Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Munro, James (1832–1908)

by Ann M. Mitchell

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

James Munro (1832-1908), businessman, temperance leader and politician, was born on 7 January 1832 in Sutherlandshire, Scotland, son of Donald Munro, and his wife Georgina, née Mackey. Educated at Armadale village school, he was apprenticed in 1848 to the Edinburgh printing house of Constable & Co. and soon joined the total abstinence movement. In December 1853 he married Jane Macdonald, and in 1858 with his wife and three children, migrated to Melbourne, arriving in the Champion of the Seas on 7 November.

Munro was described as a 'rough tyke' in his early years. He was quick tempered and authoritarian but always 'easy to get on with if you let him have his own way'. With a strong voice and pronounced accent he was known for his invective when roused and a tendency to dance with rage, habits which endured and must have contrasted with his patriarchal appearance of tall, broad figure, massive head and flowing beard.

At first Munro followed his trade with Fergusson & Moore in Flinders Lane. In 1865 he started his own first and most successful enterprise, the Victoria Permanent Property Investment Building Society, remaining its executive secretary until pressured to resign in December 1881. This was the first building society to depart from the terminating principle and was adapted from Scottish example. He became an acknowledged expert on building and friendly society management, and he began to buy land. He had a controlling interest in several companies in the 1860s and 1870s, including the Melbourne Woollen Mill Co. and the Victoria Permanent Fire Insurance Co. Throughout his public life Munro was criticized for the diversity of his interests and his inattention to detail in most of them. About 1870 he moved from the Prahran-South Yarra district where he had first settled, and at Gardiner joined the District Road Board and witnessed its transition to a shire, becoming president in 1872-73. He was appointed magistrate in December 1873. His bid for Dundas in the Legislative Assembly had failed in 1869 but in 1874 he became liberal member for North Melbourne and resigned from the shire council.

In 1876 Munro moved into his large but unpretentious house, Armadale, in Kooyong Road, Armadale, then Boundary Road, Toorak. He was already rich and respected for his social involvement. He was an earnest Sabbatarian and member of the board of management of the Toorak Presbyterian Church in 1878-92, an original board member of the Alfred Hospital in 1870-76 and auditor in 1876-85, and a vice-president of the reconstituted Caledonian Society of Melbourne. A member of every notable temperance organization, Munro's influence was greatest on four of them: the Independent Order of Rechabites where he had helped to found the Prahran branch (Perseverance Tent) in 1865 and held executive office at district headquarters for twenty years; the Melbourne Total Abstinence Society of which he was president in 1878-92; the Permissive Bill Association of 1871 and its successor the Victorian Alliance for the Suppression of the Liquor Traffic, over which he presided in 1881-92. Through the association Munro gained valuable political experience and won such repute in the 1870s that without much additional effort on his part temperance events polarized around him. He assumed the mantle of temperance champion as soon as he entered parliament. He was president of International Temperance Conferences in Melbourne in 1880 and 1888, after which he slipped from the temperance limelight.

A member of royal commissions on employment and tariff protection to which he was committed, Munro was largely responsible for the decision which led Victoria to stage the International Exhibition of 1880; its success must be attributed to the work by him and J. J. Casey as executive vice-presidents. Munro was also a commissioner for the 1888 Exhibition.

Munro's financial career entered a new phase in 1882 when he established the twin institutions of the Federal Bank and the Federal Building Society. For years he and his colleagues had deliberately attracted support on the basis of their respectabilityb, one symbol of it being their coffee palaces. Munro had thousands of shares in the Federal, the Grand and the Victoria which competed with each other in Melbourne and the Broken Hill and Geelong Grand Coffee Palaces; he was a director of all but the last and all were in difficulties by 1890. In 1887 he created the Real Estate Mortgage and Deposit Bank to simplify his land transactions. The need for this should have warned him that his affairs were already out of control, but nothing had yet occurred to shake his reputation or confidence. He had shared in bargaining to ensure that railways expanded in the right directions. As well as suburban property, a country seat at Narbethong and directorates on numerous companies, he had acquired huge stations and leaseholds in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia. To pay for his investments he borrowed from the financial institutions which he controlled; in turn they absorbed overseas loans and the deposits of countless small investors, lent hundreds of thousands of pounds on insufficient security to a clique of Munro's friends and family, and borrowed from institutions operating on similar lines. Munro claimed to have had unencumbered personal assets of £240,000 in 1889; he had no difficulty in raising capital on a visit to Britain in 1890.

Possibly through association with Graham Berry in the Collingwood Observer, Munro entered politics as a Berry supporter. He was minister of public instruction in Berry's short-lived government of 1875. A consistent advocate of land and constitutional reform, Munro professed sympathy for the working classes but his political views were usually trimmed to his economic interests and occasionally to his morality. He wanted female suffrage partly because of its supposed influence on the temperance vote. He was admired for his electoral tactics in 1877 when he pursued his co-representative for North Melbourne, the publican John Curtain, into the new and pro-publican electorate of Carlton. When opponents prevented Munro from hiring a hall, he built his own within fourteen days for some £2500 and won the seat. He was a vice-president of the National Reform League and of the National Reform and Protection League. By 1879 he was out of sympathy with the radicals and tried to establish a new liberal corner with Casey. He lost his seat in 1880 but next year regained North Melbourne. After a second defeat in 1883, business and ill health kept him out of the assembly, in 1884 he half-heartedly challenged Dr J. G. Beaney for his Legislative Council seat, and in 1885 went abroad.

In 1886 Munro re-entered the assembly for the temperance stronghold of Geelong. Before the elections he formed the National Liberal League with James Mirams and others, and tried in vain to unite liberal factions against the Gillies-Deakin government. By 1889 Munro had emerged clearly as leader of the Opposition but he could not inspire personal loyalty and was politically insecure. He became premier and treasurer in November 1890 on his credit as a financier.

Frightened by government extravagance, the colony expected a financial miracle. Unluckily, Munro's political triumph coincided with collapse of his fortune. His term of office was undistinguished but he cannot be blamed for the administrative and economic crisis that he inherited. A scandal arose when the Voluntary Liquidation Act was passed on 3 December 1891. Its aim was to prevent mischievous speculators from forcing companies into compulsory liquidation against the will of the majority of shareholders. This met with general approval, but it also meant that a minority shareholder who suspected fraud had small chance of forcing a public inquiry into company affairs, and that a company seeking to evade official scrutiny could do so by winding up its affairs privately. Equally provocative, building societies were included so that they too could be liquidated without benefit of publicity. Munro did not initiate the legislation but as premier agreed to it. The Federal Building Society and the Real Estate Bank soon suspended payment and later went into voluntary liquidation.

Already shaken by the failure of the Constitution amendment bill introduced in September, Munro prepared to hand over the government to his deputy William Shiels. He arranged to replace Sir Graham Berry as agent-general in London but remained premier until the last possible moment. Shiels resisted public protest and a violent press campaign against Munro, who left for England in March 1892; he returned just before Christmas to face the consequences of failure. The Federal Bank gave up the struggle to survive in January 1893 and Munro filed his schedule in February.

Munro lacked originality and imagination. He did not question contemporary business standards or the nature of the boom conditions. Though not the worst of the speculators, his failure was more shocking because of his moral pretensions. A measure of his sincerity and his incompetence is that he gambled on the success of his own companies and lost. In looking after his family he involved most of its members in his disgrace. Forced to live with relatives in North Brighton, he was released by the Insolvency Court when it became clear that he could not pay any of his debts. He died on 25 February 1908 and was buried in the St Kilda cemetery beside his wife who had died in 1904. He was survived by four sons and three daughters of his eight children.

Select Bibliography

  • T. W. H. Leavitt (ed), Australian Representative Men (Melb, 1887)
  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • International Temperance Convention, Temperance in Australia (Melb, 1889)
  • J. B. Cooper, A History of Malvern (Melb, 1935)
  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melb, 1966)
  • Table Talk, 9 Oct 1891, 6 Oct 1893
  • Age (Melbourne), 4 Dec 1891, Jan-Feb 1892
  • Argus (Melbourne), Jan-Feb 1892
  • Observer (Collingwood), 5 Mar 1908
  • S. M. Ingham, Some Aspects of Victorian Liberalism 1880-1900 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1950)
  • J. E. Parnaby, The Economic and Political Development of Victoria, 1877-1881 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1951)
  • R. J. Moore, Marvellous Melbourne: A Social History of Melbourne in the Eighties (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1958)
  • M. G. Finlayson, Victorian Politics 1889-94 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1964)
  • A. D. Milner, James Munro, Banker, Boomster, Wowser and Temperate (B.A. Hons thesis, Monash University, 1965)
  • A. M. Mitchell, Temperance and the Liquor Question in Later Nineteenth Century Victoria (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1966)
  • liquidation and insolvency records (Public Record Office Victoria).

Citation details

Ann M. Mitchell, 'Munro, James (1832–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/munro-james-4271/text6905, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 26 September 2016.

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

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