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John Stanley James (1843–1896)

by John Barnes

This article was published:

John Stanley James (1843-1896), author, best known as 'The Vagabond', was born on 15 November 1843 in Walsall, Staffordshire, England, the only son of Joseph Green James, an attorney whose family had an ironfoundry, and his wife Elizabeth. Educated locally, he was articled to his father but after a disagreement went to London where he struggled to make a living, first by engrossing legal documents, then by casual journalism. After an interlude as a railway clerk and station-master in Wales, he returned to journalism in London about 1868. By his own account, he was imprisoned as a spy for some weeks in Paris in 1870 and then in London wrote on the Franco-Prussian war. When it ended he reported the formation of the Agricultural Labourers' Union under Joseph Arch in Warwickshire. However, his uncorroborated account of success as a London journalist must be treated with reserve. About 1872, after renewed dispute with his father, he went to America where he changed his name to Julian Thomas and, so he later claimed, made an unhappy and short-lived marriage with the widow of a Virginian planter. Having failed as a journalist, in 1875 he went to Sydney 'sick in body and mind, and broken in fortune'.

In April 1876 the Melbourne Argus published 'A Night in the Model Lodging House' written anonymously by James and signed by 'A Vagabond', the first of a series on 'the social life and public institutions of Melbourne from a point of view unattainable to the majority'. The most substantial of the series were based on his first-hand reports of what it was like to be 'inside' certain institutions: to gather material, he spent a day in the Immigrants' Home, was admitted to the Benevolent Asylum and worked as the porter at the Alfred Hospital, an attendant at lunatic asylums and dispenser-cum-dentist at Pentridge gaol. His accounts of these institutions combined intimate knowledge of their day-to-day working with a breadth of perspective gained from his knowledge of other societies. His shrewd observation, practical judgments and suggestions for reform reveal a compassionate spirit behind his cultivated flamboyancy. His articles were successful partly because of the mystery of their authorship. James wrote with an experienced and authoritative air, casually mentioning associations with prominent men and implying his involvement in public affairs in England and America. He could not measure up to the image that he had so successfully fixed in the minds of his readers, and the revelation that Julian Thomas was the Vagabond produced an inevitable sense of anticlimax from which he never really recovered.

In December James was at the high-water mark of his career: his articles were being published as The Vagabond Papers; he was a public figure, sufficiently well known to be portrayed in the Christmas pantomime. Farewelled by fellow journalists and presented with an illuminated address and 308 sovereigns, he sailed in August 1877 to write for the Sydney Morning Herald. His 'Impressions of Sydney' appeared in September but next month he was in Cooktown reporting for the Argus on the influx of Chinese gold diggers. By Christmas he was back in Sydney writing without much effect on its low life. In 1878, sent to New Caledonia to report on a native uprising, he shocked readers with details of the brutality of the French colonial administration which he condemned strongly. These reports, together with later articles on his experiences in the New Hebrides and New Guinea, were collected in Cannibals and Convicts (1886).

Apart from this book James's later journalism is of little interest. In 1881 a nine-month trip on a collier to China, Japan, British Columbia and California resulted in a series of travel articles in the Argus. Some of these articles were collected in Occident and Orient (1882). Helped by Alfred Dampier who took the leading role he wrote a 'colonial' melodrama, No Mercy, which toured the colonies in 1882. In 1884 he began the 'Picturesque Victoria' series for the Argus, and descriptive articles of this kind became, with intervals, his main occupation. In 1886 he was the Argus correspondent at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition at South Kensington. In 1887 he transferred to the Age and visited New Caledonia and the New Hebrides, and in 1889 Tonga and Samoa. In 1890-92 he was secretary to the Victorian royal commission on charities. He continued to write occasional articles, mostly for the Melbourne Leader, until he died on 4 September 1896 in squalor at Fitzroy.

The Age obituarist reported that James had been born in Wales, the Argus Virginia; his true identity was not publicly known until 1912. The role of 'Vagabond', mysterious, cosmopolitan, sophisticated observer of the antipodes, satisfied both his sense of self-importance and his desire to hide. The Vagabond Papers were his main achievement. Although he had literary ambitions, notably in drama, his talent was for journalism. Outwardly egotistical and reckless, he had a generous and sympathetic nature. Probably his early life had helped to develop in him a keen feeling for those in need, a feeling expressed in his best work and commemorated after his death in a memorial erected by public subscription.

Select Bibliography

  • Julian Thomas (J. S. James), The Vagabond Papers, M. Cannon ed (Melb, 1969)
  • ‘The Vagabond’, Bulletin, 17 Oct 1896
  • J. B. Cooper, ‘Who was “The Vagabond”?’, Life (Melbourne), 1 Jan 1912.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Barnes, 'James, John Stanley (1843–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 22 May 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]

Alternative Names
  • Vagabond, The
  • Thomas, Julian

15 November, 1843
Walsall, Staffordshire, England


4 September, 1896 (aged 52)
Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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