Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Crotty (1845–1898)

by Geoffrey Blainey

This article was published:

James Crotty (1845?-1898), prospector, was born in County Clare, Ireland, and migrated when about 18 to the Victorian goldfields where he became a skilled miner and battery-man. About 1879 he went to the new goldfields in western Tasmania, worked as a digger near the Pieman River for several years and made prospecting trips up the Gordon River. In 1884 he camped at the new gold diggings at Mount Lyell and bought a one-third interest in the most promising mine, the Iron Blow. He paid £20 for his share which was to be worth £1½ million in 1897.

The Iron Blow was the cap of a massive deposit which was rich in gold near the surface and—unknown to the prospectors—valuable in copper at depth. Most grains of gold were difficult to extract, large boulders had to be levered or blasted in order to expose the gold-bearing ground, and progress was slow. In 1886 Crotty's syndicate found richer gold and Crotty walked about 100 miles (161 km) to Waratah to register the find. 'I'll be that rich', he said, 'I'll buy Ireland and make it a present to Parnell'.

Ireland remained unbought. The mine continued to puzzle geologists and metallurgists. It devoured so much money that Crotty, in order to pay calls on his shares, had to borrow £900, and work as a miner in Sydney's new sewerage tunnels. In 1890 he returned to the mine as a manager, and when it closed he remained as caretaker. He had virtually married himself to the mine.

In 1891 most of the shares passed to new Broken Hill silver kings. When they confirmed that the mine contained vast deposits of copper, they formed the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Co. Ltd in 1893, opened copper smelters in 1896, and so made Crotty—still a minority shareholder—a rich investor. He was now living in Yallambee, a mansion in the Melbourne suburb of Auburn, and trying to float his large acreage on the borders of the main Mount Lyell mine. He was often seen in law courts—he was decidedly litigious—and at company meetings and Catholic gatherings: an eloquent, excitable man-about-town.

In January 1897 Crotty left Melbourne, intending to raise capital for the smaller Lyell mines on the London stock exchange. After a gale of publicity he floated the North Mount Lyell Copper Co. in September. A month later roadmakers accidentally found rich copper at the mine. Crotty harvested his luck, planning his own port and smelting town, and a railway from Macquarie Harbour to the mine. All were built after his death: the short-lived smelting town was named Crotty.

When after a brief illness Crotty died at Mayfair, London, on 16 April 1898, his death certificate mentioned cirrhosis of the liver. In London he had attracted so many friends and financial 'sea-gulls' that his requiem Mass in Regent Street and his burial at Kensal Green were largely attended.

Crotty had married in July 1889, when he lived in obscurity in Sydney. His bride, 22-year-old (Irene) Mary Gordon, later known as May Kathleen, was possibly a Protestant by background, was probably a barmaid, and was at least twenty years younger than him. In apportioning an estate of close to £200,000—a huge sum in the depressed 1890s—Crotty left her only £100 a year with the promise of another £500 a year if she entered a convent. As his will bequeathed £300 a year each to a Melbourne businessman and a priest, and £100 a year to each of Crotty's six sisters and brothers (and no bonus to tempt them into a convent or monastery), the young widow had clearly been out of favour. The largest share of the estate passed to the Catholic Church, and St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne was completed with the aid of dividends which continued to flow from Mount Lyell for decades after Crotty's death.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Blainey, The Peaks of Lyell (Melb, 1954)
  • Mount Lyell Standard, 28 Nov 1896, 20, 27 Apr 1898
  • Tasmanian (Launceston), 12 Feb, 5 Nov 1887
  • British Australasian, 21 Apr 1898
  • Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission Archives (Fitzroy, Melbourne).

Citation details

Geoffrey Blainey, 'Crotty, James (1845–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 21 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]


Clare, Ireland


16 April, 1898 (aged ~ 53)
London, Middlesex, England

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