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Sir James Robert Dickson (1832–1901)

by D. D. Cuthbert

This article was published:

James Robert Dickson (1832-1901), by unknown photographer, 1890s

James Robert Dickson (1832-1901), by unknown photographer, 1890s

ACT Heritage Library, 003602

Sir James Robert Dickson (1832-1901), businessman and premier, was born on 30 November 1832 at Plymouth, Devon, England, only son of James Dickson and his wife Mary Maria, née Palmer. He was educated at Glasgow High School, and served as a junior clerk in the City of Glasgow Bank before migrating to Victoria in 1854. He worked first in the Bank of Australasia and then in his merchant cousin's firm, Rae, Dickson & Co. In 1862 he moved to Queensland, taking a position with the estate agent Arthur Martin until establishing his own business in the early 1870s. As an auctioneer and estate agent he acquired wealth and built Toorak House on a magnificent site near the Brisbane River, where he enjoyed what the family firm, in characteristic style, described as 'views marvellous in their magnificence' and 'a varied panorama of ineffable loveliness and grandeur'. Despite these distractions he remained assiduous in his attentions to business and was chairman of the Brisbane Permanent Building and Banking Co. from 1876, foundation chairman of the Queensland Trustees from 1883, and chairman of the Royal Bank of Queensland in the crisis year of 1893.

In 1873 Dickson won the Enoggera seat in the Legislative Assembly. Ministerial office followed rapidly; he was secretary for public works and mines in May-June 1876, and colonial treasurer from June 1876 to January 1879 and from December 1883 to August 1887. In this era of optimism and lavish borrowing he showed his expertise by handling the £10 million loan of 1884. He resigned in August 1887 after disagreement with more radical colleagues over their proposals for a land tax and with the ringing pronouncement that he had yet to learn why it should be 'a crime to be a freeholder'. His constituents seem to have approved the resignation, for his vacation of his assembly seat, to test their judgment, was followed by overwhelming victory in a keenly contested by-election in September. But his seat was less secure than this win suggested: after a redistribution of constituencies and the intervention of a rival Liberal candidate he was defeated in the Toombul portion of his old electorate in the 1888 general election.

Next year Dickson retired from his auctioneering business and travelled widely in Europe. Soon after his return, at a by-election in April 1892, he won the Bulimba seat by supporting Sir Samuel Griffith on the need to resume the importation of South Sea islanders for labour in the Queensland tropics. However, he had to wait for ministerial office until February 1897 when he was appointed to the minor role of secretary for railways in the Nelson government. Thereafter, Dickson's rise was rapid; he became postmaster-general in March, home secretary in March 1898, retaining this place in the Byrnes ministry, and premier, however stopgap, in October after Byrnes died suddenly and (Sir) Robert Philp was reluctant to accept the office. Alfred Deakin later maintained that Philp, favoured for the premiership by the Liberal caucus, withheld his candidature on the understanding that Dickson, who, as Queensland's representative in the Federal councils of 1886 and 1888 had opposed the colony's participation in the Convention movement, should now fight the Brisbane commercial-oriented opposition to Federation and rally support for the cause. Whatever the truth of this contention, or of Sir Thomas McIlwraith's less-charitable observation that Dickson supported Federation primarily to promote his own self-esteem, the ministry was chiefly notable for its successful conduct of the Queensland referendum on the Commonwealth bill, on 2 September 1899. Deakin was to acknowledge Dickson's 'invaluable assistance' in the contest, noting that 'his government was by no means unanimous for federation, Parliament distinctly critical, the Assembly about equally divided, the Council emphatically hostile', and the metropolis opposed to a measure which seemed to threaten Brisbane's trade.

Prudently Dickson had introduced a provision whereby Queensland might be divided for the purpose of electing members of the Senate, and this prospect, naturally attractive to the sparsely inhabited north, was a factor, if only minor, in solidifying North Queensland's overwhelming and decisive vote for Federation.

The Dickson ministry did not long survive the referendum, but its successor, the Anderson Dawson Labor ministry was promptly rejected by the assembly, and Dickson returned to office as chief secretary in Philp's administration. He thus became a member of the Australian delegation to England in connexion with the passage of the Commonwealth bill through the Imperial parliament. In England he sided with Joseph Chamberlain in opposing the proposed abolition of the right of appeal from the High Court of Australia to the Privy Council. Dickson's stand symbolized the man: the enthusiastic Imperialist, whose ministry had seen that Queensland was the first colony to offer troops to vindicate the Imperial cause against the Transvaal, and who disapproved of colonial separatism; and the 'commercial man' who welcomed the British House of Lords as a security for property and business interests in a Federation which might move in a radical direction. It also reflected, according to Deakin, the continuing influence of Griffith, still manipulating the affairs of Queensland from the Queensland bench. In the event Chamberlain, Griffith and Dickson secured only a severely qualified success.

The final stage of Dickson's career was tragic, dramatic and brief. Appointed K.C.M.G. in January 1901 and minister of defence in the first Federal administration, he was taken ill at the Commonwealth's inaugural ceremonies in Sydney, and died there on 10 January after one week in office—he had been a diabetic for about eighteen years. Queensland provided a state funeral for the businessman-politician who somewhat accidentally had become one of its leading Federal spokesmen. He was buried in Nundah cemetery.

Dickson was for many years a prominent layman in the Church of England, particularly as financial adviser to the diocese of Brisbane. He was a justice of the peace and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of Great Britain and of the Royal Colonial and Imperial Institute. He married first Annie Ely (1838-1880) on 8 November 1855 at Collingwood, Victoria, and second, on 5 January 1882 at Carcoar, New South Wales, Mary MacKinlay (1841-1902) who became the first headmistress of the Brisbane Girls' Grammar School. He was survived by six sons and seven daughters of the first marriage. His second son, Frederick (1859-1928), became Crown prosecutor in Brisbane and as acting judge of the Arbitration Court handed down the Dickson award for the sugar industry in 1916. Portraits are in Parliament House, Canberra, and in the board room of the Brisbane Permanent Building & Banking Co.

Select Bibliography

  • Alcazar Press, Queensland, 1900 (Brisb, nd)
  • C. A. Bernays, Queensland Politics During Sixty Years (Brisb, 1919)
  • A. Deakin, The Federal Story, J. A. La Nauze ed (Melb, 1963)
  • Brisbane Courier, 10, 14 Jan 1901
  • private information.

Citation details

D. D. Cuthbert, 'Dickson, Sir James Robert (1832–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 24 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

James Robert Dickson (1832-1901), by unknown photographer, 1890s

James Robert Dickson (1832-1901), by unknown photographer, 1890s

ACT Heritage Library, 003602

Life Summary [details]


30 November, 1832
Plymouth, Devon, England


10 January, 1901 (aged 68)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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