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James Augustine Cunneen (1826–1889)

by D. G. Bowd

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James Augustine Cunneen (1826-1889), farmer, politician, and land agent, was born on 22 February 1826 at Mulgrave, New South Wales, youngest of eight surviving children of Irish-born parents John Cunneen, farmer and grazier, and his wife Mary, née Flanagan. An emancipist from County Clare, his father had arrived in Sydney in 1818 as a convict on board the Earl St Vincent, having been sentenced to seven years’ transportation for sheep stealing. James’ mother migrated to Australia with five of his siblings on the Almorah in 1824. After disembarking, they joined John at Windsor. James received the rudiments of education from James Cassidy, teacher at the Roman Catholic school in Windsor. He became a farmer and grazier on land at South Creek, through which the railway passed in 1864. Largely by perseverance he developed remarkable oratorical powers which were first exercised in the Debating Society formed at Windsor in 1857. He served on its committee and after it became the Windsor Literary Institute in 1861, gave it £25 to help to build a School of Arts; in moving that a subscription list be opened he claimed that 'Windsor district stood first in agriculture, and fourth in population but only about twelfth as to literary institutions'.

In the Legislative Assembly elections in 1860 one of the sitting members for Hawkesbury, (Sir) John Darvall, supported survey before selection but failed to win public favour and withdrew. Cunneen, who was popular in the district, 'declared himself an advocate of free selection, with no quarter to the squatters' and was returned unopposed. He was again returned unopposed in 1864 and in October 1865 was appointed postmaster-general, the first member of parliament to occupy this post, although it did not give him a seat in the cabinet. He held office for four months. In the election of 1869 he was defeated when two members were returned for Hawkesbury from a field of five. He won the neighbouring seat of Wollombi in 1872 and 1874. Defeat in 1877 ended his parliamentary career.

Cunneen took up business as a land agent in Sydney but 'spent the remainder of his life in anything but affluent circumstances'. His end came suddenly on 19 April 1889 when he accidentally fell and broke his neck whilst descending a flight of stairs in his home at Paddington. He was buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery at Windsor. His wife Elizabeth, née Hudson, whom he had married at Windsor in 1861, and their five sons and three daughters survived him.

According to David Buchanan who had known Cunneen for over thirty years, 'He spoke with great earnestness, eloquence and power and on questions connected with the land laws of the country he had no superior in the House. To have gained such a reputation as … a powerful and eloquent debater was a difficult thing to achieve in those days when there were men with great powers like Sir James Martin, Dr. Lang, Sir John Robertson and Sir Henry Parkes'.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Walker, Miscellanies (Syd, 1887), 94
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1865-66, 1, 324
  • Windsor Review, 1 Aug 1857
  • Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 27 Apr, 18 May 1889.

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Citation details

D. G. Bowd, 'Cunneen, James Augustine (1826–1889)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 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

James Cunneen, n.d.

James Cunneen, n.d.

National Archives of Australia, C4078:N4064A

Life Summary [details]


22 February, 1826
Mulgrave, New South Wales, Australia


19 April, 1889 (aged 63)
Paddington, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


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