Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

James Alston (1850–1943)

by George Parsons

This article was published:

James Alston (1850-1943), manufacturer, was born on 21 September 1850 at Southwark, London, son of Thomas Alston, plasterer and later a pottery-ware manufacturer, and his wife Kezia, née Edwell. Little is known of his early life, but he arrived in Victoria in 1861 or 1863 and spent some years on the goldfields. In the mid-1860s he was apprenticed to the iron trade in Ballarat, serving four years in general engineering, before establishing himself in 1874 as an agricultural implement-maker and blacksmith at Warrnambool. There, on 25 May he married Mary Sophia Georgina O'Sullivan, daughter of a shopkeeper.

Alston had long had an interest in pumps, but from the early 1870s he began to realize that the windmill offered the real solution to tapping the resources of artesian water. Moreover, if the design could be perfected, windmills could also meet the immense demand for power to drive sawmills, shearing machines and other implements efficiently and economically. Alston began working on improvements to windmills and by 1884 was ready to apply for a patent for his design. His windmills, constantly improved over the next two decades, were of iron (later steel) construction, of a circular form, and with curved sails. In the next two years he applied for patents for an attachment to ploughs, and for an 'improved trough or flume coupling', but his windmills were in such demand that by 1890 he was able to devote himself almost entirely to their manufacture and installation. By then hundreds of them were operating in the Western District of Victoria, and he was well on his way to dominating the market in the other Australian colonies and in South Africa. In 1897 Alston moved to Melbourne to be closer to his sources of raw materials and to save freight costs, recognizing that the capital was now the only real location for an enterprising manufacturer. Close to Queen's Bridge at Moray Street, South Melbourne, Alston built a large, modern factory, equipped with machinery which he had himself invented or adapted. A fair, paternalistic employer, he concentrated on training and keeping a skilled workforce; low labour mobility helped to ensure efficiency, economy and reliability. His management abilities, as well as his entrepreneurial and inventive skills, made him a formidable capitalist.

Alston was a manufacturer; he had few other interests. He perfected a number of inventions which were of great assistance to the rural community, such as the steel water-trough for stock, but took little part in public life. Mary Alston (1856-1932), on the other hand, made up for his lack of community involvement. She bore him four sons and three daughters, ran his large house, Majella, in St Kilda Road from the late 1890s, and also involved herself whole-heartedly in an impressive range of charitable activities. Both she and her husband were Catholics, but her 'philanthropy recognised no boundary of creed', and at her death on 13 December 1932 she was president of the Women's Hospital, patroness of the central executive of St Vincent's Hospital, a vice-president of the Victoria League and president of the Loreto Free Kindergarten. Her other concerns included the Queen Victoria and the Alfred hospitals, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the City Newsboys' Society. During World War I she had been a zealous worker for the Red Cross and she was also a member of the Lyceum Club. She was remembered for her unassuming generosity, her old-world dignity of manner and her kindly charm.

Alston died at his home on 27 July 1943, survived by three daughters and three sons; he was buried in the Melbourne general cemetery and left an estate valued for probate at £236,691. He was probably the last of the Victorian manufacturers who in the 1870s and 1880s had made that colony the industrial leader of Australia. The size of the market for certain products seemed to promise a new industrial revolution, a basic change in the Victorian economy. However, while there was manufacturing, there was not industrialization, which was to come much later. Alston's period had been the pre-war years; little is heard of him after 1914. His business was still prosperous, his products still innovative, but the dreams of his generation had faded. Australian manufacturing had become a tariff-protected sector, used by politicians to absorb surplus labour and employing a derivative technology. James Alston and his fellow entrepreneurs had promised much more; the promises now rust on farms all over Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • F. Wheelhouse, Digging Stick to Rotary Hoe (Melb, 1966)
  • Scientific Australian, 20 June 1900
  • Age (Melbourne), 14 Dec 1932, 31 July 1943
  • Argus (Melbourne), 2 Aug 1943.

Citation details

George Parsons, 'Alston, James (1850–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


21 September, 1850
London, Middlesex, England


27 July, 1943 (aged 92)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.