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James Joseph Casey (1831–1913)

by John C. Oldmeadow

This article was published:

James Joseph Casey (1831-1913), by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co, c1885

James Joseph Casey (1831-1913), by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co, c1885

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H29508

James Joseph Casey (1831-1913), politician and judge, was born on 25 December 1831 at Tromra, County Clare, Ireland, son of James Casey, landowner, and his wife Maria, née Coffey. He was educated at Galway College and at 18 went to America. After working as a gaol warder and a clerk on a Mississippi steamboat he returned to Ireland in 1854, sailed for Australia and arrived at Melbourne in February 1855. With Angus Mackay he bought the Bendigo Advertiser; in 1863 the partners also established the McIvor Times and the Riverine Herald.

Casey was soon prominent in local affairs at Sandhurst (Bendigo), especially in connexion with the land convention of 1857. He joined the Sandhurst Municipal Council in 1860 and was its chairman in 1861. In that year he became a magistrate and won the Sandhurst seat for the Legislative Assembly but was unseated on petition. In 1863-80 he represented Mandurang.

Casey was called to the Bar in 1865 and joined the second ministry of James McCulloch as minister of justice in July 1868 and was briefly solicitor-general in 1869. From June 1872 to August 1875, as commissioner of crown lands, president of the Board of Land and Works and the first minister of agriculture, he was the most radical member of the Francis and Kerferd ministries and one of their most prominent and controversial figures. Though not a teetotaller Casey was active in the cause of temperance. He was a vice-president of the Victorian Alliance and responsible for the Inebriates Treatment Act of 1872. After Kerferd's defeat he refused to join either McCulloch or the extreme radical party created by Graham Berry.

Casey accepted the presidency of the Victorian commissioners at the Paris Exhibition of 1878 and for his work was appointed C.M.G. and knight officer of the French Legion of Honour and of the Crown of Italy. At the International Exhibition at Melbourne in 1880 he acted as executive vice-president and as chairman of the British committee. Meanwhile he maintained an independent position in the assembly between the radical and conservative parties led by Berry and James Service, and later became a leading member of the moderate 'Corner' group. At the general election in February 1880 he lost his seat, partly because state aid to church schools had become a burning issue and his long opposition to it lost him votes among his fellow-Catholics. Casey then became the first chairman of directors of the Federal Bank but resigned in 1884 when appointed judge of the County Court; later he acted briefly as a judge of the Supreme Court. He was a delegate to the Vienna Postal Conference in 1891. In 1900 ill health forced his retirement from the bench and from the chair of the board inquiring into the operation of the Metropolitan Board of Works.

In his long public career Casey was particularly interested in the three areas of the Lands Department, the judiciary and the federal movement. As minister for lands he reorganized the department, reorganized the survey branch and checked the system of 'dummying' by instituting inquiries at Stawell, Benalla and Echuca. As Casey and his retinue moved in state around the country his dignity was so impressive that he won the title 'King Casey' which stuck for many years. His attempts to amend the 1869 Land Act failed, but its later success in settling northern Victoria and Gippsland owed much to his vigorous administration. In 1877 the salient features of Casey's land settlement programme were set down in his comparison of the Victorian and South Australian land systems published in the Melbourne Review. He was also a founding director of the Sydney Daily Telegraph in 1879.

As a lawyer and judge Casey made many improvements in the colony's judicial machinery. He initiated a system of magistrates appointed to districts rather than to the whole of Victoria and published Justice's Manual with the Justices' Statute and Notes Thereon (Melbourne, 1872); its success led to a second edition, co-authored by (Sir) Frank Gavan Duffy (1879). He also edited The Sandhurst Mining By-Laws and his notes clarified technicalities for less competent magistrates. Another result of his methodical mind was the publication of Victorian Parliamentary Debates. Casey's deliberations from the bench 'were always painstaking, clear-headed and prompt' and many of his judgments became legal precedents.

While in parliament Casey showed a particular interest in the federal movement. In the 1870 standing committee and later as chairman of the royal commission on federal union, he showed a realistic approach in contrast to the idealism of Charles Gavan Duffy. Casey saw that political federation was a long way off but argued for practical advance by reciprocal legislation on such questions as extradition, insolvency, probate, marriage, naturalization and other common problems. Berry's opposition to intercolonial free trade was probably a major reason for Casey's refusal to join his ministry in 1877.

Casey's impeccable appearance reflected his ordered mind and methodical approach. Gallant to ladies, 'beloved of many friends and the hospitable entertainer of the stranger within the gates', the flamboyant radical became a member of the Melbourne Club and later named his home, Ibrickane, after an Irish barony. His marriage to Maria Theresa, daughter of James and Mary Cahill of Bendigo, was childless. He died at St Kilda on 5 April 1913.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Mackay, The History of Bendigo (Melb, 1891)
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 Apr 1913
  • Argus (Melbourne), 7 Apr 1913.

Citation details

John C. Oldmeadow, 'Casey, James Joseph (1831–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 22 April 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 Joseph Casey (1831-1913), by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co, c1885

James Joseph Casey (1831-1913), by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co, c1885

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H29508

Life Summary [details]


25 December, 1831
Tromra, Clare, Ireland


5 April, 1913 (aged 81)
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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