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Nelson, Sir Hugh Muir (1833–1906)

by D. B. Waterson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Sir Hugh Muir Nelson (1833-1906), premier and pastoralist, was born on 31 December 1833 at Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland, son of William Lambie Nelson (d.1887), stationer, later Presbyterian clergyman and squatter, and his wife Agnes, née Muir. Educated at Edinburgh High School and at the University of Edinburgh for two years, Hugh migrated with his family to Queensland in 1853, became a storekeeper's clerk at Ipswich and then a station-hand at Nelson's Ridges. He managed his father's stations, Tartha, Binbian and Myra, and, subsequently, Burenda Station near Charleville before superintending Eton Vale for Hodgson and Watts (his brother-in-law) in 1862-72. With Watts he acquired the 40,000-acre (16,188 ha) freehold property Loudon near Dalby, and developed a prize-winning and lucrative stud and wool-producing flock, selling out for £60,000 in 1892 just before the crash.

Unsuccessfully contesting Northern Downs in 1879, Nelson was elected chairman of the Wambo Divisional Board in 1880 and was member of the Legislative Assembly for Northern Downs (7 September 1883–18 May 1888) and Murilla (19 May 1888–22 April 1898).

A strong McIlwraithian, he was secretary for railways from 13 June 1888, and railways and public works from 4 January 1890, in B. D. Morehead's administration. In the 'Griffilwraith' coalition Nelson was briefly vice-president of the executive council and acting colonial treasurer, then treasurer in McIlwraith's government (27 March to 27 October 1893). Succeeding as premier (27 October 1893 to 13 April 1898) on McIlwraith's prudent resignation, Nelson was vice-president of the executive council, colonial treasurer (until 6 August 1896), chief secretary (from 29 March 1895) and treasurer (6 August 1896 to 2 March 1898). During years of crisis he was the linchpin in Queensland politics.

Upon Nelson fell much of the burden of preserving pastoral and mercantile capitalism against the attacks of newly organized labour. Behind the Scots commonsense and probity of a Presbyterian elder was a shrewd, ruthless, political manipulator and worthy head of the remaining Pure Merino pastoral elite—most having departed for England, the civil service, or bankruptcy. 'Old Never Mind' did mind and was effective when confronted with public crises.

Inheriting McIlwraith's political largesse and dynamic entrepreneurial flair, Griffith's propertied liberal legalisms and the wealthy's fear of Labor and the lower orders, Nelson framed a series of bleak budgets and unadventurous policies. During the failed shearers' strike in 1894 he fathered the Peace Preservation Act which, while not then enforced, later proved a cheaper, more effective way for the state to use its power than armed force, and set useful precedents for the future. His handling of the Queensland National Bank crisis was his greatest and shrewdest service to colonial capital and bourgeois society. When the Q.N.B. suspended payment on 15 May 1893, Nelson and his friend A. H. Barlow investigated its affairs and declared it 'basically sound' although aware of its true state. The government then rescued the bank, largely at its own and the depositors' expense. The death of the general manager E. R. Drury in February 1896 precipitated a deeper political crisis. Nelson used brilliant tactics to preserve the bank, his government and all their friends except the absent McIlwraith, who was ultimately sacrificed by those who '[committed] many illegal things [subsequently] legalized' in these 'necessarily' lawless days. A wedge was driven into Labor and the status quo conserved.

Nelson had been appointed K.C.M.G. in 1896 and, while representing Queensland with T. J. Byrnes at the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London in 1897, was made a privy councillor, Hon. D.C.L. Oxford, Hon. LL.D. Edinburgh and a freeman of Kilmarnock. On 26 July 1898 he became president of the Legislative Council. He was lieutenant-governor of Queensland in 1904-05.

In private life this dignified, 'splendid physical specimen' with snow-white beard and 'courtly grace of manner' was a 'warm pairson' with a keen sense of humour. He believed that finally 'our minds and souls are ourselves, the rest is only ephemeral', but reasoned that if everyone now devoted himself to these high speculative studies 'where would we get our food and raiment?'. Practising the politics of 'practicalities and the provision of bread and butter', Nelson was more at home with herds and flocks than with rising social democracy.

He was president of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (Queensland), the Colonial Political Association and the Queensland Club. He visited British New Guinea in 1898 and acquired 'unrivalled knowledge' of policy there. A chief originator of the Royal Agricultural Society of Toowoomba, he was also chairman of the Brisbane and the Toowoomba Grammar schools trustees, and trustee of the Public Library of Queensland.

Nelson died of cancer at Gabbinbar, Middle Ridge, Toowoomba, on 1 January 1906, and was buried in Toowoomba cemetery after Presbyterian rites and a state funeral. He was survived by his wife Janet, née McIntyre, whom he had married at Toowoomba on 11 August 1870, and by two sons and three daughters. His estate was valued at £26,292.

Select Bibliography

  • C. A. Bernays, Queensland Politics During Sixty (1859-1919) Years (Brisb, nd, 1919?)
  • J. Kershaw (compiler), Repose with Achievement (Orange, NSW, nd, 1973?)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1893, p 96, 1894, p 472, 1897, p 1058, 1906, p 14
  • Echo (Brisbane), 26 Nov 1896
  • Journal (Historical Society of Queensland), 5, no 1, 1953, p 771
  • Queensland Heritage, 3 no 9, 1978, p 3
  • Brisbane Courier, 20 Sept, 24 Nov 1897, 5 Mar 1898, 16 Mar 1905, 2 Jan 1906
  • Queenslander, 23 Apr 1898, 6, 13, 27 Jan 1906
  • Darling Downs Gazette, 2 Jan 1906
  • J. McCormack, The Politics of Expediency. Queensland Government in the Eighteen Nineties (M.A. thesis, University of Queensland, 1975)
  • Palmer-McIlwraith papers (State Library of Queensland)
  • Premiers' correspondence, 1893-98 (Queensland State Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

D. B. Waterson, 'Nelson, Sir Hugh Muir (1833–1906)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nelson-sir-hugh-muir-7738/text13561, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 31 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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