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Sir James Penn Boucaut (1831–1916)

by P. L. Edgar

This article was published:

James Penn Boucaut (1831-1916), By Charles H Manning, c1880

James Penn Boucaut (1831-1916), By Charles H Manning, c1880

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 7000

Sir James Penn Boucaut (1831-1916), politician and judge, was born on 29 October 1831 at Mylor, Cornwall, England, the eldest son of Captain Ray Boucaut (pronounced `Boco'), of the East India Co., and his wife Winifred, née Penn, a staunch Anglican who claimed kinship with the founder of Pennsylvania. He migrated with his parents to South Australia in 1846 and found work as a stockman. In 1851 he turned to the law, serving four years with Charles Fenn and one year with H. W. Parker. He was admitted to the Bar in November 1855.

In December 1861 Boucaut won a City of Adelaide by-election with the support of the working class Political Association, formed to oppose immigration at the public expense. In the House of Assembly he confirmed his radical sympathies, vigorously opposing an attempt to give plural votes to property owners. In the general election of 1862 the return of prosperity and the collapse of the association contributed to his narrow defeat. In 1865 attempts by the squatters to avoid Surveyor-General George Goyder's rent revaluations of pastoral leases led to two reconstructions of the Ayers government within a month and ended in a dissolution. Boucaut topped the poll for West Adelaide with attacks on the political morals of 'the silver-tongued gentleman of North Terrace', and support for a liberal land policy and moderate protection of native industries. Later that year the severity of the northern drought convinced Boucaut and others of the need for relief for men on the land. He negotiated an alliance between John Hart and John Baker; the Ayers government was defeated and in October 1865 Boucaut joined Hart's ministry as attorney-general. Goyder was sent north and, after his report, parliament agreed to relief measures.

In March 1866 Hart resigned; Boucaut formed his first ministry and was at once faced by Judge Benjamin Boothby's refusal to recognize the colony's Court of Appeal. With characteristic decision Boucaut persuaded parliament, against doubts of those who feared English opinion, to petition the Queen to amove Boothby from office. Boucaut resigned in April 1867 to fight the Moonta mines case as legal adviser to the Mills syndicate who in 1863 challenged the grant of the mineral lease to (Sir) Walter Hughes; a select committee had found wholly in favour of Boucaut's clients but parliament decided to leave the case to the law.

In the 1868 election Boucaut was narrowly defeated in East Adelaide but a few days later he was returned unopposed for the Burra, where his father-in-law, Alexander McCulloch, stood down in his favour. He did not seek office because he was still involved with the Moonta case. After it was settled out of court in 1868 the Mineral Leases Validating Act, passed by the Strangways government, removed technical objections to ownership of the Moonta mine. Boucaut was then accused of supporting Strangways in return for the passing of the Act which secured his costs for the long-drawn case. This charge damaged his political reputation and he was badly defeated at the Burra in 1869. In July 1871 partly in answer to his accusers he stood for a by-election in West Torrens and won. In 1872 a select committee exonerated him of 'bartering his vote for pecuniary consideration'. On his appointment as attorney-general in the sixth Ayers ministry he wrote to (Sir) Henry Parkes lamenting that 'all political power is in the hands of a faction supported by the aristocrat club and the bank parlor'; he regarded his elevation to cabinet as 'a personal triumph, but the intense hatred the old lot bears towards me is an index of how greatly they feel their defeat and mortification'.

Between 1872 and 1875 Boucaut was the government's chief critic. Full bearded, strongly built, forceful and blunt, he appeared to some to possess only destructive talents. But by 1874 he had begun to advocate imaginative schemes of development. Looking towards Federation he had become a free trader; believing that 'continued localism was a curse and a disgrace' and that South Australia should be governed more as a nation and less as a municipality, he looked to the government to plan large-scale public works; since that development depended on population he now supported immigration at the public expense. In the elections of 1875, seeking an electorate more in agreement with these views than protectionist West Torrens, he stood for Encounter Bay and won.

In June 1875 Boucaut formed his second ministry, taking charge himself of crown lands and immigration. His policies marked an end to the caution which characterized the 1860s, and ran parallel with extended programmes begun in eastern Australia about that time. He emphasized the opening of country areas by better transport for wheat, wine, olive oil and other produce. He proposed to borrow £3,000,000 for railway development, including lines to the north and to the River Murray, and for other public works including a breakwater at Victor Harbor. To pay the interest on the loan he proposed new taxation. Despite strong support in the House of Assembly, in the press and in petitions to parliament the stamp duties bill was rejected in the Legislative Council by six votes to five. The ministry did, however, give South Australia free, secular and compulsory education. A reformed Boucaut ministry was defeated in 1876 after the attorney-general, Samuel Way, was appointed chief justice. Boucaut's plan, which brought breadth and a degree of fame to South Australian politics, was not lost entirely. The next ministry, under (Sir) John Colton in 1876, started on the railway programme and more progress was made when Boucaut, as treasurer, formed his third ministry in October 1877.

In June 1875 Boucaut had been appointed a Q.C. and on 25 September 1878 was made a puisne judge of the Supreme Court of South Australia with a salary of £1700. In his twenty-seven years of distinguished service he acted several times as deputy-governor and chief justice. Although he often appeared grim and forbidding he was fearless and reserved; his friends knew his courtesy, kindness and generosity. He continued to support Federation and in 1892 visited Europe. In 1898 he was appointed K.C.M.G. In 1905 with a pension of £1300 he retired to his estate at Mount Barker where he bred Arab horses. Earlier he had been an enthusiastic yachtsman; in retirement he published three books on thoroughbreds and the turf and Letters to My Boys: An Australian Judge and Ex-Premier on his Travels in Europe (London, 1906). On 22 March 1864 he had married Janet, daughter of Alexander McCulloch, a pastoralist at Kooringa and parliamentarian; they had six sons and a daughter. Predeceased by his wife he died at his home in Glenelg on 1 February 1916.

Select Bibliography

  • P. L. Edgar, Sir James Penn Boucaut (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1961), and for bibliography
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

P. L. Edgar, 'Boucaut, Sir James Penn (1831–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Penn Boucaut (1831-1916), By Charles H Manning, c1880

James Penn Boucaut (1831-1916), By Charles H Manning, c1880

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 7000

Life Summary [details]


29 October, 1831
Mylor, Cornwall, England


1 February, 1916 (aged 84)
Glenelg, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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