Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

James Merriman (1816–1883)

by G. J. Abbott

This article was published:

James Merriman (1816-1883), shipowner and alderman, was born on 23 October 1816 at Parramatta, son of George Merriman and Mary, a convict. Orphaned as an infant, his guardians had him educated. In 1828 he his sister Mary were lodging with Joseph Raphael, an emancipist dealer in Pitt Street. Merriman served his indentures as a cooper, practised his trade and sailed in a whaler for four years. On returning to Sydney about 1850 he became licensee of the Whaler's Arms at Millers Point and later the Grafton Hotel and the Gladstone Hotel.

About 1852 Merriman was in partnership with William Andrews running regular shipping services between Sydney and Wellington, Nelson and Lyttelton in New Zealand. Soon afterwards with Captain Fairclough he prospered as an organizer of whaling. In 1861 as a 'captain and owner' he complained to a Legislative Assembly select committee of the difficulty of engaging a crew at the Shipping Office, and by the mid-1860s was engaged extensively in the bêche-de-mer trade in Torres Strait. He lived in Osborne House, Argyle Place. By 1866 he had bought an interest in the Telegraph for his eldest son William, was reputed to own the Metaris and in 1869 the Blue Bell, both for the bêche-de-mer fishery. In 1869 he told the royal commission on the alleged kidnapping of natives from the Loyalty Islands that he had never visited the islands or employed any islanders at his wharf but in Sydney had engaged about twenty islanders at the Shipping Office for a whaling voyage in the Blue Bell. He had always refused offers to take Kanakas to Queensland but for a time he had a manservant from Lifou. He was also a founder of the pearl-shell industry in Torres Strait which he continued till about 1880. In 1875 he had the steamship Pearl built but sold her in 1877.

On 25 October 1867 Merriman had been elected to the Sydney City Council for Gipps Ward and represented it until 1883. He was mayor in 1873, 1877 and 1878 and had to contend with the weakness of the council's finances. In October 1877 as a free trader he topped the poll for West Sydney in the Legislative Assembly even though illness had prevented his campaigning. He advocated reform of the land law, extension of the railways, a municipal bill which would provide increased endowment for the city and a building act. He supported the 1866 Public Schools Act but opposed the payment of members of parliament. In 1878 he became a commissioner at the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879. He also served as a trustee of Hyde, Phillip and Cook Parks and as a transit commissioner. His unsparing exertions as treasurer of the Indian Famine Relief Fund in 1879 led to the illness which caused his death.

Quietly energetic, sensible and persevering, Merriman was credited with giving Sydney mercantile life stability. He died on 13 May 1883 from heart disease and dropsy at his home in Argyle Street and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. He was survived by his wife Anne, née Thompson, whom he had married in 1843, and by two sons and three daughters. His estate was valued for probate at over £51,000.

Select Bibliography

  • Report of the Royal Commission Appointed to Inquire into Certain Alleged Cases of Kidnapping of Natives of the Loyalty Islands (Syd, 1869)
  • E. Digby (ed), Australian Men of Mark, vol 1 (Syd, 1889)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1861, 2, 1317, 1873-74, 5, 1884
  • Town and Country Journal, 30 Dec 1876
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Oct 1877
  • Bulletin, 20 Mar 1880
  • Sydney Mail, 19 May 1883.

Citation details

G. J. Abbott, 'Merriman, James (1816–1883)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 30 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