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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wilson, Sir James Milne (1812–1880)

by Neil Smith

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

Sir James Milne Wilson (1812-1880), politician, brewer and landowner, was born at Banff, Scotland, son of John Wilson, shipowner. In 1829 he migrated to Van Diemen's Land to join his brother Captain William Wilson. He worked in engineering and the merchant marine and reputedly became a successful navigator. In 1836 he was honorary secretary to shareholders in the Theatre Royal at Hobart Town, and honorary treasurer of the first Hobart Annual Regatta in 1838. On 15 December 1847 with Anglican rites he married Deborah Hope, daughter of P. Degraves. Wilson's land interests in the 1840s in the Port Phillip District led to his appointment to the commission of the peace in Melbourne and, later, as territorial magistrate. From 1851, with his brother-in-law W. Degraves, he ran sheep on 200 sq. miles (518 km²) near Mount Gambier, South Australia. Later Wilson leased the Cascade Brewery from the Degraveses for fourteen years. The Mercury claimed that the fame of Wilson's ale extended beyond the Australian colonies; it was commended at the 1866-67 Intercolonial Exhibition, Melbourne, and the Cornwall Chronicle described it as 'smooth as oil, sweet as milk, clear as amber, and strong as brandy'. In evidence before a select parliamentary committee in 1858 he supported repeal of legislation prohibiting distillation, and claimed he could produce whisky and gin equal to the world's best.

On 18 October 1859 Wilson was elected for Hobart to the Legislative Council and held the seat till his death. Minister without portfolio in the J. Whyte government in 1863-66, he supported its policies on free trade and direct taxation. In 1863 he served on a joint select committee of inquiry into the Launceston-Deloraine railway and next year attended in Melbourne the intercolonial conference on coastal lighthouses. in 1868 he was a member of the royal commission on the main line railway between Hobart and Launceston which reported in favour of a 4 ft 8½ ins (144 cm) gauge.

Wilson became premier and colonial secretary on 4 August 1869 at 'some sacrifice of party predilections and personal feelings'. Described as 'traitor' and 'renegade' by some Hobart electors, he barely won the subsequent elections. Among his achievements was the Hobart-Launceston main line railway Act and the 1871 contract for its construction with a 3 ft 6 ins (107 cm) gauge; legislation for prevention of scab in sheep and to provide for the distillation of spirits from colonial products; and amendments to the Constitution and the electoral Acts. But an 1870 law on intercolonial free trade did not receive royal assent. Defeated on property and income tax proposals, he resigned on 1 November 1872 and on 4 November was elected president of the Legislative Council. Wilson continued to represent Tasmania at intercolonial conferences. To Anthony Trollope he seemed 'to have clearer and juster views on the future political necessities of the colonies than any other Australian statesman'.

Mayor of Hobart in 1868-69 Wilson cut an impressive, clean-shaven figure in mayoral robes when welcoming the Duke of Edinburgh in 1868. He actively supported volunteer military movements in the colony, and was sometime president of the Southern Tasmanian Rifle Association. In 1860 he had raised and led the City Guards, and in 1863 commanded the First Administrative Regiment, Southern Division Tasmanian Volunteers.

Wilson was chairman of directors of the Bank of Van Diemen's Land, a director of the Derwent and Tamar Fire, Life, and Marine Assurance Society and president of the Tasmanian Agricultural and Pastoral Society. He was foundation vice-president and chairman of the committee of the Tasmanian Racing Club (Jockey Club), supported it financially, and was prime mover in securing the Elwick race-course. A member and trustee of the Tasmanian Club, he was president of the royal commissions for the Philadelphia (1876), Sydney (1879) and Melbourne (1880) exhibitions.

Wilson was knighted in 1873 and created K.C.M.G. in 1878. He died of heart disease at his home, Melrose, Hampden Road, Hobart, on 29 February 1880 and was buried in Cornelian Bay cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £29,883.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Fenton, A History of Tasmania (Hob, 1884)
  • Cyclopedia of Tasmania, vol 1 (Hob, 1900)
  • F. C. Green (ed), A Century of Responsible Government 1856-1956 (Hob, 1956)
  • Votes and Proceedings (House of Assembly, Tasmania), 1869, 135, 136 (44, 64), 1870, 122, 123 (23, 24), 1871 (28), 1872 (20, 21), 1873 (2)
  • Hobart Town Courier, 10 June, 19 Aug 1836
  • Hobarton Guardian, 5 Feb 1851
  • Mercury (Hobart), 15, 17 Oct 1859, 5, 7, 10, 13 Aug, 8 Dec 1869, 20 June, 2, 5 Nov 1872, May 1878, 1, 3 Mar 1880
  • Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston), 29 June 1867
  • Examiner (Launceston), 1, 3 Mar 1880
  • Australasian, 6 Mar 1880
  • indexes and correspondence file under J. M. Wilson (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

Neil Smith, 'Wilson, Sir James Milne (1812–1880)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 22 October 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 6

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