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James (Jimmy) McMahon (1838–1914)

by Anthony Norman

This article was published:

James (Jimmy) McMahon (1838-1914), carrier, was born on 31 May 1838 in County Clare, Ireland, eldest son of John McMahon, labourer and carter, and his wife Catherine, née Cunningham. Having little education, if any, Jimmy migrated to Sydney with his family when he was 9; three siblings were born in New South Wales. 

For his first job when aged 13, with a baker, McMahon was paid seven shillings a week. He was next employed by a wine and spirit merchant, then for six years by Patrick Murphy, a carrier, acquiring a basic knowledge of the industry. After two years with J. P. Elliot & Co. at Woolloomooloo, McMahon launched his own business, by buying a horse and harness and renting a dilapidated dray. He worked for a time in Queensland, first in partnership with George Fox, then joined the firm Woods, Shortland & Adair, master carriers and forwarding agents. Next McMahon contracted for the cartage of copper from the Peak Downs copper fields, near Clermont, to Broadsound. Returning to Sydney, from 1864 he held an exclusive contract with the New South Wales railways, delivering to the warehouses all wool received at the Darling Harbour rail siding. This exclusivity, with his other transport clients, provided him with a platform to acquire wealth, which he used to purchase real estate in the city and suburbs and extensive grazing properties. On Amaroo, at Molong, he raised sheep and agisted his horses. He also owned Bumbaldry at Cowra and land at Mount Druitt.

At St Mary's Catholic Cathedral on 6 June 1864 McMahon married Mary Coyle, a housemaid, who had been born in County Fermanagh, Ireland. They had seven children: the eldest James Patrick (1868-1951) helped his father to manage the business; the twins Ernest and Joseph were employed as outriders (foremen on horseback); Thomas and John managed country properties, William was a solicitor; and Agnes, under the protection of a trusted male escort, collected his rents—it took her five days of every week to perform this task.

Although McMahon was of medium height, he had a large frame, and was renowned as a wrestler and weightlifter. This served him well as an employer of a large body of horse drivers and labourers. He became known as 'Butty', allegedly for his propensity to settle disputes by head-butting his antagonists. During the 1890 maritime strike he used force to subdue his own employees: he boasted that when strikers endeavoured to prevent him from leaving his yard he gained passage by assaulting them, resulting in three being sent to (Royal) Prince Alfred Hospital. Harassed outside his yard during the strike by the Trolley, Draymen and Carters' Union secretary and Louis Carlo, a picket from the Wharf Labourers' Union, McMahon lost his temper, rushed at Carlo and struck him on the head with a stave from a cask. The picket ended up in hospital. In 1890-92 McMahon was the first president of the Master Carriers' Association of New South Wales, and in 1900-11 served a second term. As president, he was in continual conflict with W. M. Hughes, an organizer for and later president of the carters' union.

In the creation of his real estate holdings McMahon was single-minded. When he completed a dwelling, he insisted that one of his drivers reside in it, thus guaranteeing him the rent (deducted from the employee's wages). Similarly, he acquired hotels adjacent to his yards, so that his drivers would drink in them, allowing him to recover some of their earnings. In 1906 he had 400 horses and employed 253 men. By 1914, with 250 teams and 550 horses—said to be the biggest fleet in the southern hemisphere—he reputedly transported 750,000 bales of wool annually. According to the Bulletin, 'the richer he got the more prodigious grew his girth'. He lived at Redfern, where he also had four yards and stables and, wearing a trilby, was a familiar figure driving his buggy.

McMahon died on 17 November 1914 at his home and after a requiem mass was buried in the Catholic section of Rookwood cemetery. His wife and children survived him, inheriting an estate sworn for probate at £236,325. Some property was apparently omitted, however, and the Bulletin described him, probably accurately, as a 'reputed millionaire'. James, a notable Rugby Union footballer in his youth, succeeded his father as owner of the transport business, which he converted to motor vehicles; he was president of the Master Carriers' Association in 1925-35. Butty's grandson William was prime minister of Australia in 1970-72.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Country Life, 1 Aug 1906, p 21
  • Freight Carriers, May-June 1980, p 2
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Sept 1890, p 5, 17 Nov 1914, p 8
  • Catholic Press (Sydney), 19 Nov 1914, p 23
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 19 Nov 1914, p 6, 6 Feb 1922, p 4
  • Bulletin, 26 Nov 1914, p 16
  • Smith’s Weekly (Sydney), 17 May 1920, p 14
  • inventory of assets, 16 April 1915 (State Records New South Wales).

Additional Resources

  • probate, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 December 1914, p 6

Citation details

Anthony Norman, 'McMahon, James (Jimmy) (1838–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • McMahon, Butty

31 May, 1838
Clare, Ireland


17 November, 1914 (aged 76)
Redfern, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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