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James (Philosopher) Smith (1827–1897)

by Ronald E. Smith

This article was published:

James (Philosopher) Smith (1827-1897), explorer, known as 'PHILOSOPHER', was born on 1 July 1827 near George Town, Van Diemen's Land, second of three children of John Smith and his wife Ann, née Grant. His father was shot when he was 5 and his mother remarried. His early education was in Launceston; in 1836 John Guillan, a ship-owner and flour-miller, became his guardian. For a time he managed a flour-mill and in 1852-53 he was on the Victorian goldfields.

Returning to Tasmania, Smith took up a sq. mile (2.6 km²) of forest, between the Forth and Leven rivers, which he cleared and farmed. Peaceful, six feet (183 cm) tall and of slender build, he was a hardy bushman and a determined amateur explorer of the dense forests and difficult country of the northwest. J. W. Norton Smith wrote 'it is not a matter of much consequence to him if he goes a couple or three days on one meal if he finds (what he calls) something interesting'. On an expedition to the Forth River in 1859 he discovered some gold.

In October 1871 Smith arranged for provisions to be stored at a depot in the Black Bluff Highlands. He then set off to the west; travelling slowly and examining the country carefully, he crossed the Arthur River and reached the vicinity of Mount Cleveland. Returning to the river he descended into its deep gorge, finding traces of gold. On 4 December he found the first sample of tin ore and, following a creek to its source, he located an immensely rich deposit of tin oxide near the summit of Mount Bischoff; later he smelted the sample of ore at Table Cape on the north coast. He obtained two crown leases of eighty-acre (32 ha) mining sections on the richest of the tin ore deposits and had them surveyed, but found that he could not interest anyone in his discovery. Failing to obtain assistance in Victoria, he sold a small farm, arranged a bank overdraft and obtained sufficient capital to commence work, his manager being W. M. Crosby, formerly of Nova Scotia. Tin oxide was mined, bagged, taken along the primitive road to the coast and shipped from Penguin and Leith to England via Melbourne.

The returns from the first shipment of ore led to the formation in Launceston of a company with capital of £60,000 in 12,000 £5 shares. When it took over the mine in 1873 Smith received £1500 in cash, 4400 paid-up shares and a permanent directorship, with power to nominate another director. But he soon severed his connexion with what was destined to become the richest tin-mine in the world. The company paid its first dividend in 1878, but by then Smith is said to have given away or sold most of his shares at trifling prices. That year he received a public testimonial of 250 sovereigns and a silver salver and parliament voted him an annual pension of £200.

Though Smith returned to farming, increasing his land to about 1500 acres (607 ha) , he continued prospecting. At Launceston on 16 September 1874 he had married a widow Mary Jane Love, née Pleas. In 1886 he was elected to the Legislative Council for Mersey but resigned in 1888. He died of heart disease at Launceston on 15 June 1897, survived by his wife, three sons and three daughters. He was buried in the Congregational cemetery at Forth. The origin of the nickname 'Philosopher' by which he was widely known on the north-west Tasmanian coast is not known. A portrait by Mary Shaw is in the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Tasmania.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Blainey, The Peaks of Lyell (Melb, 1954), and The Rush that Never Ended (Melb, 1969)
  • Examiner (Launceston), 16 June 1897
  • G. Scott, ‘The discoverer of Mount Bischoff’, Lone Hand, 2 Dec 1907
  • private information.

Citation details

Ronald E. Smith, 'Smith, James (Philosopher) (1827–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 21 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 Smith (1827-1897), by J. W. Beattie

James Smith (1827-1897), by J. W. Beattie

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125881169

Life Summary [details]


1 July, 1827
George Town, Tasmania, Australia


15 June, 1897 (aged 69)
Launceston, Tasmania, Australia

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.