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Sir James McCulloch (1819–1893)

by Geoffrey Bartlett

This article was published:

James McCulloch, by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co, 1893

James McCulloch, by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co, 1893

State Library of Victoria, 49350653

Sir James McCulloch (1819-1893), politician, was born at Glasgow, Scotland, son of George McCulloch. After primary education perhaps augmented in Germany, he entered the mercantile house of J. & A. Dennistoun. As junior partner he arrived at Melbourne in the Adelaide in 1853 to open a branch with Robert Sellar. When it closed in 1862 McCulloch, Sellar & Co. was formed in connexion with Leishman, Inglis & Co. of Leith. In 1856-57 and 1862-63 McCulloch was president of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce; he was also a local director of the London Chartered Bank. In his last two years in Glasgow he had been collector of the Trades House, an influential educational and charitable institution, and in Melbourne he supported such charities and public causes as the Benevolent Asylum, the Melbourne Hospital and the St Kilda volunteers.

McCulloch was nominated to the Legislative Council in September 1854 and in 1856 was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Wimmera, after being defeated for Melbourne. He formed part of the liberal-mercantile group which helped to defeat W. C. Haines in March 1857 and J. O'Shanassy in April. McCulloch was invited to form the next ministry and attempted to unite all the leaders; O'Shanassy refused but Haines became chief secretary with McCulloch as commissioner for trade and customs. After the ministry fell in March 1858 he visited Britain, returning early in 1859. At that year's general elections he won East Melbourne in October, and became treasurer in the liberal-mercantile cabinet of W. Nicholson; after its defeat in November 1860 he again visited Britain. He returned in December 1861 and won the Mornington by-election next February. He also entered the St Kilda council, on which he served until 1864. Parties had been polarized at the 1861 general elections roughly along class lines with R. Heales's radicals against the bourgeoisie and pastoralists. McCulloch supported the latter who were ruled by O'Shanassy. Early in 1863, however, he became restive at the fiasco of C. G. Duffy's 1862 Land Act which was too radical for his taste, perhaps at Duffy's personality and eventually at aspects of the ministry's financial policy. McCulloch regarded Duffy's proposed legislation to raise pastoral rents as 'repudiation'; moreover his firm was buying squattages in north-east Victoria as well as New South Wales. The ministry fell and in alliance with Heales, McCulloch became premier and chief secretary in June; in May 1864 he also became postmaster-general. Portfolios were divided equally between Healesites and liberal bourgeois, but the talent of the latter, who included G. Higinbotham, A. Michie and J. G. Francis, gave them the predominance. O'Shanassy refused to join, expecting the coalition to collapse, but it ruled almost continuously until 1871.

Land remained the major problem. The Legislative Council rejected Heales's bills in 1863 and early 1864 demanding a return to auction. McCulloch therefore made land policy the centre of the coming elections, followed by reform of the council. Before the poll in October-November he had to tackle two external problems. In 1863 a royal commission in London had recommended the increase of transportation to Western Australia and there were rumours of plans for new penal stations in Queensland and North Australia. McCulloch first tried moderation in a solemn parliamentary remonstrance but this was rejected. He then took vigorous action, deporting expirees arriving from the west, demanding total abolition and threatening to cancel the mail subsidy if steamers continued to call at Perth and arranging an intercolonial conference to try to concert measures. Britain gave way and thereby established him as a national leader in Victoria. A similar result emerged from the border duties question; although negotiations failed and customs houses reappeared along the Murray in September, to remain until 1867, he was again firm in asserting Victoria's interests. The border duties question, exacerbated by increasing differences between Victorian and neighbouring tariffs with the attendant risks of large-scale smuggling, led McCulloch to add 'tariff revision', which he had supported in 1859, to his platform. The Healesite commitment to it, and the protectionist views of Francis and several others of his more conservative supporters, increased the pressure. The element of protection was minimal and McCulloch rightly called it a revenue tariff, but it became the centre of a political battle which raised protection from the creed of the few to the policy of the many, by association with a struggle against the council.

The election was dominated by the land bill presented, Heales having died, by J. M. Grant. McCulloch won overwhelmingly and, although the council rejected his reform bill, it dared not refuse the land bill. When the tariff details were revealed in January 1865, the council prepared to stand firm. Businessmen denounced the tariff as ruinous and protectionist squatters wanted to defeat the ministry to stop Grant's vigorous administration of the Land Act. McCulloch followed a recent English precedent and tacked the tariff to the appropriation bill, which the council could not amend; it could, and did, reject it in July. Expedients had to be found for enforcing the new duties and making payments. For the latter the government borrowed money and confessed judgment when sued; as sole local director of the London Chartered Bank McCulloch's part was crucial for all other banks refused to lend the money.

The council had polarized politics and made McCulloch's preferred methods of compromise and consensus impossible. The basis of his support shifted rapidly leftwards. A new radical tone was set by the vigorous agitation of his supporters and Higinbotham's oratory. McCulloch began to use the radical device of the party caucus for management and discipline. When the council rejected an attempt to pass the tariff separately, McCulloch obtained a dissolution. In the election the free trade opposition was almost annihilated. The council still refused to pass the tacked measures and McCulloch resigned. As T. H. Fellows could not form a government and the expected imperial intervention was delayed, he resumed office and negotiated a compromise in April.

After a long recess McCulloch was confronted with difficulties in 1867. Several protectionists rebelled and his control of parliament weakened. However, the Darling grant crisis began in July and restored party discipline. Governor Sir Charles Darling had been recalled for becoming a ministerial partisan in 1866; the assembly had voted £20,000 to his wife but colonial regulations forbade acceptance. However, Darling had left the service and accepted the grant. McCulloch, committed politically and regarding it as a matter of honour, put it on the supplementary estimates. It was the least provocative method, and not a tack, but it could not be discussed coolly, still less separated out for the council to reject. The council therefore refused appropriations again in October. General elections followed in January-February 1868 on the inclusion of the grant in estimates. McCulloch's victory was again overwhelming but in March he resigned because Downing Street had forbidden the governor to reintroduce the grant except as a separate measure. Charles Sladen eventually formed a minority ministry in May but, although some wavered, McCulloch's discipline held and his 'Loyal Liberals' or 'old hats' effectively halted parliamentary business. Others maintained the uproar and formed the powerful Loyal Liberal Reform Association, but the crisis collapsed in July because Darling had re-entered the colonial service and was granted an imperial pension.

McCulloch then formed his most radical cabinet but his choice angered many supporters whom he had not consulted. Some, like Higinbotham who joined the ministry reluctantly and was soon to leave it, resented the indecisive outcome of the crisis. Radical discontent increased in 1869 with land scandals and the continuation of squatting tenure in Grant's land bill; McCulloch's grasp suffered from being treasurer as well as chief secretary. He filled a vacant office from outside parliament and was defeated in September, but J. A. MacPherson's ministry lasted only until April 1870. As chief secretary again, McCulloch formed a moderate ministry which included MacPherson; radical disillusionment spread further. Symbolically, he had just become a K.B. Few opposed him actively, however. He at last achieved an old aim in abolishing state aid to religion, and although he had no time to pass his secular education bill he made it the main issue at the 1871 elections. However, falling revenue and the special appropriation of £200,000 from land revenue to railway construction which he had inserted in the 1869 Land Act, made increased taxation inevitable. Although Francis was treasurer the means were McCulloch's as much as his. The moderate increase in maximum duties to 12½ per cent affronted both protectionists and free traders, and a property tax alienated many of the uncommitted new members. His party split and McCulloch fell in June; he resigned his seat in March 1872 and left for England, where he acted as agent-general from January to April 1873 and was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1874. He returned to Victoria for the general election of March-April and won Warrnambool. Although his party, reunited soon after his departure to England, was now ruling in a coalition under Francis, he formed a private faction. When Francis was replaced by G. B. Kerferd and difficulties arose over financial policy he helped to defeat it. Immediately, however, he helped Kerferd to overthrow G. Berry's radical ministry on its land tax proposals and in October became treasurer and premier with half the Kerferd cabinet. He tried in vain to settle the revenue question with a combination of direct taxes and was harassed by Berry's 'stonewall', overcome only by the 'iron hand' or closure. Berry, using McCulloch's former weapons of caucus and external organization against him, agitated for a progressive land tax, successfully but inaccurately branding McCulloch as a reactionary. In the elections of May 1877 he was crushed. He resigned office without meeting parliament, took little part in the constitutional crisis which Berry brought on and resigned his seat in May 1878.

McCulloch then concentrated on business, including directorships of several insurance and other companies, the Bank of New South Wales as well as the London Chartered, and was active in establishing the frozen meat trade. He also served as trustee of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery in 1870-86. He left for Britain early in 1886 and lived at Garbrand Hall in Ewell, Surrey, until he died on 31 January 1893. He had no children, although twice married: first, in 1841 to Susan, daughter to Rev. James Renwick of Muirton, Scotland; and second, on 17 October 1867 to Margaret Boak, daughter of his associate, William Inglis of Dumbartonshire.

McCulloch was the merchant-politician par excellence, honest, vigorous and a capable financier who regarded Victoria as a business venture to be run by the most capable board of directors possible, whatever their politics, preferably under himself. His instinct for compromise was matched by his ferocious determination, both supported by great skill in manoeuvre and power in debate. His politics were always liberal, his policies remarkably consistent. He was instrumental in passing numerous reforms, notably on the land question, and in paving the way for protection, direct taxation and secular education. He was feared and admired rather than loved but had few peers as an effective politician.

Select Bibliography

  • C. G. Duffy, My Life in Two Hemispheres, vol 2 (Lond, 1898)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • G. M. Dow, George Higinbotham: Church and State (Melb, 1964)
  • M. Clarke, ‘The Victorian political deadlocks’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 13 (1928-29)
  • W. T. Charles, ‘The Victorian Protection Movement’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 14 (1931-32)
  • G. Bartlett, ‘The political orders of Victoria and New South Wales 1856-1890’, Australian Economic History Review, Mar 1968
  • Argus (Melbourne), 20 Aug 1859, 4 Feb 1893
  • Leader (Melbourne), 27 June 1863
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 4 Feb 1893
  • Illustrated Australian News, 1 Mar 1893
  • F. K. Crowley, Aspects of the Constitutional Conflicts … Victorian Legislature 1864-1868 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1947)
  • G. Bartlett, Political Organization and Society in Victoria 1864-1883 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1964).

Citation details

Geoffrey Bartlett, 'McCulloch, Sir James (1819–1893)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 21 April 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 McCulloch, by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co, 1893

James McCulloch, by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co, 1893

State Library of Victoria, 49350653

Life Summary [details]


Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland


31 January, 1893 (aged ~ 74)
Ewell, Surrey, England

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