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Sir Newton James Moore (1870–1936)

by David Adams

This article was published:

Newton James Moore (1870-1936), by unknown photographer, c1930

Newton James Moore (1870-1936), by unknown photographer, c1930

State Library of Western Australia, 008874D

Sir Newton James Moore (1870-1936), premier, soldier and businessman, was born on 17 May 1870 at Fremantle, Western Australia, son of James Moore, auctioneer and later mayor of Bunbury, and Elizabeth Dawson, schoolteacher. He attended the Bunbury primary school and, later, Prince Alfred College, Adelaide. At 14 he began work as a sales assistant at Geraldton and was later articled to the surveyor Alexander Forrest in Perth. His years as a surveyor (1886-1904) coincided with the granting of responsible government to the colony and increased prosperity following the discovery of gold. Moore travelled widely throughout Western Australia gaining knowledge of its potential, its difficulties and notable developments. His map was for many years the official guide to the position and extent of the State's forests and commercial timber resources; in 1903 he was a member of the royal commission on forestry. He was associated with the flotation of some of the largest jarrah companies on the London market. On 6 April 1898 at Bunbury Congregational Church he had married Isabel, sister of William Lowrie; they had three daughters and one son.

Next year Moore became a member of the Bunbury Municipal Council and was mayor in 1901-04. He supervised much construction work on roads, drains, footpaths and windmills, and in later life often gave his occupation as 'surveyor and civil engineer'. Moore was president of the Western Australian Municipal Association in 1904 and he was a keen Freemason. In 1893 he had also joined the Bunbury Rifles in which he rose to the rank of lieutenant. When Western Australia's first mounted infantry were raised in 1900, Moore was given command and promoted captain; he commanded the 18th Regiment, Australian Light Horse, from 1901 to 1908. He then, as lieutenant-colonel, led the State branch of the Australian Intelligence Corps.

Moore admired Sir John Forrest, premier in 1890-1901 and also a Bunbury man. In the 1901 elections Moore narrowly failed to enter State parliament, but he won the Bunbury Legislative Assembly seat in 1904 and held it until his retirement from State politics in 1911. In his maiden speech Moore, essentially a conservative, emphasized his Western Australian birth and advocated immigration, land settlement, taxation on unimproved estates and better harbour facilities for Bunbury. It was a period of political instability: between the departure of Sir John Forrest for Federal politics in 1901 and Moore's accession to the premiership in May 1906, six ministries 'shuffled across the political stage'. When the Daglish Labor government fell in August 1905, Moore became minister for lands and agriculture under (Sir) Hector Rason.

Although the West Australian had predicted his appointment, Moore was not Rason's first choice. But it was a crucial appointment for Moore, enabling him to establish himself among his parliamentary colleagues. When Rason retired in April 1906, Moore became premier on 7 May after Frank Wilson failed to form a ministry. Moore was selected partly because his position was somewhere between the liberal and conservative wings of the large, amorphous, non-Labor group known as the Ministerial Party. After a difficult first year during which he was lampooned in the press and nicknamed 'Buglepumpkin' for his mistakes and inexperience, Moore grew increasingly popular. Winning the 1908 election conclusively, he retained the premiership for four years. He kept the lands portfolio until 30 June 1909 when he became colonial treasurer.

A personable, genial man of burly figure, a 'hustling politician', Moore helped to hold the government together after a period of indecision had interrupted development. Successive governments had recognized the need for developmental programmes to consolidate the prosperity of the gold rushes of the 1890s; but because of the brevity of their tenure of office they had been unable to act. Although so inexperienced, Moore soon emerged as an astute leader who became a cohesive element in his heterogeneous party.

Like his minister for agriculture (Sir) James Mitchell, Moore believed in the State's 'unlimited' farming potential. He was the driving force behind programmes which helped to establish Western Australia's wheat-growing industry. By liberalizing the terms of credit of the Agricultural Bank, so that finance was more freely available to farmers, and by heavy government loan expenditure, particularly on light railways, by 1910 Western Australia was a strong wheat-exporter. Yet Moore was proud that gold-mining was not neglected. Of 950 miles (1529 km) of railways authorized during 1906-10, about 550 miles (885 km) served agricultural districts, while the remainder ran to and from gold-mining areas.

An important policy initiative was the attraction of new settlers. In 1906 the net gain from migration was only 319; next year 7500 more people left the State than came to it. By 1910 and in the years until World War I however, urged on by Moore, Western Australia experienced an immigration boom. His expansionist policies helped to lift the State out of the economic recession into which it had slumped. Other important legislation included the Municipal Corporations Act (1906); the Electoral Act (1907); Western Australia's first land and income tax Acts (1907) after conflict with the hostile Legislative Council which resulted in compromise low rates; and the State Children Act (1907) which established the Child Welfare Department and the Children's Court. Moore attended several vital premiers' conferences and fought for more favourable financial consideration for his State. The financial agreement of 1909, with its special terms and new sliding scale for Western Australia, was the climax of his negotiations with the Federal government and gave new confidence to business in the West.

Under Moore the Ministerialists embraced a tighter party organization, although he was reluctant because it was contrary to his Burkeian view that members should speak and vote as their conscience dictated. But the nature of the Labor Party's organization forced him to tighten his party's performance in the assembly. Policy was thrashed out in cabinet and controversial decisions were usually referred to the party caucus.

Moore was appointed C.M.G. in 1908 and K.C.M.G. in 1910. He resigned the premiership on 16 September 1910 and went as agent-general for Western Australia to London in 1911. During his first term until 1914, he exuberantly promoted and fostered a spectacular amount of migration to Western Australia. He approved the first twelve boys who were selected for the Fairbridge Farm School near Pinjarra in 1912 and those sent out to learn farming under Rev. Henry Freeman's scheme. Moore reorganized the agent-general's London office, recommended the purchase of Savoy House as its new premises in 1913, and promoted the State's primary produce in Britain and Europe. He was invited and agreed to continue for another three years, but this period was interrupted by World War I.

In May 1915 Moore took command, as lieutenant-colonel, of the depot for Australian and New Zealand troops at Weymouth, Dorset; in December he was promoted temporary brigadier general commanding the relatively few Australian Imperial Force troops then in Britain. From July 1916 he took charge of A.I.F. camps and depots, which involved supervision of the training of reinforcements. Charles Bean noted his success: 'under a bluff exterior he had, though slow of speech and heavy of movement, a wide experience of men and the ability to handle them … with the politician's sense of what men were feeling, a kindly humour, marked determination, and loyal … nature'. On 14 February 1917 Moore was promoted temporary major general and in April was replaced by Major General (Sir) James McCay.

In September 1918 Moore was returned unopposed as an Imperialist to the House of Commons seat of St George's, Hanover Square, previously held by Sir George Reid. In his maiden speech he supported women's eligibility to be members of parliament. He represented North Islington in 1918-23 and Richmond in 1924-32 as a Conservative. He was chairman of the Standing Orders Committee during two parliaments and in 1919-32 of the Overseas Parliamentary Committee.

His British parliamentary career took second place to his growing business interests. In 1917 he had become a director of one of Western Australia's oldest mining ventures, the Great Boulder Pty Gold Mines Ltd, later controlled by Claude de Bernales. Moore was chairman of this company when he died in 1936 and also of Hampton Gold Mining Areas; he was a director of the British General Electric Co., Consolidated Tin Mines of Burma, Carmen Valley Gold Mines, Southern Cross Gold Development, Great Boulder No. 1 and Odhams Press. He was also president of four major Canadian companies: the Dominion Coal Co., the Nova Scotia Steel & Coal Co., the Halifax Shipyards, and the Dominion Steel & Coal Corporation of Canada, one of the Dominion's largest industrial concerns; Moore had assumed its presidency when in 1932 he had moved to live in Montreal. Mainly because of his vigorous sales promotion, at the time of his resignation in 1936 the company's huge steel plants had not only recovered their pre-Depression output but had reached their highest peak since World War I.

Moore's recreations were shooting, hunting and bowls, and he belonged to leading social clubs in three continents. Survived by his wife and children, he died after surgery in a London nursing home on 28 October 1936. He was buried in Warnham parish church, Sussex, and left an estate of nearly £100,000 in Australia and England.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 2 (Adel, 1913)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1916 (Syd, 1929)
  • West Australian, 24 Sept 1910, 29 Oct 1936
  • Sunday Times (Perth), 6, 22 July, 12 Aug 1906
  • Western Mail (Perth), 24 Sept 1910
  • Punch (Melbourne), 13 Apr 1916
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 29 Oct 1936, p 17 and 2 Nov 1936, p 19
  • Countryman (Perth), 13 Oct 1960
  • F. D. Adams, A Biography of Sir Newton James Moore with Special Reference to His Role in Western Australian Politics (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1973)
  • James papers (outward correspondence 1905-06, State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

David Adams, 'Moore, Sir Newton James (1870–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 26 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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