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James Francis Guthrie (1872–1958)

by Alan Barnard

This article was published:

James Francis Guthrie (1872-1958), by unknown photographer, 1920s

James Francis Guthrie (1872-1958), by unknown photographer, 1920s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24212163

James Francis Guthrie (1872-1958), stock-breeder, woolbroker and senator, was above all else a 'wool man'. He was born on 13 September 1872 at Rich Avon, near Donald, Victoria, youngest son of Thomas Guthrie and his wife Mary, née Rutherford. After attending Geelong College he joined the Geelong branch of Dalgety & Co. Ltd in October 1891 as a junior clerk, initially unpaid. His preferment in the next fifteen years was rapid, assisted by the influence of his father and E. T. Doxat, Dalgety's chairman. Six years of branch experience were followed by about two years working in textile mills in England, at Bradford and elsewhere. He rejoined Dalgety's in 1900 as wool expert and traveller at Geelong, valuing for the company's New Zealand sales as well. In the 1904-05 season he became head valuer for Australia, based in Melbourne.

At Dunedin, New Zealand, he met and on 5 March 1902 married Mary Isobel, daughter of John Thomas Wright, founder of one of Dalgety's strongest competitors in that country. Next year, while examining sheep there Guthrie contracted anthrax and lost his left leg above the knee. Crutches diminished neither his activity nor his avid interest in sport and he later served on the executives of various racing, coursing and cricket clubs, including the Melbourne Cricket Club. A recuperative trip to England and the United States of America also extended his knowledge of wool.

Guthrie's unpredictable, insubordinate behaviour made his Melbourne service increasingly unhappy despite his pleasure in compiling Dalgety's Annual Wool Review. In 1915 he was moved sideways to the Geelong managership rather than to the Melbourne sub-managership. Service as a member of the Victorian State Wool Committee and as the first chairman of the Wool Export Advisory Committee, during Britain's wartime purchase of the clip, soon diminished his branch work. Then in 1919 Dalgety's London board, with mixed feelings, approved his nominating for the Senate, as a National Party candidate, and retaining the Geelong management if elected. He took his seat on 1 July 1920. Tensions soon developed between Guthrie's two occupations. His large plans for the Geelong business produced no profits and by 1926 there were hints of his retirement. When parliament moved to Canberra in May 1927 he neglected it, boasting of an attendance totalling two and a half hours over seven months. He concentrated on business, but his assertive temperament upset an already demoralized staff. Early in 1928 the executive determined he must go. A generous pension and a special retainer as Australian wool adviser to the London board, both continued at the board's pleasure until his death, retained his extensive personal influence among wool-growers for the company.

Guthrie held his Senate seat until June 1938, being defeated at the 1937 election. His record was undistinguished. He served on the Senate select committee on beam wireless charges (1929) and was a delegate to Empire Parliamentary Association conferences in 1924 and 1937. His speeches sometimes pursued quite idiosyncratic interests. A self-professed hater of profiteers and Bolsheviks, from the first he also criticized the 'bush capital' and lobbied for the Limbless Soldiers' Association. He bitterly deplored the degradation of British cultural standards in Australia resulting from America's stranglehold on cinema showings. He actively assisted the British National Film League in Melbourne and became a shareholder in British Dominion Films Ltd that issued from it. As a founding director in 1923 of Federal Woollen Mills Ltd, Guthrie castigated the 'machinations of the Flinders-lane mob' of woollen wholesalers and advocated free trade in woollen cloths. Indeed, though a protectionist, Guthrie would have exempted from tariffs not only fencing wire, cars and other goods used in rural production but also goods whose protection led to 'fattening the already over-fat and over-rich'.

By background, connexion and inclination, Guthrie spoke for big grazing and woolbroking interests. As wool prices fell to Depression levels and competition from synthetic fibres increased, he worked behind the scenes to secure legislation establishing the Australian Wool Board and imposing a wool levy so that the board could fund promotion of wool and further research. As the government's sole representative on the board from its establishment in 1936 until 1945 he had a hand in the formation of the International Wool Secretariat in 1937. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1946.

Guthrie listed fishing, flying and stud stock-breeding as his recreations. But sheep-breeding was a passion. He was a director of the family company formed in 1906 to operate his father's stations and in 1910-21 was managing director of the company that bought one of them, Avon Downs, in the Northern Territory. In 1912 he established a Corriedale stud on portions of Borambola and Book Book stations (renamed Corriedale Park and Colongolong) near Wagga, New South Wales. He later sold those properties, had an interest in numerous others until the 1950s but concentrated his Corriedale and thoroughbred horse studs at Bulgandra near Albury, New South Wales (1923-50), and Elcho and Coolangatta near Geelong (1926-52). In 1912 Corriedales were not well known in Australia. As founder of the Australian Corriedale Sheep-breeders' Association in 1914, as owner of a stud that won international success and through often flamboyant promotion, he did much to publicize them. By 1951, they formed the most significant non-merino pure breed of sheep in Australia.

In 1952 Guthrie retired to his small farm, Pidgeon Bank at Kangaroo Ground near Melbourne, to indulge his lifelong interest in the history of his industry. He had published a history of Australian wool-selling in Professor R. P. Wright's The Standard Cyclopedia of Modern Agriculture and Rural Economy (London, 1911). In 1927 he sketched the history of Australian sheep and wool to the (Royal) Historical Society of Victoria and again in the official publication commemorating the Victorian centenary in 1934. The culmination of his research was A World History of Sheep and Wool published privately in 1957. Almost encyclopedic in its approach, the book epitomized Guthrie's qualities as a devotee and a publicist. He died on 18 August 1958, predeceased by his wife (1946) and son (1935) and survived by his daughter. His estate was valued for probate at a modest £40,516.

Select Bibliography

  • Pastoral Review, 16 Dec 1927, 18 Sept 1958
  • Punch (Melbourne), 6 Nov 1919
  • Geelong Standard, 18 Aug 1923
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 23 June 1927
  • Age (Melbourne), 20 Aug 1958
  • Guthrie, and Dalgety & Co papers (Australian National University Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Alan Barnard, 'Guthrie, James Francis (1872–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 18 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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