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John Nimmo (1819–1904)

by Ann M. Mitchell

This article was published:

John Nimmo (1819-1904), surveyor, businessman and parliamentarian, was born on 20 October 1819 in Catrine, Ayrshire, Scotland, son of John Nimmo, mason, and his wife Janet, née McClure. Trained in Glasgow, he arrived at Melbourne in the Abdallah with his wife Catherine, née Kelly, in July 1853. He had some capital and is said to have set up in his own contracting business but the shipping lists show him as a grocer, and his first recorded actions involve the separation of Emerald Hill (South Melbourne) from the Melbourne City Council in May 1855. He was appointed collector of rates and inspector of lodging-houses and nuisances for Emerald Hill in September; the post was divided in May 1856 and he was surveyor and inspector until September 1863. His major business interests thereafter are obscure. He was in coffee and spice wholesaling for some years and then moved into big business, misplacing his confidence in James Mirams and joining the directorates of the Essendon Land Tramway and Investment Co. (later Essendon Land and Finance Association), the Federal Coffee Palace and the Premier Permanent Building Land and Investment Association; he was chairman of the last two.

Mirams probably exploited Nimmo's reputation for honesty. Like most of his contemporaries, Nimmo had been optimistic to the point of irresponsibility; however, it was his initial investigations that led to the collapse of the Premier Permanent in 1889. At the resulting trials for fraud and conspiracy in October-December 1890 his probity was not challenged; he said that he lost everything in the Premier Permanent and could not afford a barrister for his defence. He did not use any of his directorates for unethical private gain and did not go bankrupt.

Nimmo identified closely with Emerald Hill and was a popular figure. In 1867-76 he was a councillor and three times mayor in 1869-73. He was appointed a justice of the peace in 1868 and regularly attended the bench, gaining an early reputation for rash judgments born of inexperience. Admired for his declamatory skill, especially with Burns's poetry, he was president of the St Kilda (later Royal Alfred) Bowling Club, and a somewhat passive vice-president of such important temperance institutions as the Victorian Alliance for the Suppression of the Liquor Traffic, the Victorian Band of Hope Union and the International Temperance Conventions of 1880 and 1888. He was also a commissioner for the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880. A tall man, cartoonists loved him for his flashing dark looks which they kept in a state of round-eyed surprise.

As the candidate of the National Reform and Protection League, Nimmo was elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1877, and for sixteen years remained at the head of successive polls for Emerald Hill (Albert Park after 1889). He was above all the voice of his locality but accepted his share of parliamentary duties and sat on three royal commissions and eight select committees. His reasonable advocacy was important to the success of legislation to curb the retail trade in alcohol in the 1880s.

Nimmo was gazetted a commissioner of the Melbourne Harbor Trust in December 1878 and for seven years protected its interests in the House. In 1880 he introduced a Harbor Trust amendment bill and chaired the select committee appointed to consider it. The report in November recommended the widening of the Yarra and the trust's control of the new Princes Bridge, which Nimmo opened in October 1888 as minister of public works. He resigned from the trust when he accepted this office in the Gillies-Deakin government in February 1886; in March he received the complementary posts of commissioner of public works and vice-president of the Board of Land and Works, which put him in charge of water supply. This association and the longer one with the Harbor Trust have been a source of confusion for most early biographers.

Nimmo's elevation was not well received by conservatives or radicals and in June 1889 he was asked to resign. He remained a Deakinite and did not cross the floor in support of the no confidence motion which put James Munro in office in November 1890. Discouraged by business losses and his failure at the elections of April 1892, Nimmo returned to Catrine in 1894 and lived in retirement. Predeceased by his wife, he died on 11 March 1904; they had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • Garryowen (E. Finn), The Chronicles of Early Melbourne, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • B. Hoare, Jubilee History of the Melbourne Harbor Trust (Melb, 1927)
  • C. Daley, The History of South Melbourne (Melb, 1940)
  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melb, 1966)
  • Argus (Melbourne), Oct-Dec 1890, 21 Apr 1904
  • Age (Melbourne), 21 Apr 1892
  • Table Talk, 20 July 1894
  • J. E. Parnaby, The Economic and Political Development of Victoria, 1877-1881 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1951)
  • R. J. Moore, Marvellous Melbourne: A Social History of Melbourne in the Eighties (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1958)
  • M. G. Finlayson, Victorian Politics 1889-94 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1964)
  • A. M. Mitchell, Temperance and the Liquor Question in Later Nineteenth Century Victoria (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1966)
  • minute books 1855-63 (South Melbourne Council).

Citation details

Ann M. Mitchell, 'Nimmo, John (1819–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 17 June 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

Life Summary [details]


20 October, 1819
Catrine, Ayrshire, Scotland


11 March, 1904 (aged 84)
Catrine, Ayrshire, Scotland

Cause of Death

brain disease

Cultural Heritage

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