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James Clark (1857–1933)

by Patricia Mercer

This article was published:

James Clark (1857-1933), pearler and pastoralist, was born on 2 October 1857 on Spit Island, Hunter River, New South Wales, son of Adam Clark, fisherman, and his wife Louisa, née Sheaff. Adam was drowned before James was 3, leaving his large family in poverty. James acquired two years of elementary education in Brisbane. At 14 he became a plasterer's boy with James Campbell & Co.; he won promotion to the office and in nine years with the firm learned accountancy and commercial methods and achieved some minor business successes. Inspired by pearling stories, he went to Somerset on Cape York Peninsula in 1881 and entered into a partnership with Frank Jardine. When they later split, Jardine stayed at Somerset and Clark transferred his half of the fleet to Friday Island. One of his first boats was the Amy, which was sailed from Brisbane to Thursday Island in 1882 by a crew which included P. P. Outridge, later managing partner in James Clark & Co. Robert Philp was later a partner in several ventures.

In March 1886 Clark moved his fleet to Broome, Western Australia; his enemies alleged that he had stripped the Thursday Island beds. He became a busy spokesman for a group of Queensland pearlers, seeking unsuccessfully to evade Western Australian duties. He claimed to have introduced diving apparatus and the 'floating station' system which became standard. Attracted by reports of revival in Torres Strait after 1890, he returned and participated in a successful campaign by European fleet-owners against the issue of pearling licenses to Japanese—this activity led to the Pearl and Beche-de-Mer Fishery Act of 1898. The growth of Clark's business was described at the 1897 royal commission: in 1896 his fleets had raised £31,500 worth of shell and £5000 worth of pearls and he was a substantial producer of edible oysters in Moreton Bay. Experiments in shell culture by his Pilot Cultivation Co. in Torres Strait provoked hostility, but were defeated by natural predators.

Clark lost heavily in the great cyclone of 1899 but recovered rapidly. Like others he was dissatisfied with the innovations in the Federal Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, and what he considered the lavish granting of pearling licenses by Queensland. In 1905 he took 115 of his boats from Thursday Island to the Dutch-owned Aru Islands. There he secured a concession and, since Dutch law required leasing companies to be founded in Holland or the Netherlands Indies, formed the Celebes Trading Co. (1904) with S. E. Munro. The concession was extended for 10 years in 1908. In 1905 Clark was appointed consul for the Netherlands in Queensland.

The Aru grounds proved disappointing. Only 130 boats could work there and the company had the right to use 115—half the total number of boats licensed in Queensland. Clark told the royal commission of 1908 that his firm had £100,000 invested in plant and stores and wished to bring some boats back to Torres Strait. Applications in 1907 and 1909 were refused on the ground that no more boats could work the depleted beds.

Clark went to England in 1910 to investigate market conditions, and featured in negotiations for an Australian pearling combine in 1913. He secured permission in 1915 to transfer some of his Aru Islands fleet and, to the consternation of local operators, established thirty-five boats in Broome. Next year the Celebes Trading Co. was sold to a Dutch firm. Pressure from other pearlers led to new regulations designed to restrict the number of licences held by one firm, and Clark's Broome fleet was sold in October 1918 mainly to relatives and associates. He ceased to be a major factor in the industry.

In 1898 Clark had bought Boongoondoo station with Peter Tait, and they later acquired some of the largest and most highly improved sheep properties in Queensland. In 1915 nine of their stations were stocked with 497,947 sheep. Clark had joined the Central Queensland Pastoral Employers' Association. He took a keen interest in the problems of the wool industry, and from 1913 attended council meetings of the United Pastoralists' Association, representing the Pastoral Employers' Association of Central and Northern Queensland. He became a trustee for the United Graziers, and from 1919 was a Queensland delegate on the Australian Woolgrowers' Council. He attended conferences with the National Council of Woolselling Brokers, and joined deputations to the prime minister and to Sir John Higgins, chairman of the Central Wool Committee. In 1922 he represented the council on the Wool Appeal Board of the British Australian Wool Realisation Association. He campaigned for control over wool prices, submitting a stabilization scheme to the 58th convention of the Graziers' Federal Council in May 1925. But in August, feeling his views were not heeded, he resigned from both the Woolgrowers' Council and the United Graziers' Association. However, in 1932 he was invited to join the Wool Enquiry Committee as a producers' representative. Profoundly irritated by the cost of shipping wool, he chartered a vessel to move 10,000 bales to London in 1932 and saved his firm £7000.

Clark amassed a wonderful collection of pearls of all shapes and sizes and would pay as much as £5000 for one. Australia's finest pearl, 'The Star of the West', sold for nearly £6000, was found by an employee off Broome. In the 1890s he settled permanently in a fine house on the Brisbane River, kept his own yachts and won races all over Australia. During his pearling days he took cricket teams from Thursday Island to Normanton, and from Darwin to Port Hedland. A committee-member of the Queensland Turf Club, he paid high prices for racehorses. He was renowned for his kindness and generosity to many people and causes. A very heavy cigar smoker, he damaged his heart while gardening and died at his home on 9 July 1933 of a coronary thrombosis. He was survived by his wife Jessie, née Smith, whom he had married on 2 September 1885 at St John's Presbyterian Church, Paddington, Sydney, and by their son and daughter. He was buried in Toowong cemetery with Anglican rites and left an estate valued for probate at £80,896.

Select Bibliography

  • Handboek voor Cultuur-en Handelsonder-Nemingen in Nederlandsch-Indië, jrg 27 1915 (Amsterdam, 1914)
  • Encyclopaedie van Nederlandsch-Indië, ('s-Gravenhage, 1917), vol 1, p 62, vol 3, p 231
  • G. C. Bolton, ‘The rise of Burns, Philp—1873-93’, A. Birch and D. S. Macmillan (eds), Wealth and Progress (Syd, 1967)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, Western Australia), 1888 (26)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1897, 2, 1273, 1908, 2nd session, 2, 395
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1913, 3, 645
  • J. P. S. Bach, ‘The pearlshelling industry and the “White Australia” policy’, Historical Studies, no 38, May 1962
  • N. S. Pixley, ‘Pearlers of Northern Australia—the … diving fleets’, JRHSQ, 9 (1969-75), pt 3
  • West Courier, 12 July 1933
  • J. P. S. Bach, The Pearling Industry of Australia, DS 33 (AAO, Canb)
  • Graziers' Assn of NSW, E256/56, 57, 1373, 1374 (ANU Archives)
  • records of pastoral employers' organizations (Oxley Lib, Brisb)
  • Registers A30, 1903-09, and correspondence files, A461, A325/10/1, A3932, SC430 (6 and 9), and A468 AM500/11 (National Archives of Australia)
  • CSO 2100/18 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • PRE/A38 no 7999, TRE/30 5378, A20245 (Queensland State Archives)
  • family papers (privately held.

Citation details

Patricia Mercer, 'Clark, James (1857–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 25 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 October, 1857
Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia


9 July, 1933 (aged 75)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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.