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James Oddie (1824–1911)

by G. A. Oddie

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James Oddie (1824-1911), Ballarat pioneer, was born on 31 March 1824 at Clitheroe, Lancashire, England, eldest son of James Oddie, retired innkeeper, and his wife Margaret, née Hargreaves. Educated in Preston by a Congregational master and then at a Wesleyan Chapel school, he was apprenticed in a foundry at 15. On becoming a journeyman moulder, he worked for an engineering firm in Manchester. As a boy in Preston he had witnessed agitation for parliamentary reform and Chartist demonstrations, and as a member of the Moulders Club was involved in strikes for better conditions. In London by 1845 he worked in a foundry and on railway and shipbuilding projects. He married Rachel Riding in 1847. After seeing letters from J. D. Lang recommending settlement in Australia, he sailed with his wife and daughter in the Larpent and arrived in Geelong on 28 June 1849.

James conducted a foundry in Geelong until August 1851 when gold fever lured him to Buninyong. On 1 September he moved to Golden Point, Ballarat, where as a diggers representative he protested against the miners licences. He joined the rushes to Mount Alexander and Bendigo and after varying luck opened a store in 1853 at Smythesdale, where he was among the first to oppose the £50 store licence. He was probably the author of the pamphlet, Laughing a Crime (Melbourne, 1853). In 1854 he moved his store near the Eureka stockade, attended many protest meetings and witnessed what he described as 'the massacre of innocent diggers'. A friend and admirer of Peter Lalor, he later erected his statue at the cost of £2200 in the main street of Ballarat.

James and his brother Thomas (b.1830) set up as auctioneers in the new township. They acted as commission, house and estate agents, some well-known properties in the Western District passing through their hands. James also developed a money-lending agency which he later constituted a deposit bank with a cash deposit of some £250,000. By 1885, when he sold the building and business for £10,000 to a Melbourne bank, he was one of Ballarat's wealthiest citizens. However, in the 1890s he was financially crippled when the Mercantile Bank collapsed and his career as a philanthropist was seriously curtailed.

As first chairman of the Ballarat Municipal Council in 1856-58 he helped despite opposition to pioneer a scheme for piping water from Yuille's swamp to the city centre; his arguments for an improved water supply were reflected in the Corn Stalk, a monthly of which he and Thomas were proprietors. He also helped to secure land and a government grant for the Botanical Gardens. In January 1859 he failed by one vote to win re-election as a councillor for Ballarat West. Overwhelmed by defeat, he announced his retirement from public life but later took an important part in municipal affairs. He campaigned for increasing local government powers, was a member of the Benevolent Asylum Board in 1860-91, vice-president of the Alfred Hospital in 1869 and founder and patron of the Art Gallery in 1884.

A fellow of the Royal Geographical and Geological Societies of London, Oddie was zealous for technical education and science. A trustee of the School of Mines and vice-president of its council in 1881, he founded an associateship course. At his own cost he built and equipped the Mount Pleasant Observatory. He studied developments in the use of gas and electricity and was especially interested in the invention of the telephone. A Wesleyan Methodist, he helped to finance the building of the Lydiard Street Church, where he was Sunday school superintendent and a circuit steward. Favouring the National system of education, he was president of the managing committee of the Dana Street National school in the late 1850s and president of the Ballarat Anti-State Aid League. In 1875 he campaigned for greater lay representation in the Methodist Church and resigned from his local church, but later resumed active connexion with its affairs. Sabbatarian and lifelong abstainer, he was once described as 'the Dick Whittington of Ballarat'.

Predeceased by his first wife, their only daughter and in 1884 by his second wife Mary, née McCormack, Oddie died on 3 March 1911 without direct descendants. Small in stature and dignified in appearance, he had enterprise, initiative, definite principles and intense conviction. A devout Christian and a passionate democrat, he often clashed with others but was widely respected for his liberality.

Select Bibliography

  • W. B. Withers, The History of Ballarat, 2nd ed (Ballarat, 1887)
  • H. Glenny, Jottings and Sketches (Belfast, 1888)
  • N. F. Spielvogel, History of Ballarat (Ballarat, 1935)
  • Spectator and Methodist Chronicle, 11, 24 Dec 1875, 10 Mar 1911
  • Ballarat Star, 13, 14, 17 Jan 1859, 26, 31 July 1886, 19, 23 Apr 1890, 2 Sept 1909, 4 Mar 1911
  • Ballarat Courier, 4 Mar 1911
  • R. Howe, The Wesleyan Church in Victoria, 1855-1901: Its Ministry and Membership (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1965)
  • Minute books 1856-59 (Ballarat Municipal Council)
  • Circuit minute book, 1858-63, Quarterly Meeting minutes, 1853-76 (Wesley Methodist Church, Lydiard St, Ballarat)
  • Oddie papers (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

G. A. Oddie, 'Oddie, James (1824–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 24 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

Life Summary [details]


31 March, 1824
Clitheroe, Lancashire, England


3 March, 1911 (aged 86)
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.