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Sir Walter Hartwell James (1863–1943)

by Lyall Hunt

This article was published:

Sir Walter Hartwell James (1863-1943), lawyer and politician, was born on 29 March 1863 in Perth, son of Edward Senior James of the Colonial Commissariat and his wife Lucy, née Francisco, both of whom later were publicans. Educated at government schools and Perth High School, he spent three years jackerooing on De Grey station; then, helped by his stepfather George Randell, he was articled to George Leake in 1883. He studied in Perth and served six months in a barrister's office in London before he was called to the Western Australian Bar in 1888. He had difficulty establishing himself before forming James & Darbyshire in 1896. At the Anglican church, Albany, on 21 June 1892 he married Welsh-born Eleanora Marie Gwenyfred Hearder.

Convivial, urbane, generous with money and racy in humour, James combined personal charm with intensity on social and political issues. On these he spoke rapidly, reflecting a volatile temperament. England opened his eyes to urban squalor and confirmed a commitment to the underdog born of his upbringing: he had played Australian Rules football, the working-class sport, which he identified with egalitarianism and Australian nationalism. These remained his political values. Western Australia's land, wealth and power were concentrated in a few families. James determined to break the hold of this coterie, but was disappointed by the conservative Constitution of 1890 establishing responsible government. Aiming to democratize the electoral process and correct social injustice, he became active in reform groups, and co-operated with trade union leaders such as (Sir) George Pearce.

Municipal experience led James into politics. A Perth city councillor in 1890-96, he also served on the Central Board of Health and the Perth Hospital Board. He was a member, then chairman, of the South Perth Roads Board in 1892-98. After serving on the Perth District Board of Education he opposed grants to church-schools and promoted state education. The issue featured in the 1894 elections in which James won the Legislative Assembly seat of East Perth; he supported the moves which saw grants to denominational schools cease next year and the emergence of free, compulsory, secular education by 1899.

James had campaigned on a platform of protectionism, cautious rural development and social reform including secular education, payment of parliamentarians, the eight-hour day and workers' compensation. A parliament unhampered by party discipline gave opportunities for initiatives: James occupied a cross-bench reflecting his Burkeian independence. He simplified and codified existing legislation; put the views of the Municipal Conference; and amended government bills to satisfy trade unions. Quoting W. P. Reeves, he was dubbed 'member for New Zealand' as he transformed the employers' liability bill (1894) to ensure that workers were not contracted out of compensation for injury. He failed to exclude cheap coloured labour through his Chinese immigration restriction bill (1894).

Re-elected for East Perth in 1897, James declined Sir John Forrest's offer of the attorney-generalship, preferring independence. He admired the premier but not his reluctance to embrace social improvement. During 1898-99 James's supporters formed a faction of five and success came with his Early Closing Act (1898) requiring shops to close at 6 p.m. He was proud of Western Australia being the first colony to enforce this. Important too was his successful work for female suffrage as parliamentary spokesman for feminist groups in 1897-99.

James participated in Federal convention sessions in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne in 1897-98, serving on the judiciary committee. His suggestion that State courts be given Federal jurisdiction was adopted. Overall, he was less States-rightist than fellow Westralians. Nevertheless he worked hard for Western Australian finances to be protected by the retention of its customs revenue for ten years, but had to be content with the sliding scale provisions of section 95. He was impressed by Alfred Deakin, with whom he maintained an amiable correspondence; Deakin enjoyed his 'hypernervous untameable temperament'. Back home he chaired the Federal League meeting in May 1898 launching the Federal campaign. He wanted Forrest to take the presidency of the league and resented moves by him and (Sir) J. W. Hackett in 1899 designed, it seemed, to make it impossible for Western Australia to federate. He campaigned for referral of the question to a referendum and opposed the Forrest government on the issue. In welcoming Federation in 1901 he did not appreciate fully the difficulties a 'small' State would experience. His work had been important but not crucial to the Western Australian Federal movement.

Payment of members of parliament from 1901 helped James; although his legal firm did well in the gold rush, he had a family and expensive tastes, and gave generously to relatives and friends including Labor parliamentary candidates. When George Leake's Liberal government emerged in 1901 James again declined a portfolio but was spokesman on social legislation, steering through parliament in 1902 the Act to legalize trade unions, and the Workers' Compensation Act so that an employer's negligence was no longer an essential element in compensation cases. He introduced the industrial conciliation and arbitration bill (1902) which replaced the existing unworkable measure. He had achieved nearly all his original political ambitions, but his future was uncertain because of his avoidance of ministerial responsibility.

Leake's sudden death changed the situation. James vetoed other attempts to take the helm and emerged as premier and attorney-general on 1 July 1902 with Labor support. He was soon embroiled with the Commonwealth in disputes: occupancy of transferred buildings; channels of communication; disentanglement of governmental functions; State debts; refunds of customs revenue to the State. Section 95 of the constitution caused concern: it disadvantaged local traders and permitted the Commonwealth to retain part of the revenue, leading to clashes between James and Federal ministers Deakin and C. C. Kingston. Submissions to the 1903 premiers' conference and 1904 treasurers' conference achieved little. James remained committed to Federation but concerned at the failure of co-operative federalism and the tendency to 'exalt the Commonwealth'. His views were unchanged thirty years later when he opposed Western Australian secession but wanted pressure put on the Commonwealth for increased grants to the State.

The James government continued Forrest's policy of settling the gold-rush population on the land: railways were constructed and agricultural loans liberalized. A transcontinental railway was planned. The conservative Legislative Council mutilated social initiatives including a far-reaching shops and factories bill, linking early closing with health and safety rules. But two significant social measures were enacted in 1903: the Lunacy Act which reformed mental health care and the Prisons Act which sought to humanize prisoners' treatment. James removed government insurance from private companies, established a state hotel and advocated state insurance, banking, coal-mines and abattoirs. Opponents of his state socialism were labelled 'fat, selfish monopolists'. He strove also to establish free secondary education, but had more success in opening schools of mines in Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie and in passing the University Endowment Act (1904).

Challenging the 'Hippopotami of the upper house', James decided to amend the Constitution and electoral acts to secure control of both houses of parliament by the democratic majority. Bills sought to end plural voting, to extend the lower house franchise and to redistribute electorates for the better representation of the populous mining and metropolitan regions. The Constitution bill provided machinery to overcome disagreements between the houses — requiring the Lower House to go to the people twice before a joint sitting could break a deadlock. After acrimonious wrangling the Upper House, led by Hackett, threw out the reforms, leaving only minor amendments and a redistribution.

Labor members, chafing at slow progress, drifted into opposition in 1903-04 and, in the campaign for the 1904 election, James appealed for a choice to be made between his progressive government and the Labor Party, which he criticized for its sectional interests and caucus control. The result was indecisive: 22 Labor, 18 James's party and 10 conservatives. Labor combined with the conservatives to turn out the government in August. James was shattered and bitter that Labor had ended his bid for liberal reform based on working-class co-operation. He went as agent-general to London where from 1904 he worked hard for two years promoting immigration and, upon returning to Perth, was knighted in 1907. He had been appointed K.C. in 1902.

With the rise of party politics James had become an anachronism lacking the necessary pragmatism. He could not stomach Labor. Nor was he comfortable with anti-Labor's conservatism, although he stood as a Liberal for Beverley in 1910 and supported Nationalist-conscriptionist policies in 1917. As an old man he chaired the State National Party in 1935. Otherwise, he devoted the rest of his life to the law and education.

Rebuilding his legal career in 1907, after five years absence, became complicated when B. H. Darbyshire resigned leaving James in debt. However he was a capable, versatile lawyer; he lacked flair in examination but was a fine appeals advocate. In partnership with R. R. Pilkington, a skilful barrister, success was consummated by amalgamation with the firm of (Sir) Edward Stone and Septimus Burt in 1919. Stone James & Co. became one of the largest law firms in Perth with James the leader of the Bar until his retirement in 1937.

Service to the University of Western Australia capped his long interest in state education. Having set aside land for the university in 1904, he served on the 1909 royal commission which led to its establishment in 1911; next year he was appointed senator. He was pro-chancellor in 1929-30 and chancellor in 1930-36, and received an honorary doctorate of laws in 1936. His posthumous portrait by W. Boissevain hangs in the university.

James gradually merged into the Establishment; he was president of the Weld Club in 1931-32 and was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1931. He relied on his legal income but invested profitably in Stanley Brewery, later Swan Brewery, and in the West Australian Newspaper Co. of which he was a director. His youthful brashness mellowed, leaving the likeable wit, humility and social concern. The nickname 'Nutty' James persisted — mocking the ideals of the most significant social reformer in Western Australia. He died in Perth on 3 January 1943, and was cremated with Anglican rites; three sons and a daughter survived him.

Lady James (d.1938) had been prominent in feminist causes through the Karrakatta Club and the Women's Service Guild. She had been a president of the National Council of Women (Western Australia) and represented Australia at the British Empire Red Cross Conference in London in 1930. At the time of her death she was State president of the Girl Guides.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Alexander, Campus at Crawley (Melb, 1963)
  • D. J. Murphy (ed), Labor in Politics (Brisb, 1975)
  • P. Loveday et al (eds), The Emergence of the Australian Party System (Syd, 1977)
  • L. Hunt (ed), Westralian Portraits (Perth, 1979)
  • C. T. Stannage, The People of Perth (Perth, 1979), and (ed), A New History of Western Australia (Perth, 1981)
  • Australian Quarterly, Dec 1949
  • Studies in Western Australian History, 2 Mar 1978
  • Australian Economic History Review, 8 (Mar 1968), no 1
  • West Australian, 4 Jan 1943
  • Bulletin, 6 Jan 1943
  • R. Gore, The Western Australian Legislative Council 1890-1970 (M.A thesis, University of Western Australia, 1975)
  • L. Hunt, A Political Biography of Walter Hartwell James 1894-1904 (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1974)
  • F. M. and A. W. Robinson, manuscript concerning the history of Stone James & Co. (privately held)
  • I. S. Emanuel correspondence (privately held)
  • W. H. James letter books, 1887-88 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • W. H. James papers (State Library of New South Wales and Royal Historical Society of Victoria)
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Lyall Hunt, 'James, Sir Walter Hartwell (1863–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 17 April 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


29 March, 1863
Perth, Western Australia, Australia


3 January, 1943 (aged 79)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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