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James Smith (1820–1910)

by Ann-Mari Jordens

This article was published:

James Smith (1820-1910), by Robert Hawker Dowling, 1884

James Smith (1820-1910), by Robert Hawker Dowling, 1884

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H41737

James Smith (1820-1910), journalist, was born at Loose near Maidstone, Kent, England, son of James Smith, supervisor of inland revenue, and his wife Mary. Educated first for the Church he turned to journalism and at 20 became editor of the Hertfordshire Mercury and County Press. He also contributed to London Punch, The Illuminated Magazine and other publications, and in 1845 in London published a selection of these articles as Rural Records: or, Glimpses of Village Life, which went through two editions and brought him into correspondence with Douglas Jerrold, William Howitt, Mary Russell Mitford, and other writers of the period. He subsequently published Oracles from the British Poets (London, 1849), and Wilton and its Associates (Salisbury, 1851). In 1848-54 he edited the Salisbury and Winchester Journal, and in 1852 at Salisbury organized one of the first provincial exhibitions of art and industry in England.

In 1854 Smith migrated to Melbourne where he joined the Age as leader-writer and dramatic critic. He assisted Ebenezer Syme and David Blair in the weekly Melbourne Leader (issued from 5 January 1856), and became its first editor. That year he joined the staff of the Argus as leader-writer, dramatic, art and literary critic, and also contributed to journals in Victoria and other colonies. Smith was associated with F. Sinnett in the foundation of Melbourne Punch in 1855 and as its editor in 1859 built it into a secure and successful publication. After deciding in early 1863 to visit Europe for two years, partly to recover from overstrain due to his 'severe intellectual labours', he became instead Victorian parliamentary librarian; before the post was abolished in February 1869 he had classified and catalogued the library's 30,000 volumes. On 2 October he began the short-lived satirical magazine Touchstone. Resuming work with the Argus, he became editor of its weekly, the Australasian, in 1871. He was a founder of and frequent contributor to the Victorian Review in 1879. On 17 October 1881 he began editing a new Melbourne daily paper, the Evening Mail, which was discontinued next year when he visited Europe. Back in Victoria, he continued as a journalist with the Argus until his retirement in 1898, when he returned to the Age as literary writer and dramatic critic until 1910: he had lost all his savings in the depression of the 1890s. A voracious and systematic reader with a retentive memory, he covered a wide range of topics in his journalism, though often in a facile and derivative manner.

Smith was a conservative in politics and espoused free trade. Although for many years one of the best lecturers in Melbourne, he was never an extempore speaker. As an advocate of the cultural and intellectual elevation of the colony, he helped to establish the Garrick Club (1855), the Melbourne Shakespeare Society (1884), the Alliance Française (1890) and the Dante Society (1896). He read French, Spanish and Italian and his library of some 6500 volumes contained a fine selection of French literature. For his work for the Alliance Française he was elected an officer of the French Academy of Paris; he was created knight of the Order of the Crown of Italy for his research into Italian literature. He had been an ardent sympathizer with Italy's nationalist movement; his play Garibaldi (1860) was performed at the Prince of Wales Theatre, and in June 1861 he organized a presentation to the Italian patriot.

Smith was the first to suggest the foundation of a National Gallery, and his influence on art in Melbourne was great as a critic and as trustee of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria in 1880-1910 and treasurer of the trustees from 1888. He helped Louis Buvelot to gain recognition as a professional artist, and his favourable review of the work of the then unknown artist Tom Roberts in 1881 indicated his ability to recognize potential talent. He embodied the cultural values of colonial Melbourne. Like Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites he wanted art to stimulate the moral and spiritual faculties; he became, especially after the 9 x 5 Impression Exhibition of 1889, an outspoken opponent of impressionism. As a drama critic Smith was diligent, prolific and able, though neither as experienced nor as competent as his fellow critic James Neild. He displayed only a limited understanding of stage tradition, theatrical trends and the intellectual issues raised by works of legitimate drama. He was susceptible to the personal blandishments of visiting actors, and could be more than 'a little blind' to their shortcomings on the stage. With Neild and R. H. Horne he was a combatant in the great 'Hamlet controversy' of 1867; their letters to the Argus were collected and published in Melbourne as The Hamlet Controversy. Was Hamlet Mad? …

Converted to spiritualism in the 1870s he became one of its major propagandists and controversialists and some of his contemporaries lost confidence in his judgment. He corresponded with prominent European spiritualists and contributed numerous articles to the local journal, the Harbinger of Light. However his proclamation of the imminent destruction of the world in 1873 was condemned as heresy both on rational and theological grounds by the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists, and caused the defection of a number of believers. He reputedly attempted to educate his children by magnetically transmitting to their minds the wisdom of dead scholars and artists.

Aged 89, Smith died of cystitis at his home Amwell, Hawthorn, on 19 March 1910 and was buried in the Boroondara cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £1525. By his first wife Annie Fieldwick, née Notcutt (d.1849), he had two sons who predeceased him. His second wife Eliza Julia, née Kelly, of Melbourne, whom he married on 11 April 1857, bore him two sons and four daughters, one of whom predeceased him. One son, Charles Lamb, became a journalist with the Argus and later with the Ballarat Star; another, Tennyson, wrote a crime novel with Percy Hulbert. Of Smith's own numerous publications the most valuable is his Cyclopedia of Victoria, which he edited in three volumes in 1903-05. He also wrote From Melbourne to Melrose (1888), Junius Unveiled (London, 1909), and contributed to at least eleven other books published in Melbourne between 1867 and 1909. He wrote articles for most of the important Melbourne literary journals and many of his lectures were published.

Select Bibliography

  • A. McCulloch, The Golden Age of Australian Painting (Melb, 1969)
  • L. B. Cox, The National Gallery of Victoria, 1861 to 1968 (Melb, 1970)
  • Harbinger of Light, 1 June 1904
  • Age (Melbourne), 21 Mar 1910
  • Argus (Melbourne), 21 Mar 1910
  • Australasian, 24 Mar 1910
  • Bulletin, 24 Mar 1910
  • F. B. Smith, Religion and Freethought in Melbourne, 1870 to 1890 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1960)
  • James Smith diary and letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • H. G. Turner papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Citation details

Ann-Mari Jordens, 'Smith, James (1820–1910)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 17 June 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 Smith (1820-1910), by Robert Hawker Dowling, 1884

James Smith (1820-1910), by Robert Hawker Dowling, 1884

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H41737

Life Summary [details]


Loose, Kent, England


19 March, 1910 (aged ~ 90)
Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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