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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Styles, James (1841–1913)

by Geoff Browne

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

James Styles (1841-1913), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

James Styles (1841-1913), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23358166

James Styles (1841-1913), contractor, civil engineer and politician, was born on 3 July 1841 at Croydon, Surrey, England, son of William Styles, labourer, and his wife Harriet, née Friend. In 1849 the family arrived in Melbourne where James was educated at St James's Church of England Grammar School and the Protestant Hall. He then worked for a railway contractor. In 1861 he joined his father in Brisbane where they took jobs as contractors for municipal street and sewerage works. Styles was next employed by the English firm of Peto, Brassey & Betts on the construction of the Ipswich-Toowoomba railway and subsequently by Styles, Murray & Co. on the Toowoomba-Dalby line. On 23 February 1865 he married Irish-born Teresa Dignam at Rockhampton with Presbyterian forms.

Returning to Victoria in 1869 Styles undertook contracting and engineering work on the Seymour-Benalla and Oakleigh-Bunyip railways. In 1877-78 he was employed by the South Australian government as resident engineer and agent on the Burra-Hallett extension. He later carried out contracts for government water-supply works and major portions of the Adelaide sewerage system. By 1883 Styles was again in Victoria, living at Williamstown, and carrying out reclamation contracts for the Melbourne Harbor Trust and the Department of Public Works. In 1889 he gave up contracting, but continued to work as a consulting engineer and arbitrator.

In 1885-88 and 1890-1901 Styles was a member of the Williamstown Municipal Council and represented it in 1891 on the new Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works; in the same year he applied unsuccessfully for the post of chairman of the board. He remained on the board until 1901 and, in 1891-94, chaired its sewerage committee. His pamphlet, A Lecture on Sanitary Reform for Greater Melbourne (1888), anticipated James Mansergh's suggestions for constructing a sewerage system. In 1890 he criticized elements of Mansergh's scheme; over the next decade he clashed frequently with the board's chairman, E. G. FitzGibbon, and the chief engineer, William Thwaites, and condemned their extravagance. He, in turn, was accused of being a mere 'amateur'. Styles served on the Melbourne Harbor Trust in 1891-94 and the Board of Health in 1896-1912. He was a life member of the Society of Engineers, London.

After contesting the Legislative Assembly seat of Williamstown unsuccessfully in 1889 and 1892, Styles won it in 1894. He served on the standing committee on railways in 1897-1900. Defeated in 1900, he was elected next year to the Commonwealth Senate as a protectionist. He was a member of the select committee on tobacco monopoly (1905) and of the select committee (1904) and royal commission (1906-07) into old-age pensions. Defeated again in 1906, he took no further part in politics. Having supported the Labor Party in the assembly, he remained strongly sympathetic to Labor in the Senate. Styles was partially crippled. Melbourne Punch described him as having 'no exceptional endowments'; his strengths were industry, perseverance and 'a passion for details'. As a speaker he was 'lucid though long-winded' and often 'serenely self-satisfied'. Survived by his wife, son and a daughter, Styles died at his Hawthorn home on 4 February 1913 and was buried in Boroondara cemetery with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • Daily Telegraph (Melbourne), 30 Sept, 1, 2, 6 Oct 1890
  • Table Talk, 3 Nov 1894, 18 Apr 1901
  • Punch (Melbourne), 16 Aug 1906
  • Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works records (held by Board of Works, Melbourne).

Citation details

Geoff Browne, 'Styles, James (1841–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 31 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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