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 Henry Curnow (1861–1932)

by Kevin Peoples

This article was published:

James Henry Curnow (1861-1932), businessman, was born on 21 March 1861 at Ludgvan, Cornwall, England, son of Sampson Curnow, tinminer and later mine manager, and his wife Elizabeth Ann, née Pearce. He came to Australia with his parents when he was 2. The family settled at Long Gully on the Bendigo goldfield and he was educated at the local state school and St Andrew's College, Sandhurst (Bendigo). On 27 June 1883, with Congregational forms, he married Jane Ann Corbel.

In May 1881 Curnow joined the Postmaster-General's Department as a letter-carrier and stamper. Taking leave in 1887 he acted as secretary of the Australian Natives' Association exhibition at Geelong. Next year he became a clerk with Connelly and Tatchell's, Bendigo solicitors, leaving in 1894 to establish an accountancy and real estate business at View Point. Shrewd and hard-working, Curnow prospered; he later added an auctioneering section and formed the company J. H. Curnow & Son.

The A.N.A. provided the grounding for Curnow's public life. He joined the Sandhurst branch in 1881, became an executive-member that year and was secretary in 1883-91; he was on the board of directors in 1888, treasurer of the board in 1890-91, vice-president in 1891-92 and auditor in 1893. He helped to form new branches in northern Victoria. With (Sir) John Quick he set up the first Federation League in the colony in Bendigo (1893).

After failures in 1895 and 1897, Curnow was elected to the Bendigo City Council in 1901; apart from 1906-09 he remained a councillor for the rest of his life, and was five times mayor. His efficient and imaginative work in council expressed his dedication to the advancement of Bendigo; for fifty years he was associated with almost every progressive movement in the life of the town—including the leading role in the installation of sewerage; he was a founding member (1916) and later chairman of the town's sewerage authority. He represented the cities, boroughs and towns of Victoria on the Board of Public Health (1913) and was appointed to the Commission of Public Health in 1920. Favouring a practical decentralist policy, Curnow was an executive-member of the Municipal Association of Victoria and president in 1919. He was keenly interested in politics, but his four attempts to enter parliament failed. Curnow was managing director of the Bendigo Pottery, director of the Bendigo Gas Co. and the Bendigo and Eaglehawk Star Building Society, and chairman of directors of the Bendigo Boot and Shoe Factory.

Curnow (known locally as 'Cock-eyed' due to an eye defect) was an active, impetuous character bursting with energy; he had a sharp wit and his reputation as a hard businessman is probably justified. His family affairs were marred by tragedy. His father was killed in a mining accident in 1881; his first wife and three of their five children died in the measles epidemic of 1893. Curnow's second wife Mary, née Jordan, whom he married with Wesleyan forms on 27 March 1895, died in 1909 after spilling carbolic acid on her hip, leaving three young children. On 2 August 1911 at Malvern, Curnow married Amy Elizabeth McLean according to Presbyterian forms; they had one daughter.

Curnow died on 25 April 1932, survived by his wife, a daughter of the first marriage, two daughters and a son of the second, and a daughter of the third. He was cremated. His estate was valued for probate at £21,389.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Mackay, Annals of Bendigo, 1921-35 (Bendigo, 1935)
  • Advance Australia, 7 June 1899, 16 June 1900, 15 Mar 1901, 15 Dec 1902
  • Age (Melbourne), Argus (Melbourne), 26 Apr 1932
  • Bendigo Advertiser, 26 Apr 1932
  • Council meeting minute-book, 1904-32 (Bendigo City Council).

Citation details

Kevin Peoples, 'Curnow, James Henry (1861–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 June 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]


21 March, 1861
Ludgvan, Cornwall, England


25 April, 1932 (aged 71)
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.