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James Service (1823–1899)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published:

James Service (1823-1899), by George Frederick Folingsby, 1886

James Service (1823-1899), by George Frederick Folingsby, 1886

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H141874

James Service (1823-1899), businessman and politician, was born on 27 November 1823 at Kilwinning, Ayrshire, Scotland, son of Robert Service (1799-1883), sewing agent, and his wife Agnes, née Niven. About 1838 Robert moved from Kilwinning to near-by Saltcoats and then to Glasgow; he was converted from Presbyterianism to the Churches of Christ via the Baptists, and became a rash and zealous preacher on the Glasgow Green. James was educated at Kilwinning and at Glasgow College, and was intended for the kirk. He was about to enrol at the University of Glasgow when his father was converted but, emulating his piety and devotedness, he became a schoolmaster after a brief period in a Glasgow office. James was reared on the Charter: his father was a staunch 'moral forcer' and supporter of Joseph Sturge, and his uncle William Service was a 'veteran reformer'. James opened his own small school at Saltcoats but about 1845 he contracted tuberculosis, had to rest for twelve months and abandoned teaching. In 1846 he joined the tea and coffee business of Thomas Corbett & Co. in Glasgow, and became a partner in the early 1850s.

Possibly largely for his health, Service migrated to Victoria in 1853 in the Abdallah, as a representative of Corbett & Co.; he bought a 'marvellously assorted' range of goods well suited to inflated demand. His parents soon followed him, and for thirty years his father was active in the temperance movement and in radical politics; a leader of the Churches of Christ, he edited their weekly Melbourne Medley, preached every Sunday on the wharves and was a founder of the Sunday Free Discussion Society about 1870. James began as a general importer and indentor in Bourke Street; in 1854 his former pupil James Ormond joined him and about 1860 they moved into distribution and developed a large country business. R. J. Alcock in 1886 became the third partner in James Service & Co., which specialized in Robur tea and became agents for companies such as Bryant and May, the German Australian Steamship Co. and the Standard Oil Co. of New York. Located by 1872 on a corner of Collins and William streets, the firm rebuilt after being burned out in 1892; by this time it had opened a London branch. In the 1870s Service was also linked with another former pupil Archibald Currie in his steamship line trading with India and the East.

Service had spent his first weeks in the colony in 'Canvas Town'; he gained experience in the local politics of near-by Emerald Hill, becoming the most prominent leader in the campaign for emancipation from the Melbourne Town Council. Emerald Hill was the first to break away and he was chairman of the 'model municipality' for its first two years and of the local bench of magistrates. In 1855 the locals refused to pay Melbourne rates any longer and the Melbourne Council sent the bailiffs to remove Service's furniture; in his absence John Nimmo rallied a crowd with a fire-bell to repulse them. When the Hobson's Bay Railway Co. planned to bypass Emerald Hill on its line to St Kilda, Service brought the company to terms by using regulations to place obstructions in the way and threatening to have anyone arrested who removed them. He was remembered twenty-five years later as the great local hero when he received a reception on the laying of the foundations of the new South Melbourne municipal building. In 1856 he was chairman of (Sir) Andrew Clarke's committee of electors, and was well known as a red-hot Chartist radical who, for example, had led the cheers for John Dunmore Lang when he spoke in Melbourne in January 1855 on the land question. In March 1857 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Melbourne and next month seconded the motion that defeated the first O'Shanassy ministry. He was prominent as an anti-Catholic in the Constitutional Association opposing the second O'Shanassy ministry, lost the contest for Emerald Hill in 1859, but was then elected for Ripon and Hampden. He had succeeded William Westgarth as the spokesman for advanced liberal mercantile thought, and joined William Nicholson's ministry in October, as president of the Board of Land and Works.

The land bill which Service introduced in January 1860 largely met the demands of the Land Convention. Its main features were sale of 80- (32 ha) to 320-acre (130 ha) blocks, after immediate survey of four million acres (1,618,760 ha), at £1 an acre with deferred payments of up to three-quarters of the amount and severe penalties for non-improvement. Auction was to be retained only for town lots and country land of special value; some selection before survey was envisaged. He was sincere in his desire to wipe out the 'social evil' of land monopoly; in the meantime the squatters were to be helped to buy more of their runs as a last chance. The bill passed the assembly without difficulty, but when returned from the council it had 250 amendments. The assembly stood firm on the vital points but the council refused to budge.

Service was 'miserably disappointed': the council's behaviour had produced a 'monster grievance'. He now carried a motion that the bill be returned intact to the council, and threatened the squatters with an obscure Order in Council of 1850 by which governments could state the conditions of tenants on leaseholds. With council adamant, Service and James Francis resigned from the ministry on 3 August knowing that their colleagues were prepared to submit. Nicholson then resigned and Duffy and Richard Heales almost succeeded in forming a ministry which Service refused to join. Nicholson returned to office, the left overplayed its hand by storming parliament on 28 August, with the result that the Nicholson Act was passed in a travesty of its original form and proved almost useless. Service had allied himself with the conventionists on the land question in an attempt to make Nicholson fight the issue out. 'Had they secured a single principle for all the fighting and blood and dirt through which they had been dragged?', he asked. He refused the lands portfolio in the Heales ministry of 1860-61, probably because of its protectionist leanings. He also rejected a place in the O'Shanassy ministry in 1861 and fought to radicalize the Duffy Act of 1862; O'Shanassy several times urged him to join the Opposition. Service lost by only one vote an amendment to limit pastoral tenure to three years.

He proved to be an advanced liberal in several other fields. In 1858 he carried provision in the estimates for state aid to the Jewish religion. In 1862 he worked closely with Heales and George Higinbotham in forcing through the Common Schools Act against the O'Shanassy government. With the support of the Chamber of Commerce, the same year he carried the Torrens reform of land transfer as a private bill against the government and the lawyers. In 1859 he was chairman of a select committee which examined the possibility of a harbour trust for the port of Melbourne.

In August 1862 Service took the first of three breaks from politics caused by health worries. For more than two years he enjoyed himself, spending most of his time on the Continent, especially in Italy. On his return he was at odds with most of his former radical associates, deploring the McCulloch-Higinbotham government's protectionism and its coercion of the Legislative Council. As a fighting free trader he lost West Ballarat in 1865, Collingwood in 1868 and West Melbourne in 1871; he was active in the Constitutional Association in the late 1860s. A founder of the Commercial Bank of Australia in 1866, he was chairman of directors in 1871-81. Prominent in the foundation of the Alfred Hospital in 1868-70 he long remained a very active chairman of its board; in 1876 he had a prolonged public argument with 'The Vagabond', who respected his management but considered he was far too active.

Service was returned for Maldon at the election of 1874 and in August became treasurer in G. B. Kerferd's ministry. He was now wealthy, more deliberate and less aggressive, but the Age still approved of him as a reformer of the most advanced type despite his free-trade views. He had to prepare a budget in three weeks and accepted protection by eliminating only a few useless duties and reducing others which only hampered trade. Denounced as a traitor, turncoat, renegade or rat, Service deplored the 'egregious folly and blundering tactics of ultramontanists of the free-trade party'. In his 1875 budget he made a far too ambitious attempt to resolve the taxation question and systematize the tariff. Some form of direct taxation was overdue and he proposed progressive land and house taxes, bank-note and stamp taxes, and increased duties on alcohol and tobacco. But many imposts on necessaries were to be abolished, and some reduced on the ground that the relevant industries were no longer 'infants'. An unholy alliance of the McCulloch faction, the liquor interest (which deplored such treachery by one who dealt in wine and spirits), and extreme protectionists and extreme free traders combined against the government. The Age turned and denounced him and his taxation proposals were blasphemous in the eyes of the Argus and pure free traders. When the government's majority was reduced to one, Kerferd was refused a dissolution by the acting governor, Sir William Stawell. Kerferd resigned: it is likely that Service, said to be dominant in the ministry, had most to do with the unnecessary decision.

After a brief interlude while (Sir) Graham Berry was premier, Service was disgusted when Kerferd and most of his former colleagues joined McCulloch in a new ministry. On 25 November 1875 he scored possibly the greatest of his few oratorical triumphs, described as a crucifixion, when in a four-hour speech he pilloried McCulloch as a man who had wrecked two ministries and wasted four months, as a 'mere pirate' with no convictions and a 'slovenly financier'. 'Is there not one voice in the Assembly to say that Sir James McCulloch was justified?', he repeatedly asked, and was met with silence. Throughout 1876 he deplored Berry's 'stonewalling' tactics and the government's 'gagging', tried to conciliate the parties and 'voted as his conscience dictated' in alliance with James Casey and Angus Mackay. It appeared possible that he and Higinbotham might combine and sweep all before them but the great tribune was disillusioned and retired from politics. In 1876 Service in a private bill amended the law relating to bills of sale and fraudulent preferences to creditors, and chaired a board of inquiry into charges against R. Brough Smyth.

In the 1877 election campaign, Service broadly supported Berry by proposing a land tax on properties of more than 300 acres (121 ha). Berry delayed formation of his cabinet hoping that Service would become treasurer, but he preferred to be a friendly neutral opposing Berry only on protection and payment of members. 'Black Wednesday', which Service christened, the dismissal of the judges, magistrates and civil servants gazetted on 8 January 1878, was the parting of the ways which also marked the rebirth of the Constitutionalist party. On 31 January, Service dissociated himself from the government, deploring its inflaming of passions and setting of class against class. When McCulloch retired from the triangular struggle for power with Service and Berry, and Francis withdrew as his health declined, Service emerged as undisputed leader of the numerically insignificant Opposition. He astutely ridiculed the excesses of Berry's lieutenants, and whittled away Berry's supporters without pandering to the Catholic vote. He soon antagonized the governor, Sir George Bowen, who reinforced his support of Berry by gossip about Service's private life. In the conflicts between the council and Berry's government over proposals for council reform, he steadily won support from the waverers for moderate compromises. Eventually, through his condemnation of Berry's proposal for an Upper House of nominees as 'a Council of crawlers', he defeated the reform bill in 1879 and the assembly was dissolved.

Service won the election of February 1880 with a nominal majority of twelve, but his six months premiership was almost unproductive. He proposed a reform bill which provided for a wider council franchise, a double dissolution if the council twice rejected a bill passed by the assembly in two consecutive sessions and then a joint sitting of the Houses. When the bill was rejected in the assembly by two votes Service was granted a dissolution, in full confidence that he would win an election; but he was defeated on 14 July largely by the Catholics, who, for the first time, were organized en bloc, and by the unscrupulous use of a garbled newspaper report that he had said that a working man could live on 5s. a day. He and (Sir) Henry Wrixon refused to join Berry. Service was now in bad health and resigned his seat early in 1881 in order to go overseas.

Service was consistent throughout his political career. Part of the explanation of his success in the 1870s and 1880s is that he was a free trader who did not go conservative. From at least the mid-1870s he knew the fiscal issue to be overrated; his 1889 remark that free trade produced greater wealth but protection ensured fairer distribution was like a breeze of fresh air over the swamp of political rhetoric. He was a classic, old-world advanced liberal and almost the perfect colonial liberal (protection aside). He was strongly anti-Catholic, though not a sectarian bigot; he recognized the papal encyclicals for what they were, basic attacks on liberalism. In 1871 he argued vehemently as a secularist for the separation of church and state: 'place our state education on a purely secular basis, and let the words Protestant and Catholic be heard no more as watchwords of strife and dissension in our political assemblies. Let our motto be, Equal rights to all, Special privileges to none'. He defended the Education Act against the Catholics but underestimated their sense of outrage; his remark that their agitation was not a question of conscience but a question only of cash was long held against him. He would not submit to the Bible in Schools League, but relaxed the Education Act in 1883 by allowing teachers to stay after school to keep order during voluntary religious instruction by outsiders.

Service's taxation views reflected his marked egalitarian tendencies. He believed that every man should start fair and have reasonable equality of opportunity; he deplored attempts to perpetuate social inequality, and sincerely asserted that 'a working man is as good as any man possessing rank and riches'. He believed that the state's powers should have limits: the first thing was 'to remove from the path of honest men all obstacles that impede their progress, and let each one do the best he can for himself'; the state should aid the working man to elevate and improve himself. But he was flexible: he saw the factories bill of 1885 as interfering with the liberty of the subject, but observed that parliament was doing it every day; still, the less it did so the better. He materially supported the rights of trade unions, the eight-hour movement and early closing of shops. But he stopped short of completely democratic views: he rejected payment of members which, he believed, tended to replace some of the better, more useful men with opportunists. He believed that every man was entitled to the vote and detested plutocratic rule, but considered that property was a rough index of education and ability; hence property-owners deserved greater political weight than loafers, drunkards and criminals. In his old age he supported the dual (but not a multiple) property vote; he consistently backed the council's right to a suspensory check, not merely because he reverenced the Constitution, but because he wanted sustained public demand for reform. Perhaps his most vital liberal tenet was belief in the mutual interests of classes. He believed that employers had nothing to fear from employees reaching for equality and fraternity, provided they were fair, just and honest and observed the golden rule. To his employees he distributed bonuses pegged to the firm's profits. As he fairly said in his Castlemaine speech of February 1883, he was 'a liberal of the Gladstone stamp' and 'never was within a thousand miles of being a conservative'.

On his return from overseas in 1882 Service was regarded very much as a saviour. At the election in February 1883 he was returned for the two-member seat of Castlemaine. A coalition government was being recommended in many quarters to replace the futile O'Loghlen ministry. Service was the obvious leader, as the Constitutionalists had fared slightly better than the Liberals in the election and his friendship with Berry had survived even the traumatic conflicts of the late 1870s. His three years as premier and treasurer were a triumph. His immediate aim was to reform the civil service and railways and to eliminate patronage: the Public Service Board and the Railways Commission were both established in 1883. As treasurer in the early prosperous years he negotiated necessary loans but, aware of the dangers of over-borrowing, he did not allow the boom to get out of control. He was, however, over-optimistic about the finances of the railways, though the extensive construction of new lines was justified. Important land legislation, preparatory royal commissions on agriculture and irrigation, the Factories Act, legalization of trade unions and a mass of long-delayed minor legislation were other achievements. The Age conceded in 1886 that 'no parliament can show a more imposing record of great public utility'. Alfred Deakin, a junior minister, remembered very well the energy and accessibility of Service as his model premier and the business-like conduct of cabinet in which nothing was swamped or muddled.

Service's main contribution as premier was to drag the Australian colonies on to the international stage and to originate the first sustained campaign for federal union. Possibly during his holiday in Europe in 1881-82 he had sensed the emergence of a new imperial spirit. He backed Sir Thomas McIlwraith's attempt to annex New Guinea in 1883, and used the French threat to annex the New Hebrides to force a federal 'convention' in Sydney in November on to an unwilling and preoccupied New South Wales government; he was largely responsible for the proclamation of an Australian Monroe doctrine for the South Seas and agreement to confederate in a Federal Council. He refused to admit that he might die before 'the grand federation of the Australian colonies'. Appointed executive chairman of the premiers for subsequent negotiations, on return to Melbourne he criticized the apathy and timidity of New South Wales politicians and hostile reactions followed. New South Wales and South Australia refused to join the Federal Council which was hamstrung from the start. Meanwhile, his alarm was partially vindicated by the German annexation of north-eastern New Guinea and the French occupation of the New Hebrides.

Service admired William Bede Dalley's coup in sending a New South Wales contingent in support of the Sudan campaign. Like most other colonial liberals he deplored his idol Gladstone's imperial policies, found it intolerable that England was always yielding and feared that indecision would lead to the decline of the empire. He believed in the empire's civilizing mission and in Australia's imminent destiny as a great nation. Part of the empire's 'great and noble mission' was to elevate the South Seas' savage through its Australian colonists. But the British government had to recognize both the legitimate regional interests of the colonies and their right to consultation. The Colonial Office officials saw him as a disloyal, ignorant blunderer, until German and French actions in the Pacific induced some review. He was indeed unaware of the wider diplomatic context; but he was a harbinger both of new imperial enthusiasm and of the definition of Australian regional interests. His move towards Federation might likewise be judged to be ill-prepared and insensitive to the complexity of intercolonial hostility; yet he came close to effecting a unanimous confederation which might have proved a viable and rapid path to Federation.

In 1885 Service had decided to retire from the premiership; in the same year his doctor gave urgent warning and he resigned on 18 February 1886. He presided over the first meeting of the Federal Council in Hobart, before setting off again for Europe. His retirement was met with an outburst of popular gratitude for the political peace and prosperity to which he had made such a notable contribution. A fund was created for his portrait (now in the La Trobe Library) to be painted by G. F. Folingsby and he was farewelled at a public function on 16 April. Service spent fifteen of his eighteen-month tour on the Continent, but was a trenchant ally of Berry and Deakin as a delegate to the Colonial Conference of 1887 in London. He was a member of the general committee of the Imperial Federation League and later of the executive committee, but supported it for its encouragement of unity of policy rather than from conviction in any short-term chance of union. He was satisfied that the conference indicated a basic alteration in the future relations of the colonies with the mother country. Salisbury approved the offer to him of a privy councillorship; but he rejected it as he had already refused the offer of a knighthood. An enthusiastic banquet on 7 December, with the Earl of Rosebery in the chair, farewelled him for the last time from Britain in the full conviction that he was one of the empire's leading statesmen.

Service now enjoyed a unique position as a popular elder statesman. He took little part in the management of James Service & Co. after 1881, and did not become involved in any important speculation or boom business activity, although he was a director of the City Road Property Co. Ltd and with William Kernot and F. Pirani formed the New Australian Electricity Co. in 1882. He rejected opportunities to rejoin the assembly, but took a seat in the council in June 1888. A very useful adviser to the Gillies-Deakin government, by late 1889 he was issuing grave warnings about public finance. In the following years of crisis he was again and again under pressure, particularly from the Argus, to resume a leading role in politics, especially in 1892-93 when many fervently hoped that he and Berry would revive their successful coalition. In April 1893 Howard Willoughby of the Argus praised his extraordinary role as a confidential adviser of nearly all parties and factions. In 1890 and 1891 his fellow legislative councillors had urged him to represent them at the federal conventions. He refused on health grounds: possibly he also remained convinced that the Federal Council was still viable; and he may have been unwilling to confront Sir Henry Parkes who poured such scorn on the council in the mid-1880s, had attacked him so bitterly and until 1889 rejected almost every proposal for intercolonial co-operation. But he gave the first speech at the banquet to the delegates in 1890 when he described the tariff as the 'lion in the way'. Gilbert Parker, the Canadian, was correct in his prediction that although Service was the 'father of Australian Confederation' and originally 'the real leader', 'yet Sir Henry Parkes is called, and will be called, the chief maker of Australian Union'.

In 1889 Service had been mainly responsible for persuading the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce to contribute £500 to the striking London dockers. 'Perish the commerce that cannot stand without trampling underfoot of our fellowman', was the conclusion of his fine emotional speech. In 1890 and 1891 he was one of the most prominent conciliators of capital and labour in Australia. On 16 September 1890 he set the tone of an unusually moderate council debate on the maritime strike when he urged the employers' organizations to meet the unions in conference. He began a nation-wide movement with a letter to the Argus of 29 June 1891, headed 'The Labour War', in which he stated that although the unions had been in the wrong and he would not waver in his belief in freedom of contract, yet the pastoralists were totally at fault in refusing to confer and were embittering class relations. He dominated the Legislative Council in the early 1890s and did much to reduce the incidence of ultra-Tory behaviour; at the same time he led it to revive dangerous claims to its rights as against the assembly.

In his last years Service devoted himself quixotically to saving the bankrupt Commercial Bank of Australia: old loyalties, sense of duty and his friendship with Henry Turner had prevailed. The difficult decision to become chairman of directors was followed out with fixity of purpose, and his support probably enabled the bank to survive. His successful 1893 reconstruction proposals preceded a further scheme in 1896. His last years, which must have been agonizingly self-questioning, were typical of those of his generation who had to live through the 1890s.

Service's constant health worries were crucial in his public career. He was clearly a 'worrier', a man who fought all his fights with everything he had. After a major illness in October 1898, he died on 12 April 1899 from a general breakdown of the system. He had been the last of the first parliament to be still a member. The funeral procession from his home in Balaclava Road to the Melbourne cemetery was 1½ miles (2.4 km) long; he was buried in his parents' grave in the Baptist section. He had been a sceptic since he was a young man, although he retained a keen intellectual interest in religious questions; he occasionally attended services conducted by the Unitarian and other leading preachers and investigated spiritualism with Turner. But he believed Sunday to be no more sacred than any other day and was occasionally denounced by the Daily Telegraph for his 'atheistic proclivities'. He left the residue of his estate of £284,000 to his numerous family in the belief that the 10 per cent estate duty and his frequent generous donations to charity had absolved him from further responsibility.

Jaunty and sprightly, Service was a tallish, slight and spare man, full-bearded with a crest of baldness, mild-looking but with a touch of pugnacity round his large grey eyes. Deakin summed up his appearance and character as essentially those of a 'sturdy, stiff-necked, indomitable and canny' Scot. He showed in his later days that he had learned to compromise and had become far more flexible without ever being a 'trimmer'. He rarely tried to be an orator: most of his speeches were unaffected and earnest in homely simple language, but he had a gift for lucid, logical, precise exposition and for incisively striking to the heart of the matter. Traces of the former teacher and preacher remained in his analytic approach and the biblical echoes in his language. His accent was not marked, although occasionally he threw in some Scotticisms for fun or for effect. He could be a remorseless and caustic critic but his exposure of the ludicrous and absurd was usually good-humoured and did not rankle. He had a taste for epigram, often signalled by a peculiar oratorical shrug of the shoulders. After his early years in parliament, he abhorred personal invective and aimed always to be courteous. His apparent coolness and command of temper allowed him to control even the rogue politicians on the floor of the House, but the strain of damping down his highly emotional reactions was marked. As a parliamentarian he had few equals in Victoria.

Service, in Bernhard Wise's words, was `a merchant of large views and fine culture—at once a scholar and a man of business', a colonial phenomenon not so uncommon among educated Scots. He had strong interests in general philosophy, metaphysics and economic and political theory. James Anthony Froude found that he 'talked well, like a man as much accustomed to reflect seriously as if he had been a profound philosopher or an Anglican bishop'. He raised the question whether mankind had improved morally and spiritually over 2000 years, 'argued his point very well indeed, brought out all that was to be said on either side and left the conclusion open'. As a politician, he was constructive, diligent and business-like, with the supreme virtue of common sense. There was no trace of the snob in him. He had the faculty of making men like him and his influence on younger men, like Deakin, was profound. He could the play the party game with consummate skill but came to abhor it; he was primarily a moderator and conciliator and few politicians can have provoked so little party hate or have been so little maligned or misrepresented. Possibly no other Victorian politician has ever held such widespread public confidence and affection. Nevertheless, his domestic life was irregular. His early marriage to Marian Allan, by whom he had two daughter, broke up in the mid-1850s. From the early 1860s he lived with Louisa Hoseason Forty, whom he never married and by whom he had several daughters. His public reputation over a long period enabled him to live down the gossip. Serviceton, a railway hamlet, is named after him but, as one of the three or four of the great founding fathers, he has been strangely neglected in the nomenclature of Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • H. G. Turner, A History of the Colony of Victoria (Lond, 1904)
  • G. Serle, The Rush to be Rich (Melb, 1971)
  • Table Talk, 2 Sept 1892
  • Review of Reviews (Australasian edition), Nov-Dec 1892
  • Argus (Melbourne), 13 Apr 1899
  • 'Death of the Hon. James Service', Times (London), 13 Apr 1899, p 10
  • Australasian, 15 Apr 1899
  • Service newspaper cutting books (State Library of Victoria and Royal Historical Society of Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Service, James (1823–1899)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Service (1823-1899), by George Frederick Folingsby, 1886

James Service (1823-1899), by George Frederick Folingsby, 1886

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H141874

Life Summary [details]


27 November, 1823
Kilwinning, Ayrshire, Scotland


12 April, 1899 (aged 75)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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