Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Simpson (1792–1857)

by C. A. McCallum

This article was published:

James Simpson (1792?-1857), public servant, arrived in Van Diemen's Land from England in April 1825 in the Elizabeth. He immediately received an appointment as superintendent of government stock at Ross bridge. In March 1827 he was made police magistrate at Norfolk Plains and later at Campbell Town. In 1832 he removed to Hobart Town as commissioner of the Land Board. Dissatisfied with his prospects in Tasmania, Simpson joined the Port Phillip Association and in February 1836 offered his resignation to Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur, who reluctantly reported to the Colonial Office that Simpson 'had been infected with the Port Phillip mania'.

Simpson arrived at Melbourne in April 1836 in the barque Caledonia. As a member of the Port Phillip Association he had been allotted an area of land between the Werribee River and Station Peak, but held this for only a short time. On 1 June 1836 the leading settlers of Port Phillip held the first public meeting at the township and by popular decision appointed Simpson as arbitrator in all disputes between individuals, except in questions relating to land, with power to impose and collect fines. The meeting also agreed to petition Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke in Sydney for the appointment of a resident magistrate, and in September 1836 Captain William Lonsdale arrived to take up that post. In April 1837 Simpson was also officially made a magistrate and, when Lonsdale was made sub-treasurer, Simpson in June 1840 became police magistrate of Melbourne and held office for a year.

A succession of official positions followed: chairman of the market commissioners (1841), warden of the district council of Bourke (1843), temporary sub-treasurer (1846), commissioner of crown lands (1849), sheriff (1851) and president of commissioners of sewers and water supply (1853). At the same time Simpson was in the forefront of the business, cultural and charitable life of the community as vice-president of the first savings bank, president of the Mechanics' Institute, president of the Pastoral and Agricultural Society, a director of the Bank of Australasia, managing director of the Steam Navigation Co. and a first trustee of St Peter's Church. While his name and prestige were given to these and many other sound and worthy enterprises, he consistently refused to be associated with the many controversial activities which the ferment of the times produced in the growing city.

Throughout the 1840s Simpson lived in Little Flinders Street, but later moved to a new house in Wellington Parade, East Melbourne. There he died, of an abscess on the liver on 17 April 1857, aged 65. He was buried in the Church of England section of the Melbourne general cemetery.

Contemporary references were unanimous in paying respect to Simpson as one who exercised a natural authority without losing the regard of his fellows. Edmund Finn, who knew him well, described him thus: 'There was a something stern and slightly forbidding in his sallowed face; but it was only skin deep: and, if one could not admire him outwardly, the honesty of purpose which seemed to actuate him, never failed to ensure for him one's respect', adding that he was 'the best liked man in the province'. With increasing years, Simpson largely withdrew from public life, but his funeral procession was reported to be more than three-quarters of a mile (1.2 km) in length, testifying to the affection and esteem in which he was held.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 3, vols 4, 5
  • Garryowen (E. Finn), The Chronicles of Early Melbourne, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1888)
  • R. D. Boys, First Years at Port Phillip (Melb, 1959)
  • A. S. Kenyon, ‘The Port Phillip Association’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 16, no 3, May 1937, pp 102-14
  • Herald (Melbourne), 21 Apr 1857
  • Kenyon index of pioneers (State Library of Victoria)
  • correspondence file under James Simpson (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

C. A. McCallum, 'Simpson, James (1792–1857)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




17 April, 1857 (aged ~ 65)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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