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James Robert Millar Robertson (1844–1932)

by Christopher Schmitz

This article was published:

James Robert Millar Robertson (1844-1932), mining engineer and coal-owner, was born on 11 February 1844 at Renfrew, Scotland, son of James Robertson, surgeon, colliery owner and town provost, and his wife Joanna, née Millar. After a medical education at the University of Glasgow (M.D., Ch.M., 1866), he assisted in the management of his father's collieries and was briefly medical officer to the 1st Battalion, 42nd Infantry Regiment (Black Watch) in India and Burma.

Preferring mining engineering to medicine, Robertson joined the Tharsis Co. in Spain about 1869-70. Between 1872 and 1879 he was consultant to British mining companies in Borneo, the Malay States, India and Burma. In January 1874 he visited New South Wales and in July 1880 settled in Sydney as a mining and consulting engineer. He spent the next fifty years closely involved in the New South Wales coal industry and as geological consultant to mining operations elsewhere in Australia. On 20 November 1883 he married Henrietta McKean Inglis of Melbourne, at Paisley, Scotland.

His services as mining consultant were in high demand and marked by both successes and failures. In 1887 he correctly identified the pyritic nature of the Mount Lyell orebodies, in Tasmania, and was closely involved in the rise of the Caledonian Coal Co. to its position of leadership in the Australian coal industry by 1912. On the other hand, in 1882 Robertson failed to identify the gold of Mount Morgan, Queensland, days before further exploration indicated its true value. He also in 1881 and 1887 gave wildly misleading reports on copper and gold deposits at Cloncurry and Taranganba, Queensland, which led to heavy investment losses.

Robertson was president of several royal commissions into accidents, including those at Lithgow, Tighe's Hill and Delta collieries, into the condition of the Ferndale pit (1886) and into the Bulli colliery explosion (1887). By 1896 he was managing director of the Caledonian Coal Co. and director of the Mount Kembla Coal and Oil Co., the North Coast Steam Navigation Co. and other colliery and shipping firms. An uncompromising employer, he was in frequent conflict with his miners, particularly during the coal strike of 1891. As consulting engineer to Mount Kembla colliery, he was closely examined by the royal commission investigating the explosion of 31 July 1902, in which ninety-five miners died, and at which he expressed some questionable views on pit safety and the causes of the worst colliery disaster in Australia's history.

Tall, heavily built and reserved, Robertson professed a dread of public speaking and sought recreation in 'scientific literature'. A staunch Presbyterian of the Neutral Bay church, in 1910 he donated a house to the Burnside Presbyterian Homes for Children at North Parramatta, a scheme initiated by his friend and business colleague (Sir) James Burns. He contributed papers to various learned societies; and was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, London (1881); a member of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers (1903) and the Royal Society of New South Wales (1924); and a vice-president of the Highland Society of New South Wales.

Robertson died at his Kirribilli home on 11 April 1932 and was buried in Gore Hill cemetery. Two sons and a daughter survived him. His estate was valued for probate at £83,951.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Blainey, The Peaks of Lyell (Melb, 1954)
  • G. Blainey, Mines in the Spinifex (Syd, 1960)
  • J. D. Kerr, Mount Morgan (Brisb, 1982)
  • Royal Commission on the Mount Kembla Colliery Disaster, Report
  • Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1903, 5, p 1
  • Scottish Australasian, 3 (1912), p 104
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, 66 (1932), p 11
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12, 13 Apr 1932
  • private information.

Citation details

Christopher Schmitz, 'Robertson, James Robert Millar (1844–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 19 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


11 February, 1844
Renfrew, Renfrewshire, Scotland


11 April, 1932 (aged 88)
Kirribilli, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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