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Patterson, Sir James Brown (1833–1895)

by Peter Cook

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

James Brown Patterson (1833-1895), by unknown engraver

James Brown Patterson (1833-1895), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN28/08/80/156

Sir James Brown Patterson (1833-1895), butcher, auctioneer and politician, was born on 18 November 1833 at Alnwick, Northumberland, England, son of James Patterson, road contractor, and his wife Agnes, née Brown. He received an elementary education in Alnwick. He migrated to Melbourne in 1852 and tried the Forest Creek goldfield without success before taking up farming at Glenlyon near Daylesford. The demands of the goldfields led him to move into the cattle slaughtering business at Chewton in 1858. By 1870 he had become prosperous and prominent, though his early business methods later drew acidic comment from opponents who often professed wonder at the number of cattle alleged to have strayed into Patterson's yards. Much respected, he easily secured election to the local council and for four successive years was mayor of Chewton. In 1857 at Glenlyon he had married Anna Merrick Walton.

The family moved to Melbourne in 1870 and Patterson entered the booming real estate business with Robert Richardson; the partnership was dissolved and became Patterson & Son, later conducted by Patterson's nephews. After unsuccessful attempts in 1866 and 1868 he won a by-election in December 1870 to the Legislative Assembly for Castlemaine; he held the seat until 1895. His sharp, vigorous style drew public attention and his association with the radical section led to office as commissioner for public works and vice-president of the Board of Land and Works in the first Berry ministry from 7 August to 20 October 1875. Patterson's reputation was made, however, in the second Berry Government from May 1877 to March 1880 when he was again in control of works. Though his administration was unremarkable, his outspoken and uncompromising support for Berry in his conflict with the Legislative Council in 1878 won Patterson unwarranted fame for wild radicalism, a reputation which he at first enjoyed and used but later carefully repudiated. In his third term of office from August 1880 to July 1881 under Berry he was vice-president of the Board of Land and Works and commissioner for railways; his administration of railways was efficient and remembered for his efforts to eliminate patronage from the department.

In 1884 Patterson went to England and returned to his birthplace where he addressed public meetings on the importance of the empire and its ties. Throughout his public life Patterson was an unremitting exponent of the imperial connexion and a formidable critic of those who questioned such ties. Later he was also a firm advocate of Federation of the Australian colonies. On his return to Victoria in 1885 he was in the Opposition until in April 1889 he joined those whom he had opposed and accepted office as commissioner for trade and customs in the Gillies government. He was also commissioner for public works and vice-president of the Board of Land and Works in June-September 1890 and postmaster-general in September-November. During the maritime strike he advocated a strong line against the strikers and spoke often of the need for determined action to promote law and order. In so doing he was only one among many, and he played no significant part in creation or implementation of government policy toward the strike, yet many were deceived and he was widely applauded first for stiffening and then directing the government's resolve. Alfred Deakin knew better and was among those who resented Patterson's acceptance and promotion of his own inflated role.

In 1891 after another visit to England Patterson was acknowledged the 'leader of the Opposition' in the assembly. His experience was considerable and his prestige was high. He enjoyed, as he had for many years, the support of David Syme, editor of the influential Age and their relations were sufficiently close to give some credence to the frequent jibe from Patterson's opponents that he was 'Syme's puppet'. However, his standing was unimpaired and from 1891 he was often spoken of as a likely future premier. After the fall of the Shiels government on a vote of no confidence moved by Patterson, he was installed on 23 January 1893 as premier and chief secretary.

Patterson had great drive and evident ambition. The culmination of his career, however, proved disappointing. The establishment of his government coincided with the financial crisis of 1893 and his ministry could do little to rectify the position or alleviate conditions. His ministry took the full brunt of the criticism of those who suffered and lost in the crisis, and attempts to economize in government expenditure were bitterly resented. With his treasurer, G. D. Carter, Patterson was denounced for suspended bank trading in a 'Bank Holiday' from 1 to 5 May 1893. By this action he and his ministry intended to avert what they believed and were advised was a likely total collapse of the banking system in Victoria. In this they were probably correct, but the immediate effect was to aggravate the prevailing disquiet and erode confidence in the economy and the government. To make matters worse he was known to be associated with several of the 'boomers' who had done so much to inflate the bubble which collapsed in 1893; although Patterson's personal integrity was not seriously questioned the association was damaging. David Syme was among those who withdrew their support.

The ministry was evidently doomed and the public discussed the likely composition of the next administration for some months before Patterson's government was defeated in August 1894. At the election in September his supporters fared badly and for the first and only time he was returned second in the poll, but the succeeding Turner ministry soon proved no more competent and Patterson's repute once again increased. He had waited expectantly: appointed K.C.M.G. he was mellower, the elder statesman, 'father of the House', and 'Leader of the Opposition'. He retained much of the bustle of his earlier days; his political cunning and adaptability were undiminished and his rough, direct speech in debate had softened only a little. He was an Orangeman throughout.

In politics as in life Patterson was completely self-made. He died suddenly of influenza at Murrumbeena on 30 October 1895. Aged 61 his wife had died after a long illness on 2 December 1894. Both were buried with Anglican rites in the Melbourne general cemetery, and survived by their only child, Rose Kaeppel, who inherited a life interest in Patterson's estate of £11,727.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Deakin, The Crisis in Victorian Politics, 1879-1881, J. A. La Nauze and R. M. Crawford eds (Melb, 1957)
  • Age (Melbourne), 31 Oct 1895
  • Argus (Melbourne), 31 Oct 1895
  • Australasian, 2 Nov, 14 Dec 1895.

Citation details

Peter Cook, 'Patterson, Sir James Brown (1833–1895)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/patterson-sir-james-brown-4375/text7119, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 28 April 2017.

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

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