fortunate than other leading 'boomers' during Victoria's economic débâcle of the early 1890s.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melb, 1966)
  • G. Serle, The Rush to be Rich (Melb, 1971)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 Oct, 27 Dec 1890, 18 Apr, 18 May 1896.

Citation details

S. M. Ingham, 'Mirams, James (1839–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mirams-james-4208/text6775, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 25 November 2017.

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

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