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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Walker, James (1863–1942)

by D. I. McDonald

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

James Walker (1863-1942), builder, soldier and public official, was born on 16 August 1863 at Banbridge, County Down, Ireland, son of Isaac Walker, builder, and his wife Rose Ann, née McCann. Little is known of his family and early life. After migrating to Australia about 1881, Walker settled as a builder at Charters Towers, Queensland, where he married New Zealand-born Emily Jane Meredith with Anglican rites on 4 August 1897. He served as a lieutenant in 1900-01 with the Imperial forces in the South African War and was awarded the Queen's medal with three clasps. In 1905 he was promoted captain in the Queensland Volunteer Defence Force and acted as paymaster on Thursday Island in 1914 while completing a building contract there. In August Walker was appointed captain in the Australian Imperial Force. Promoted major in 1915, he commanded the 25th Battalion from October to December at Gallipoli, and later in France and Belgium. He was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Distinguished Service Order (1916), the Serbian Order of the White Eagle and the Czechoslovakian War Cross. Discharged medically unfit in April 1917, he was subsequently in charge of the call up of reservists in Australia.

In March 1919 he was appointed commissioner for war service homes. Influenced by Walker's distinguished military career and by a laudatory reference that he was very competent and 'good with men', Senator E. D. Millen had recommended the appointment when Walker was technically an undischarged bankrupt. In 1910 as director and joint guarantor of the Golden Copper Mine, Charters Towers, Walker had resigned after discovering that the managing director held two-thirds of the shares. When the Bank of Australasia eventually called up the overdraft, Walker declined any responsibility. Only days before he embarked with the A.I.F., the bank had issued a writ and in his absence Walker had been declared bankrupt in October 1915, although actually in a sound financial position. As commissioner, Walker quickly made enemies by reducing the inflated price of materials and by dealing fearlessly with unscrupulous contractors, land agents and 'rings' formed to exploit the Department of Repatriation. He also confronted the Commonwealth Bank, in its capacity as constructing and marketing authority, over its demand that the commission pay architects' fees which Walker argued should be included in the purchase price of a house. Millen and the solicitor-general supported Walker, and the bank was later reduced to a financial agency. The resignation of the New South Wales deputy commissioner for war service homes, Major J. W. D. Evans, whose quarrel with Walker's administration was widely publicized, undermined confidence in the commission's operations.

Contrary to explicit ministerial direction, Walker had stockpiled land and acquired bulk supplies of building materials by purchasing timber areas and sawmills in an attempt to control costs in a time of shortages. His strict policy of employing returned servicemen, even when they were not the most suitable, was exacerbated by his unrealistic support of day-labour in a buoyant building market. Surprised that the minister should direct him in matters for which he believed himself legally responsible, Walker was insensitive to political realities. Neither he nor the government fully understood the relationship between a minister and a statutory authority. These problems were ventilated in the proceedings and reports of the Parliamentary Joint Committee of Public Accounts which censured Walker as an incompetent administrator. In March 1921, even before its final report (July 1922) was tabled, his appointment was cancelled on the pretext that he was an undischarged bankrupt. The acting minister for repatriation, A. S. Rodgers, declared that Millen had not known of the bankruptcy, but Colonel J. M. Semmens, chairman of the Repatriation Commission that replaced Walker, publicly disagreed. In upholding the decision, the treasurer Sir Joseph Cook insisted that the dismissal did not reflect on Walker's ability, but the former commissioner's lawyers saw him as a scapegoat for adverse publicity and internal unrest in the government.

Walker returned to contract building in Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra. He was a distinguished rifle and revolver shot. He was, as well, chairman (1935) of the St John Ambulance Association of New South Wales. Walker died on 24 January 1942 in Sydney and was cremated. His wife, a son and a daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1920-21, pp 7287, 10395
  • R. L. Wettenhall, ‘Administration Debacle 1919-23’, Public Administration (Sydney), vol 27, no 4, 1964, and for bibliography
  • Brisbane Courier, 1 Jan 1917
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1, 19, 21 July 1919, 26-27 Jan 1942
  • Age (Melbourne), 27 Feb 1919
  • Argus (Melbourne), 21-23 Mar, 11 Apr, 7-9, 18, 22-23 July, 5, 6, 8, 23, 26, 31 Aug 1921
  • Bulletin, 28 July 1921
  • Repatriation, War Service Homes, Dismissal of Lt Col Walker, A457, item G403/2 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

D. I. McDonald, 'Walker, James (1863–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 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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