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 Horatio Nelson Cassell (1814–1853)

by Susan Stringer

This article was published:

James Horatio Nelson Cassell (1814-1853), public servant, was born on 17 December 1814 in London, son of Lieutenant-Colonel James Cassell, who served under Nelson in the marines, and his wife Jane. He joined the public service and was sent to Van Diemen's Land with a British Treasury appointment in the customs; he arrived in Hobart Town in 1836. He accompanied G. H. Barnes, collector of customs at Hobart Town, on his investigation of the Customs Department at Port Phillip in 1843, and acted so satisfactorily that in 1844 he was ordered by the Treasury in London to leave his post as first clerk at Hobart and proceed again to Port Phillip. He took up the position of acting sub-collector there on 14 February 1845, and began to prepare a report on the conduct of the former collector, Robert Webb, and on the general state of affairs in the department. On 17 February 1847 Cassell was suspended by the acting superintendent, William Lonsdale, for refusing, on the grounds that he was subject to the Board of Customs in England, to supply Webb with a copy of the report on the charges against him. The Argus came out strongly in support of Cassell: 'on a calm and unprejudiced consideration of the case we are fully satisfied that he has acted correctly'. On 19 February 1848 he was reappointed by Charles La Trobe, but received no compensation for loss of wages. From October 1848 to April 1849 he was in Adelaide, investigating the Customs Department there, again under orders from London.

Cassell had an increasingly respected and eminent position in the community and fulfilled many additional duties, both official and non-official. He was appointed acting assessor at Collingwood in October 1850, government officer for enforcing the imperial Passengers Act at Melbourne in December 1851, and in 1853 served on the Victorian Steam Navigation Board in February and the select committee on lighthouses in September. After the colony of Victoria was constituted in 1851 he was confirmed in his position as collector of customs and joined the Executive Council. On 30 August 1853 he was one of the six officials nominated to the Legislative Council. Cassell did much to advance free trade and an enlightened and simplified tariff system in Victoria, and in co-operation with his friend, William Westgarth, and the Chamber of Commerce, he played a primary role in the formulation of the Tariff Act in August 1852, carefully amassing evidence for the advantages of a simple duty on six main articles, the system which was finally adopted. Unobtrusive and modest, Cassell appears to have performed his public and private duties with equal ardour, efficiency and humanity; neither the press nor his fellow government officers and personal friends could praise him too highly. At Hobart in 1840 he married Martha Bruford, a Scotswoman; they had no children. He attended the Legislative Council to the last, although seriously ill. He died at his home, Hawksburn House, in South Yarra, on 21 November 1853. His widow was granted £3000, equivalent to his salary for two years.

Deeply religious, Cassell was a ruling elder and a trustee of Scots Church. According to the Argus obituarist, 'we question if anyone ever united in one person more completely the qualities of a good servant of Government with genuine regard for the best interests of his adopted country'.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Westgarth, Personal Recollections of Early Melbourne and Victoria (Melb, 1888)
  • E. M. Robb, Early Toorak and District (Melb, 1934)
  • J. A. La Nauze, ‘Merchants in Action: The Australian Tariffs of 1852’, Economic Record, vol 31, May 1955, pp 77-89
  • Collector of Customs letters, 1845-53 (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • Superintendent's out-letters, 1846-48 (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • Kenyon press cuttings, vol 1, p 238 (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Susan Stringer, 'Cassell, James Horatio Nelson (1814–1853)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 23 May 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

Life Summary [details]


17 December, 1814
London, Middlesex, England


21 November, 1853 (aged 38)
South Yarra, 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.