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James Graham (1819–1898)

by Frank Strahan

This article was published:

James Graham (1819-1898), merchant, agent and politician, was born on 5 February 1819 at Ennis, County Clare, Ireland, son of James Moore Graham, Irish-born surgeon in the Scottish Fife Militia, and his first wife Anna Maria, née Ievers. He was educated at Ennis College and, after the family moved to Fife in 1832, at Madras Academy, Cupar. There in 1836 he was employed by Pagan & Christie, bankers and solicitors, and on 10 May 1838 was appointed clerk in charge of the National Security Savings Bank of Fife, of which Christie was actuary. Graham immediately deposited 10s. in the bank but resigned in August, sailed in the Alfred in September and arrived in Sydney on 7 January 1839. To his parents he wrote, 'I left my happy home, a home that was endeared to me by the warmest ties of affection, and which contained all that was near and dear to me on this earth'. However, he had a testimonial from Pagan & Christie with 'most cordial wishes for his prosperity and success'.

With three companions and a young servant Graham started overland in April for Melbourne to establish an agency for the Sydney merchant, (Sir) Stuart Donaldson. They travelled through drought-burnt country, crossed the Murray River, saw a promised land which 'gladdened both man and beast' and reached Melbourne on 10 May. Graham's instructions from Donaldson were 'to get settlers to give us wool, and give them in exchange either money at a reasonable rate of advance or sugar, tea, tobacco etc. at the market price'. Young and talented, he soon established a successful business which included investments in land and buildings for Donaldson's clients. In the 1840s he was a director of the Port Philip Steam Navigation Co., the Melbourne Fire and Marine Insurance Co. and the Melbourne Auction Co., treasurer of the Commercial Exchange, member of the management committee of the Port Phillip Theological Education Society, secretary of the Australia Felix Immigration Society, a trustee of the Government Savings Bank and a commissioner for insolvent estates. By the mid-1840s, though still conducting Donaldson's Victorian affairs, Graham was in business on his own account. He admitted Frederick Lamb as a partner in 1853. Graham was nominated that year to the Legislative Council but resigned in 1854 to visit Britain.

In Cupar the freedom of the burgh was conferred on him after he gave £100 for distribution to the poor to enable them 'to lay in a few necessaries or comforts for the coming winter'. Alarmed by reports of increasing depression in Melbourne he hurried back and in January 1857 was busy at 91 Little Collins Street East penning admonitions to his debtors. He returned to Cupar in 1858 to collect his family and reached Melbourne in October 1860. His association with Lamb had been dissolved in 1857 and next year he formed Graham Bros & Co. His brothers, Edward and Charlie, were admitted as partners. That partnership was dissolved about 1870 but Graham retained the firm's title. His son, Francis, became a partner on 1 January 1876 and on 31 December 1897 another son, Harry, was admitted.

Goods ranging from silk to ore crushers, from brandy to corrosive sublimate were sold by Graham Bros & Co. and bales of Victorian wool were shipped to England. Much of the business was on commission: the firm managed the affairs of such retired investors as the ex-lieutenant-governor Charles La Trobe, selling his colonial land in Jolimont and investing the proceeds. Among his other clients were the overlander, Joseph Hawdon, and the squatter and financier, William Campbell. In addition Graham acted as executor of many deceased Victorian estates. Despite the increasing commitments of his firm Graham was also a director of the Melbourne and Mount Alexander Railway Co. and the St Kilda and Brighton Railway Co., chairman of the Melbourne Exchange Co., a director of the English, Scottish and Australian Bank, the London Guarantee and Accident Co., the Australasian Insurance Co. and chairman of the North British Mercantile Insurance Co., the South British Marine Insurance Co. and the Standard Insurance Co. of Scotland. His interests in station properties included Yering, View Hill, Tragowell, Dunock Forest and Koolomurt in Victoria. He also became consul for Sardinia in 1859 and later for United Italy. He was an early member of the Melbourne Club and its president in 1865, a founding member of the Old Colonists' Association, a Freemason and an Anglican. In 1866-86 he represented Central Province in the Legislative Council but was not prominent in politics and usually voted as a Conservative. He retired from politics 'to concentrate on business and personal affairs'. Though still active in the firm particularly in managing the affairs of friends and absentee colonists, Graham's letters in his last years were written in a shaky hand.

On 24 September 1845 Graham had married Mary Alleyne, née Cobham; of their eighteen children, eight died young. He died at South Yarra on 31 July 1898, leaving an estate worth more than £189,000. Strong in talent and business associations, industrious and honest, close in his attention to detail, he was one of Victoria's most prominent men of commerce. A good provider rather than a high liver, his life and the outstanding collection of records he left for historians form a fascinating reflection of colonial Victoria's commercial history.

A portrait of Graham is held by a great-grandson, F. J. O. Graham of Sydney, and another is in the Melbourne Club.

Select Bibliography

  • Fife Herald, 16, 23 Nov 1854
  • Graham Bros & Co. records (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • minutes of directors' meetings (National Security Savings Bank, Cupar, Fife).

Citation details

Frank Strahan, 'Graham, James (1819–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 15 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


5 February, 1819
Ennis, Clare, Ireland


31 July, 1898 (aged 79)
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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