Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Collier (1846–1925)

by Jill Waterhouse

This article was published:

James Collier (1846-1925), writer, was born on 12 July 1846 at Dunfermline, Fifeshire, Scotland, son of James Collier, handloom weaver, and his wife Janet, née Dickson. At 12 he became a clerk with Erskine Beveridge and in 1863 went to the University of St Andrews where he read classics and mathematics until 1867 but failed to pay the fee that graduation entailed. In 1868-69 he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. In 1870 he was a leader-writer and reviewer for the Scotsman. He soon moved to London where he wrote for newspapers and journals, including Mind. He impressed Herbert Spencer, who was embarking on his scheme of Descriptive Sociology and in March 1871 employed Collier as an assistant. Puffing on a cigar, Spencer dictated for three hours in the mornings and in the afternoons directed him to compile and tabulate material. Collier was later relieved of his duties as amanuensis in order to take more responsibility for the Descriptive Sociology, particularly for the sections published in 1873 and 1881.

Collier spent ten years with Spencer but through overwork and disappointment over an unsuccessful application for a professorship, his health broke down and in 1882 he migrated to New Zealand. In 1885 he was appointed parliamentary librarian at Wellington. There he compiled The Literature Relating to New Zealand: A Bibliography (1889), using his knowledge of French and German to advantage in describing over 1200 works. In 1895 Collier settled in Sydney. He published in several journals, including 'The evolution of colonies' in Appleton's Popular Science Monthly (1898-99), and articles on sociology in Knowledge (1902-04) and colonization in the American Journal of Sociology (1905-06). In 1904 he contributed his personal reminiscences of Spencer to a biography written by Professor Josiah Royce of Harvard.

On 18 May 1905 at St Andrew's Anglican Cathedral, Collier married Florence Elizabeth Wildbredt, eldest daughter of a baronet Sir William Durrant of Scotlow Hall, Norfolk; they later lived at St Helena, Manly.

Collier wrote on such contemporary events in Australasia as old-age pensions and the early 1900s land scandals for the New York Nation; in 1906 he contributed 'Phases of religious reconstruction in France and Germany' to the Hibbert Journal. Over the next few years works followed quickly: a spirited biography of an acquaintance Sir George Grey (1909), introduction and notes to D. Collins's An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales (Christchurch, 1911), The Pastoral Age in Australasia (London, 1911) and an introduction to E. G. Wakefield's A View of the Art of Colonization … (Oxford, 1914).

Collier had remained a disciple of Spencer. His writings reveal an encyclopaedic knowledge carefully structured to support his obsessive belief that evolution was a universal principle, applicable to poetry and politics as well as to protoplasm. Biological terminology is the hallmark of his work and references to Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer abound. Intensely interested in history, he saw endless comparisons between developments in nature and society. The ease and frankness with which he connected biological and social subjects were well suited to hold the attention of nineteenth-century readers of popular, scientific magazines, even if not all of them accepted his generalizations. Some of his opinions sprang from a survival-of-the-fittest view of society. He believed that the Aboriginal population's decline, although regrettably painful, was the inevitable consequence of white man's natural superiority. He was less extreme in dealing with other social and economic questions.

Survived by his wife but childless, Collier died at St Ronan's Private Hospital, Manly, on 21 June 1925 and was buried in the Presbyterian section of Manly cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Spencer, An Autobiography, vol 1 (Lond, 1904)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 June 1925.

Citation details

Jill Waterhouse, 'Collier, James (1846–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 28 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]


12 July, 1846
Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland


21 June, 1925 (aged 78)
Manly, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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