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Mitchell, James (1792–1869)

by Elizabeth Guilford

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

James Mitchell (1792-1869), by unknown artist, 1854

James Mitchell (1792-1869), by unknown artist, 1854

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 12487

James Mitchell (1792-1869), physician and industrialist, was born in Fife, Scotland, the fourth son of David Mitchell, farmer of Capledrae and Feuar in Aberdour, and his wife Margaret, née Low. Educated locally he joined the Army Medical Corps in 1810, and in April 1812 qualified as a licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons at Edinburgh. In the Napoleonic wars Mitchell saw active service in Spain, in America at the battle of New Orleans, and in the Netherlands. He was stationed at the British military hospital in Brussels during the battle of Waterloo. In June 1820 he was appointed assistant surgeon to the 48th regiment then stationed in Sydney and arrived in November 1821 in the John Barry.

In June 1823 he was transferred to the Colonial Medical Department as an assistant surgeon and posted to the Sydney Hospital. Mitchell later claimed that he was in charge of the hospital from 1825 until 1837, but he was not officially appointed surgeon until 1 January 1829. During the inquiry into the death of Joseph Sudds of the 57th Regiment Mitchell gave evidence that incurred the displeasure of Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling. After being sentenced for petty theft and then heavily ironed by Darling's orders Sudds had died on 27 November 1826, according to Mitchell, as a result of 'inanition in conjunction with all the disturbing passions caused or connected with his unfortunate position'. However, a year later Darling recommended Mitchell's promotion to surgeon.

Mitchell continued to receive half-pay as a military officer until his resignation from the army in 1833. About that time he opened a private practice at Cumberland Place which he ran in conjunction with his duties at the hospital. He ran into trouble in April 1836 when on orders from London the Medical Department was placed under military regulations and reorganized by John Vaughan Thompson, deputy-inspector-general of hospitals. Thompson soon aroused the hostility of the colonial medical officers, especially Mitchell, by a series of petty and ill-timed orders and constant interference in established routines. In March 1837 Mitchell complained to the government, bitterly attacking Thompson's treatment of him, and his administration of the entire department. Thompson immediately brought countercharges of disobedience against Mitchell; this led to an official inquiry, after which Governor Sir Richard Bourke severely criticized Mitchell's actions and warned him against future disobedience. On 9 August Thompson issued an order making Mitchell directly responsible for medical duties at the convict barracks in Hyde Park. Implicit in the order was Mitchell's attendance at the barracks whenever corporal punishment was inflicted, a duty hitherto performed by his assistant. Mitchell's refusal to attend a flogging on 14 September led to his suspension. A court of inquiry found him guilty of disobedience and on 26 September his name was removed from the list of colonial surgeons. The next day a subscription was taken to present Mitchell with a service of plate in acknowledgment of his 'highly valuable professional services'. Almost immediately Mitchell prepared a fifty-two page defence which he entitled Statement of the Case of Jas Mitchell, Esq. … Thompson replied by a letter in the Colonist attacking Mitchell in harsh terms and leaving himself open to libel. Mitchell took action and won the case, being awarded £100 in damages and costs. For three years he pressed for a rehearing of his case, sending letters to men of influence in London and eventually a petition to the House of Commons, maintaining that his failure to attend the flogging was the result of a misapprehension. His cause was supported by some colonial newspapers and by friends such as Bishop William Grant Broughton and Judge (Sir) William Burton. In October 1841, after a reinvestigation, Governor Sir George Gipps's recommendation that he be reinstated for one day and allowed to resign was approved by the Colonial Office.

Meanwhile Mitchell had continued his private practice which in 1841 Gipps described as 'extensive'. He had also developed an interest in agriculture. In 1822 he had been granted 2000 acres (809 ha) at Burragorang in the County of Camden, where he received much advice from the Macarthur family. In the next fifteen years he acquired many holdings in the Hunter district by grant and purchase, including the Burwood and Rothbury estates. Mitchell gained repute as an astute land dealer and was often asked to buy land for others. After his suspension he turned to the promotion of new industries, although he continued his private practice until the mid-1840s. His first industrial venture was a salt works at Stockton in 1838, but it soon failed. Between 1840 and 1843 he built a tweed factory at Stockton, equipping it with machinery from England. He leased it to Robert Fisher and Alexander Donaldson for a rent that was to be paid in tweed. Among the workmen brought from Scotland for the factory were the miners, James and Alexander Brown, who later established the coal-mining firm of J. & A. Brown. Within seven years the tweed factory was producing seventy thousand yards (64,008 m) of cloth a year and employing some three hundred men. It was destroyed by fire on 11 July 1851 and Mitchell lost more than £26,000.

Earlier he had suffered other loss through the failure of the Bank of Australia, of which he was a director and principal shareholder. The bank had been established in 1826 as an unlimited liability corporation, so the shareholders were liable for its debts. In the depression of the early 1840s the bank had lent large sums to settlers, taking mortgages on their properties as security. In 1843 it ceased operation, and two years later had liabilities in excess of £200,000, its assets consisting of unsaleable property. To enable the bank to dispose of these estates a lottery bill was passed by the Legislative Council in 1845, but it was refused royal assent, and in 1848 the shareholders were called upon to meet the bank's debts. Although Mitchell suffered from the bank's failure the extent of his losses is not known, and they may not have been as heavy as was generally assumed. In 1841 Gipps had reported that he was 'supposed to be in easy circumstances'. He had acquired a large fortune from his land and medical practice and held many shares in various companies. Throughout the 1840s he continued to invest money in such ventures as the Hunter River Steam Navigation Co. He donated a site at Stockton for St Andrew's Church and was apparently prepared to back the building of it; its foundation stone was laid in December 1845, but the building was never finished. Mitchell also continued to invest large sums in the development of local industries, thus indicating that his financial resources were far from depleted.

In 1846 he built a smelting works on his Burwood estate, importing copper ore for processing from South Australia and New Zealand. This venture was prompted by the discovery of rich coal resources on the estate by tenants. In the early 1840s he had leased portions of the estate and despite the monopoly of coal rights enjoyed by the Australian Agricultural Co. several of his lessees, including James and Alexander Brown and William Donaldson, were operating small coal-mines. In 1847 Mitchell gave evidence before the select committee inquiring into the Australian Agricultural Co.'s monopoly, and claimed that it hindered the progress of his smelting works by preventing the use of coal mined from his land. He also claimed that the monopoly inflated the price of coal and obstructed the development of Newcastle. Before the report was tabled the company surrendered its coal rights, and Mitchell was able to make full use of his coal in the smelting works.

To improve methods of shipping his coal he obtained permission from the government in May 1849 to erect a wharf and coal shoots on crown land by the Newcastle waterfront. In 1851 the Legislative Council passed a special Tram Road Act to enable him to build a railway from the estate to the wharf through the Australian Agricultural Co.'s land. In spite of the company's protests the Act was allowed to stand because Mitchell's works were thought to benefit the whole colony. In 1853 he established the Newcastle Coal and Copper Co., leasing to it the coal-mining and smelting works at Burwood. The company continued into the 1860s when labour disputes and financial crises led to its dissolution and Mitchell's reacquisition of the land and works.

In 1865 Mitchell fell under the influence of a confidence man named William Ernest Wolfskehl, who represented himself as a member of a well-to-do banking family from Darmstadt. The two men became business partners, and their first venture, a glass and porcelain factory, proved a disaster, but they soon established the Burwood and Newcastle Smelting Co., bringing ore from the Currawang mine near Goulburn, Mitchell becoming Wolfskehl's guarantor for £15,000. When ore supplies became exhausted the company failed and Mitchell had to pay Wolfskehl's share. In November 1868 Mitchell tried to reopen the works with ore from South Australia, but through his ill health the project did not succeed.

Mitchell died at his home, Cumberland Place, on 1 February 1869. By a will made just before his death, Wolfskehl was named as his sole executor of an estate valued at more than £100,000. His family contested the will on the grounds of undue influence exerted by Wolfskehl, and pressed for an earlier will made in 1841 to be upheld. Though probate was delayed the family won the case in the Supreme Court.

Mitchell's death terminated 'a long and useful career' in many spheres of colonial life. As a physician at the Sydney Hospital and in private practice he enjoyed much success and high public esteem. He was elected to the Medical Board in 1845 and became its president in 1852. In his long association with the board he did much to strengthen the medical profession and to influence methods of treatment. Although many of his industrial ventures were costly failures, his continued faith in the Newcastle region greatly influenced its future development and the establishment of private industrial enterprises elsewhere. His interest in colonial industries also prompted him to assume an active role in a number of schemes for bringing skilled workers to New South Wales. In the 1840s he served as treasurer of the Australian Immigration Association. As well as being a director of the Bank of Australia Mitchell took a prominent part in many other commercial enterprises. He was a foundation member of the Sydney Banking Co. and served in the 1840s as a director of the Hunter River Steam Navigation Co., deputy-chairman of the Sydney Ferry Co., and a director and later chairman of the Australian Gaslight Co. He helped to establish the Mutual Provident Society and was a director in 1852-59 and chairman in 1860-65. He was an original proprietor of the Hunter River Railway Co. formed in the early 1850s to build a line between Newcastle and Maitland; it was taken over by the government in 1855.

In politics Mitchell actively opposed dismemberment of the colony in 1841 and in 1856-69 he was a member of the Legislative Council. However, he remained aloof from most of the political entanglements of his time and did not attach himself to any party.

Mitchell showed his interest in educational and cultural projects by acting as a trustee of the Australian Museum in 1853-69, a shareholder in the Newcastle Mechanics' Institute, and a generous benefactor to St Paul's College, to which he was elected a senior fellow in 1857. He was associated with the Australian Subscription Library, now the Public Library of New South Wales, as a committeeman from 1832 to 1853 and vice-president and president 1856 to 1869, and it was to this institution that his son, David Scott Mitchell, bequeathed his priceless collection of Australiana and an endowment to maintain it.

On 22 August 1833 at St James's Church, Sydney, Mitchell married Augusta Maria Frederick, only daughter of Dr Helenus Scott and his wife Augusta Maria. Of their three children, the eldest daughter, Augusta Maria, married Edward Christopher Merewether, later superintendent of the Australian Agricultural Co. in April 1860. Mitchell's high esteem and affection for the Scott family became evident in October when he assumed the surname Scott-Mitchell although he rarely used it, and was granted by the Lord Lyon in Scotland a licence to bear and use the Scott family arms.

In 1827 Mitchell made barometrical observations for Allan Cunningham who was away from Sydney on an exploring party, and in gratitude the explorer named what is now known as the Namoi River after him.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 10-11, 14, 19-21, 24
  • F. M. Bladen, Public Library of New South Wales: Historical Notes (Syd, 1911)
  • W. J. Goold, ‘Dr. Mitchell’, Monthly Journal (Newcastle and Hunter District Historical Society), vol 4, part 11, Aug 1950, pp 174-76
  • W. J. Goold, ‘Stockton’, Monthly Journal (Newcastle and Hunter District Historical Society), vol 7, part 4, Jan 1953, pp 55-64 and vol 7, part 5, Feb 1953, pp 65-73
  • Sydney Gazette, 12 June 1823
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 June 1844, 3, 4 Feb 1869
  • Newcastle Chronicle, 25 May 1869
  • Newcastle Sun, 20 Mar 1958, 31 Aug 1961
  • Select Committee on Coal, Report, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1847
  • Merewether estate archives (Newcastle Regional Library)
  • manuscript catalogue under James and David Scott Mitchell (State Library of New South Wales)
  • information from Newcastle Regional Library.

Citation details

Elizabeth Guilford, 'Mitchell, James (1792–1869)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mitchell-james-2462/text3295, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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