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White, James Cobb (1855–1927)

by Nancy Gray

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

James Cobb White is a minor entry in this article

Henry Luke White (1860-1927), pastoralist and philanthropist, was born on 9 May 1860 at Anambah, near Maitland, New South Wales, third son of Francis White, pastoralist, and his wife Mary Hannah, née Cobb, both native-born. From Calder House, Redfern, Sydney, Henry went in 1875 to The Goulburn School, Garroorigang, where he learned his lessons, and how to play cricket and to blow birds' eggs. Qualifying as a surveyor in 1884, 'H.L.' (as he was known in the family) next year became manager of Belltrees, near Scone.

He and his brothers bought and divided the family estates in 1889. The eldest Francis John went to Saumarez, New England; the second James Cobb (1855-1927) stayed on at the family headquarters, Edinglassie, near Muswellbrook; from the estate, Henry and his three younger brothers (William, Arthur and Victor) purchased Belltrees where Henry remained as managing partner.

In dynastic unions, James had married Emmeline Eliza (d.1926), daughter of Edward Stanley Ebsworth of Bronte House, Waverley, on 13 April 1882 at St John's Anglican Church, Darlinghurst, Sydney; at St Mary's Anglican Church, Waverley, Henry married her sister Louisa Maude on 14 April 1887 and Arthur married another sister Millicent on 19 January 1893. Maude and Millicent at Belltrees, and Emmeline at Edinglassie, gave a close-knit stability to domestic life.

Influenced by his uncles' standards, Henry endeavoured to improve his stock and was receptive to new ideas. He took charge of the merino stud (based on Havilah blood) and of wool production. It took five months each year to shear 96,000 merinos and 10,000 crossbreds; Wolseley shearing machines were installed in 1902. In addition, he bred horses and red poll Shorthorn, Durham and Aberdeen Angus cattle. Belltrees also had two pony stallions and a small thoroughbred stud: Charge won the 1896 Australian Jockey Club Derby and Parapet the 1900 Doncaster. The brothers acquired additional land by selection, lease and private purchase; by 1901 Belltrees spread over more than 145,000 acres (58,680 ha).

In 1905 White instructed his architect J. W. Pender to design a large, good, plain, brick homestead at Belltrees. Completed in 1907, the house had fifty-two rooms and fifty-seven squares of verandah. The station's population of some 250 was provided with a store and post office, community hall, chapel, cricket pitch, and with the means for lavish celebrations on Queen Victoria's birthday; from 1912 White photographed station life. He released trout fingerlings in the creeks, established a plantation of a thousand eucalypts, and peppered the government botanist J. H. Maiden and departmental heads with dozens of inquiries.

A member of the provisional council in 1906, White was foundation president of Woolooma (Upper Hunter) Shire Council until 1927. Threatened by a Federal land tax in 1911 and 'tired of the worry of management', he offered to sell 140,000 acres (56,657 ha) for closer settlement; because the area was mountainous and too far from a railhead, the government refused the proposal. By 1915 the sale of 40,000 acres (16,188 ha) on the open market brought some relief. The family firm subscribed generously to war loans and presented two aeroplanes to Britain.

Reckoning that a man 'must have a hobby in the bush' as 'a relief from the sheep, cattle and dog talk', White resumed his boyhood interest in stamp-collecting. He began to specialize, from 1897 buying and amalgamating the collections of other philatelists. In 1917 he presented the H. L. White Collection of the stamps of New South Wales to the Mitchell Library and later donated the stamps of Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania. He became a fellow of the Royal Philatelic Society, London. Encouraged by Albert Spencer, White also collected Australian books. The Belltrees library housed more than 2000 rare items, with specialized sub-collections such as philately, ornithology and F. M. Harpur's cricket books, as well as some works which, to his nephew Patrick White, had a 'faintly pornographic' tone. He recalled Henry—the only White uncle he liked—as 'a short man of fiery complexion, his eyes as cold as blue glass until they blazed with enthusiasm or anger'.

In the hobbies he pursued, as in all else, 'H.L.' sought perfection. His wealth allowed him to buy the finest books and stamps, just as he bought the best breeding-stock, but their acquisition presented no real challenge. In 1907, however, he decided to add to his small collection of birds' eggs and began by purchasing S. W. Jackson's collection. White employed him, among others, to search for rare birds and rarer eggs, and appointed him curator of the Belltrees collection. Between 1908 and 1924 White published short articles in the Emu. A member of the Royal Australasian and British Ornithologists' unions and of the (Royal) Zoological Society of New South Wales, he was also a corresponding fellow of the American Ornithologists' Union. In 1917 he gave some 8500 Australian birdskins to the National Museum of Victoria, with a complete register and index. Eggs were White's most loved possession: over 4200 clutches of eggs of Australian birds, meticulously documented, remained at Belltrees until his death when they were transferred to the museum.

After World War I White spent more time entertaining family and friends, and following polo and cricket (he sat in the same seat in the members' stand at the Sydney Cricket Ground to watch every Test played there for twenty-five years). He made substantial gifts to the Church of England, the Scone hospitals, the Liberal and Reform Association, and other causes. He quietly helped local people and the unfortunate, and gave sweets to children who opened gates for him. Survived by his wife, son and two daughters, White died of cancer on 30 May 1927 at Belltrees and was buried in Muswellbrook cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £185,360.

Born on 29 November 1855 at Belltrees, James Cobb White was educated at Newcastle Grammar School and in Sydney, before becoming manager of Edinglassie. After 1889 he turned the station into one of the showplaces of New South Wales and acquired properties in Queensland and the Northern Territory. A strong believer in the value of stud stock, in the early 1920s he was a founder and president of the Aberdeen-Angus Herd Book Society of Australia. He periodically imported bulls from England and built up the country's largest pedigreed Angus herd. Among his neighbours he was renowned as a water-diviner.

Nominated to the Legislative Council in July 1908, though 'never very active' in the work of parliament, James was 'attentive to his public duties': he was president of the Denman Shire Council, the Upper Hunter Pastoral and Agricultural Association and the local hospital, and a member of the Licensing Court and of the local Pastures Protection Board. He died on 18 January 1927 at Muswellbrook and was buried in the local cemetery. His three sons and two daughters inherited his estate which was sworn for probate at £236,691.

Select Bibliography

  • E. J. Brady, Australia Unlimited (Melb, 1918)
  • J. White, The White Family of Belltrees (Syd, 1981)
  • P. White, Flaws in the Glass (Lond, 1981)
  • J. White, Land Settlement and Selection in the Belltrees Region (Newcastle, 1988)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 19 Jan 1927, p 471
  • Pastoral Review, 16 May 1925, 16 Feb, 16 June 1927
  • Australian Museum Magazine, 3, no 3, July-Sept 1927, p 102
  • Australian Zoologist, 5, 1927-29, p 120
  • Sydney Mail, 16 Nov, 30 Nov 1901, 24 June 1927
  • Scone Advocate, 21 Jan, 31 May, 3 June 1927
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 May 1927, 7 May 1960
  • H. L. White letter books, 1885-1927, station diaries, photograph albums and family papers (Belltrees, Scone, New South Wales).

Additional Resources

  • probate, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 July 1927, p 8

Citation details

Nancy Gray, 'White, James Cobb (1855–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/white-james-cobb-9289/text15997, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 11 December 2017.

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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