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Tolmie, James (1862–1939)

by M. French

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

James Tolmie (1862-1939), newspaper proprietor and politician, was born on 25 July 1862 on board the Rajasthan, en route from Liverpool to Brisbane, eldest son of Scottish parents Roderick Tolmie, farmer, and his wife Helen, née Macrae. Arriving on 4 November 1862, Roderick secured employment as an overseer on Wallan station, near Miles. About 1870 the family moved to Toowoomba, ostensibly to take advantage of better schooling opportunities.

Educated at Toowoomba South Boys' School until aged 13, James worked as a grocer's assistant before training as a pupil-teacher in his old school from 1877 to 1880. He served at Toowoomba South Boys' (twice), Fortitude Valley and Emu Creek schools, then became head teacher at Gowrie Creek near Toowoomba in 1884. After his wife's death in 1881, Roderick deserted their nine children, leaving James to support the family.

Regarded as an earnest and conscientious employee, with a reputation for efficiency and integrity, Tolmie 'threw himself body and soul into the execution of his duty', but was hampered by his own moderate scholastic achievements; in 1890 he barely scraped a pass in the examination for promotion to second division of the teaching service. Confronted with poor prospects of advancement, he resigned on 31 August 1894 to become editor and half-owner (with S. C. W. Robinson) of the conservative Toowoomba newspaper, the Darling Downs Gazette. When it merged in 1922 with its rival, the Toowoomba Chronicle, Tolmie remained as chief leader-writer, specializing in international affairs, until 1939.

In 1899 he had unsuccessfully contested the seat of Drayton and Toowoomba as a (Sir) James Dickson Ministerialist, but at the 1901 by-election—consequent upon W. H. Groom's transfer to Federal politics—he succeeded as an independent supporter of (Sir) Robert Philp. Tolmie subsequently became leader of the 'new Darling Downs Bunch' which defended the established agricultural interests of southern Queensland. Quarrelling with Philp over railway policy, he switched allegiance to (Sir) Arthur Morgan and then to William Kidston before disagreement over land taxation, trades disputes and the lack of cabinet consultation forced a return to Philp. In the 1907 election Tolmie was defeated by the Kidstonites. Having failed to regain his seat as a farmers' candidate in 1908, he succeeded next year as a Kidston-Philp coalitionist. In 1911 he was appointed secretary for agriculture and stock in the Liberal ministry of D. F. Denham, allegedly to appease the agricultural interest, and served as secretary for public lands from 1912 to June 1915 when he became leader of the Opposition. Shortly before the election in 1918 he resigned as leader due to illness and lost his seat. He never regained it, despite attempts in 1920 and 1923. He served one term (1924-27) as a Toowoomba City Council alderman.

Although a 'keen and clever electioneer', Tolmie had an agrarian base that was gradually undermined by Toowoomba's industrial development. He may also have contributed to his loss of support by his arrogance, his absences on crucial parliamentary votes and his lukewarm stand on conscription. As a minister, he had devised an expensive, 'utopian and impracticable' farm policy which envisaged 'ready made farms … fenced, house erected, and crops growing for new settlers'. As party leader, he readily delegated tasks to specialists, but was 'a poor performer' on the floor of the House, being a dogmatic and platitudinous speaker, inclined to bully rather than persuade. His great achievement was to give fervent backing to the formation of the University of Queensland along 'democratic' lines.

A genial, bulky man with a huge laugh and a larger appetite, he held no grudges and was personally popular. He was an active sportsman and represented Queensland in its last intercolonial Australian Rules football match in 1884. He also had an extensive reference library and was active in the local School of Arts. In 1903 he published an authoritative article, 'Drayton and Toowoomba: their early history', in the Queensland Geographical Journal. He also helped to establish the Darling Downs Building Society. Tolmie had served nine years with the Queensland Volunteer Defence Force before enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force in February 1916; he commanded troops in transports travelling to and from Egypt.

An active Presbyterian and Freemason, he died on 5 April 1939 and was buried in Toowoomba cemetery, leaving an estate sworn for probate at £4343. He had not married.

Select Bibliography

  • C. A. Bernays, Queensland Politics During Sixty (1859-1919) Years (Brisb, 1919?) and QueenslandOur Seventh Political Decade 1920-1930 (Syd, 1931)
  • D. J. Murphy, T. J. Ryan (Brisb, 1975)
  • N. Yeates, Stone on Stone (Coffs Harbour, NSW, 1979)
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 20 Mar 1907, 6 Apr 1939
  • Toowoomba Chronicle, 6 Apr, 2 Sept 1939
  • register of male teachers, 1860-1903 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

M. French, 'Tolmie, James (1862–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tolmie-james-8827/text15485, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 20 April 2014.

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

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