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James Lilly (1845–1905)

by Toby Manford

This article was published:

James Lilly (1845-1905), by Crown Studios, 1890s

James Lilly (1845-1905), by Crown Studios, 1890s

State Library of Western Australia, 001548D

James Lilly (1845-1905), businessman and shipping agent, was born on 2 February 1845 at Launceston, Van Diemen's Land, son of James Lilly and his wife Hannah, née Dillon. In 1869 he went to Victoria and married Mary Hannah Field of Hawthorn. He soon formed a partnership with Charles V. Robinson, also of Launceston, and in 1871 they became established as shipping agents in Belfast (Port Fairy).

In 1876 Lilly entered into negotiations with the Western Australian government for a subsidy to run a coastal shipping service to replace the irregular sailings provided by the Georgette, which had foundered at Busselton. In 1877 with his family he left for Fremantle in the Rob Roy, which became the first steamer to ply the Western Australian coastal trade on a regular basis. The Rob Roy made monthly visits to Geraldton, Fremantle, Vasse and other intervening ports, connecting at Albany with Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co.'s steamers carrying mails to and from the colony. In 1879 the Otway was acquired from Victoria and brought into the service to provide the first direct link between Western Australia and the eastern colonies. Fortnightly sailings between Victoria, South Australia and Albany were arranged to coincide with the arrival of the Rob Roy from north-western ports. As trade expanded a third steamer, Macedon, was bought to increase the sailings, but she was soon wrecked and replaced by the Otway. When the second government contract expired in 1882 Lilly sold his shipping interests to the Adelaide Steamship Co. for whom he became local manager. In 1894 Lilly owned the schooner Bittern on the Mauritius run. His company also handled the Western Australian business of the Australasian Steam Navigation Co. Ltd, until its own agent was appointed in 1897. He had used his capital to acquire much property in Fremantle and in 1895 with George Swinburne was responsible for founding the Fremantle Gas and Coke Co. of which he was chairman until 1905.

The shipping service provided by James Lilly & Co. was often described in parliament as 'excellent' and from all accounts he was held in high regard by the Fremantle community. Fiery tempered but known as 'one of the old school', he earned the title of 'Father of Western Australian shipping'. A regular participant in local affairs, he was a justice of the peace and a member of the Fremantle Hospital Board from its inception. He died from an overdose of strychnine at Claremont on 18 April 1905 and was buried in the Church of England cemetery at Fremantle. He was survived by five daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Osburne, The History of Warrnambool, 1847-1886 (Prahran, 1887)
  • J. K. Hitchcock, The History of Fremantle … 1829-1929 (Fremantle, 1929)
  • J. G. Wilson (ed), Western Australia's Centenary 1829-1929 (Perth, 1929)
  • Herald (Fremantle), 7 Apr 1877
  • Mail (Fremantle), 19 Apr 1905
  • West Australian, 19, 20 Apr 1905
  • CSO records (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

Toby Manford, 'Lilly, James (1845–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Lilly (1845-1905), by Crown Studios, 1890s

James Lilly (1845-1905), by Crown Studios, 1890s

State Library of Western Australia, 001548D

Life Summary [details]


2 February, 1845
Launceston, Tasmania, Australia


18 April, 1905 (aged 60)
Claremont, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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.