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Niall, James Mansfield (1860–1941)

by Margaret Steven

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

James Mansfield Niall (1860-1941), pastoralist and businessman, was born on 20 January 1860 at Glenelg, South Australia, son of James Niall, auctioneer and pioneer pastoralist from Northern Ireland, and his wife Eleanor, née Mansfield. He attended J. M. Mitchell's school at Magill with (Sir) George Murray but had to leave prematurely for financial reasons; it took little time as a cadet in the South Australian engineer-in-chief's office to turn his thoughts to independence. After several months as a clerk with a saddlery firm in Adelaide, Niall went as bookkeeper to Paringa station near Renmark, owned by his cousin J. F. Cudmore.

In 1878 he was bundled off to take control of Gooyea, another of Cudmore's stations, in Queensland. Niall arrived hungry, penniless, and with his nose broken after a show-down with the quarrelsome coach-driver. A daring horseman, he had to return to Adelaide for treatment after a near-fatal accident. Restored, he then took sheep to Wirraminna station, near Port Augusta, where he stayed for two years in drought conditions. While forming Kingoonya station for Green, Short & Co. near Port Augusta, he took up some country for himself, laboriously sinking wells, one of which became the main water-supply for the transcontinental railway. At Kingoonya he had to support a tribe of Aborigines, decimated by a desperate crossing of the salt Lake Gardner, until he could arrange for a government depot to be set up. On 2 October 1882 at St Paul's Church, Adelaide, Niall married Alexandrina Budge.

An exhaustive exploration by camel of the arid country north-west of Port Augusta, which he found profitable only for later conversations with (Sir) John Forrest, had turned his thoughts to Queensland again. Cudmore introduced him to Robert Barr Smith, brother-in-law and partner of Sir Thomas Elder, who committed himself to partnership. Niall purchased and improved two vast stations, Delta and Evora, fashioning them into model sheep-properties despite initial bad seasons. After their amalgamation with Goldsbrough Mort's Nive Junction he managed all three for Niall, Smith & Co.

Pioneering in those epic days of northern development brought him in contact with many other young adventurers; a chance encounter in 1882 with Richard Gardiner Casey developed into close lifelong friendship. Taken by Casey to a meeting of the hurriedly formed Pastoralists' Federal Council, Niall was appointed to the central executive that organized resistance to the Queensland shearers' strike of 1891. With Robert Oliver and (Sir) George Fairbairn of the Central Queensland Pastoralists' Employers' Association the 6 ft 4 ins (193 cm)-tall Niall won respect from some militant strike-leaders for his bearing in the angry confrontation of the Clermont 'riot'. After the end of the long dispute in August 1891, during which he had had his land fired, wool and sheds burned and a stallion shot, he yielded to persuasion to remain at Rockhampton in charge of the organization 'I had created' until 1896.

That year he became pastoral inspector and Rockhampton manager of Goldsbrough Mort & Co. Ltd, transferring to its Melbourne head office in 1898 as pastoral manager. In 1899 he was appointed manager and next year, general manager (1900-16). Outspoken, though his views were always measured, he was a formidable 'new broom' in the now struggling company. After persuading Thomas Hall not to abandon crucial shareholdings, Niall gradually shed liabilities and dramatically reversed the company's prospects. He was managing director in 1913-18 and 1936-40 and chairman in 1919-35. In 1928 Sir James Elder claimed him as the company's 'greatest living asset'. Niall's annual addresses were received at home and overseas as authoritative indicators of the country's soundness, despite his famous ingenuous disclaimer that rain achieved more than management in the wool business. He retired from the board because of ill health in May 1940.

Twice president of the Melbourne Wool Brokers' Association (1903-05, 1912-14), he was also director (1919-40) and chairman (1922-40) of Squatting Investment Co. Ltd. Niall also developed significant industrial interests. Associated with Mount Morgan Gold Mining Co. from its early days, after Casey's death he became chairman in 1919-22 and 1924-27, displaying that 'heart and brain good enough for any crisis', as its shrewd liquidator with (Sir) Kelso King. He was chairman of the derivative Electrolytic Refining & Smelting Co. of Australia Ltd, Metal Manufacturers Pty Ltd, Port Kembla, and Australian Mines and Metals Association Inc. (1925).

But the boardroom never defined him. A debonair and generous sportsman whose memory embraced horses as vividly as men, he became an owner and breeder of bloodstock and winner of classic flat and steeplechase events. As a committee-member of the Victoria Racing Club he owned Studio, Dark David and Umberatana. He presented Kinlark to the visiting Prince of Wales after it won the Australian Steeplechase (1920). Identifiable later in the typical image of an Edwardian clubman (though still insouciant enough to carry his own shopping basket), he belonged to the Athenaeum, Melbourne and Australian clubs in Melbourne.

Niall died on 9 October 1941 at home at Toorak and was buried in Boroondara cemetery, Kew. A portrait by W. B. McInnes is held by Goldsbrough Mort. His estate was sworn for probate at £186,207. Two sons survived him.

Kenneth Mansfield Niall (1883-1953), born on 6 July 1883 at Glenelg, graduated B.E. from the University of Sydney in 1909. He was associated with his brother Arthur Mansfield in New South Wales pastoral properties before he too became a leading figure in pastoral and mining circles. In 1919 he joined the board of Goldsbrough Mort and was vice-chairman in 1928, before succeeding his father as chairman in 1935. In 1927 he was appointed to a Federal committee of inquiry into the Australian pastoral industry. He was a director of many companies including Metal Manufactures Ltd and Squatting Investment Co. Ltd and chairman of Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Co. Ltd. He died on 11 April 1953, survived by his wife Marian Helen, née Griffith, whom he had married on 11 February 1914, and by two sons and a daughter. His estate was sworn for probate at about £443,000.

Select Bibliography

  • W. S. Robinson, If I Remember Rightly, G. Blainey ed (Melb, 1967)
  • J. Kerr, Mount Morgan (Brisb, 1982)
  • M. Durack, Sons in the Saddle (Lond, 1983)
  • W. J. Hudson, Casey (Melb, 1986)
  • Pastoral Review, 15 Feb 1905, 16 June 1915, 16 Nov 1928
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Nov 1919, 26 Nov 1927, 14 Apr 1953
  • Herald (Melbourne), 31 Oct, 3 Nov 1928, 15 Feb 1939, 23 May 1940
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 22 Nov 1928
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 9 June 1934
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 23 May 1940
  • Argus (Melbourne), 10 Oct 1941
  • Goldsbrough Mort papers (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

Margaret Steven, 'Niall, James Mansfield (1860–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/niall-james-mansfield-7835/text13605, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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