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Vicars, John (1821–1894)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

John Vicars (1821-1894), manufacturer, was born in Dunblane, Perthshire, Scotland, son of John Vicars, butcher, and his wife Helen, née Archibald. He managed Dickson and Laing's tweed-mill at Hawick, Roxburghshire, and about 1863 migrated to Australia. After some years on the Queensland goldfields near Rockhampton he went to Sydney and in 1871-73 managed Thomas Barker's tweed-mill in Sussex Street. When it was extensively rebuilt in 1873 after a fire Vicars took it over and began to expand it. In March 1876 his evidence to the select committee on the employment of children disclosed that while wages were higher than in England and Scotland, children worked a twelve-hour day and many were illiterate and unhealthy. There was no factory Act in New South Wales, but Vicars favoured legislation as in England where working children were compelled to go to school and those under 8 were restricted to a six-hour day. At the time he employed 100 persons, including 50 children, some as young as 10. 

Vicars was actively interested in politics and in 1867 had published an open letter to (Sir) Henry Parkes on The Chinese Question. He often criticized Parkes's and (Sir) John Robertson's policies and in the 1870s sent long letters to the Sydney Morning Herald on immigration, the labour question and protection of secondary industry on which he wrote in 1877, 'There is really nothing to prevent this, which would soon bring plenty of people to our shores, and that, too, without money and price. In this colony we want but little that nature has not provided us with, for the best iron ore, the best coal, the best limestone, the best clay we are blest with'. That year he published a pamphlet, The Tariff, Immigration and The Labour Question; expanded in 1879, it later ran to a third edition. He was chairman of the protectionist, anti-assisted immigration and somewhat radical Political Reform League in 1878; next year he addressed the first Intercolonial Trades Union Congress in Sydney on the need to foster local industries.

A skilled and experienced craftsman, Vicars won many first prizes for tweeds and woollens at both colonial and international exhibitions in the 1870s and 1880s. He retired in 1887 and the business was taken over by his sons William and John who moved the factory to Marrickville in 1894. In 1914 John Vicars & Co. bought all the shares in Sydney Woollen Mills Ltd which then operated in Parramatta.

Aged 73, Vicars died of paralysis at his residence, Palace Street, Ashfield, on 8 September 1894, and was buried in the Presbyterian section of Rookwood cemetery. He was survived by his wife Ann, née Moor, whom he had married at Rothbury, Northumberland, England, on 25 March 1855, and by five sons and two daughters. His estate was sworn for probate at £10,313.

Select Bibliography

  • W. F. Morrison, The Aldine Centennial History of New South Wales, vol 2 (Syd, 1888)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1875-76, 5, 619, 6, 903
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 July, 23 Aug 1877
  • Echo (Sydney), 17 Jan 1878
  • Bulletin, 5 Nov 1881
  • Town and Country Journal, 12 Aug 1899.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Vicars, John (1821–1894)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/vicars-john-4778/text7951, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 17 November 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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