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James William Norton Smith (1846–1911)

by Peter Chapman

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James William Norton Smith (1846-1911), by J. W. Beattie

James William Norton Smith (1846-1911), by J. W. Beattie

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125881003

James William Norton Smith (1846-1911), manager, was born at Nailsworth, Gloucestershire, England, son of Richard Smith. After an agricultural education he managed a sheep-run in New Zealand and was appointed manager of the Van Diemen's Land Co. in July 1869; he arrived in Tasmania in October to find its land-leasing business depressed. He soon perceived the importance of Burnie on the company's north-west Emu Bay block, and advised that it join the government to develop the port facilities. This decision began a career in which he sought to attract population and capital to the company's lands and the Tasmanian north-west coast region.

Norton Smith encouraged James (Philosopher) Smith to prospect on the company's land about the time of his Mount Bischoff tin discovery on 4 December 1871. On 9 October 1872 Norton Smith married Fanny Eliza Ford of Stanley. With the proving of the immense potential of Mount Bischoff he supervised the construction of a forty-four mile (71 km) tramway from Waratah to Emu Bay; its completion in February 1878 helped to raise dividends substantially. The tramway was converted to a railway by July 1884, a difficult feat that involved the continuation of traffic; its success was ascribed 'to the able and unremitting presence of the Manager'. By 1888 the traffic was worth £19,000 per annum.

In the early 1870s during the rural depression Norton Smith had become manager of the 100,000-acre (40,469 ha) company farm, Woolnorth, and steadily improved the production and quality of the livestock. In 1880 he became a justice of the peace and in 1885 joined the Tasmanian Club. He represented Wellington in the House of Assembly in 1885-86, and as a federationist and intercolonial free trader emerged as a 'truly independent candidate'; in 1898 he argued that the 'Federation of Australia must lead to the federation of Empire'. He also advanced the company's cause and actively served his electorate, seeking the extension of education and cheaper justice for outlying rural areas. He sat on six select committees. Speaking on the electoral reform bill, in reference to Wellington he deplored the 'amalgamation of two districts which had no community of interest' and argued that 'diverse interests should be kept separate'.

Norton Smith was a shrewd and practical manager of the Van Diemen's Land Co. and the Emu Bay and Mount Bischoff Railway Co. Ltd, and in 1898 he visited England to attend company meetings. Despite the contraction of business in the 1890s the governing court took his advice to float a new, separate company to extend the railway from Waratah to Zeehan in 1900. After disputes with the English directors, Norton Smith retired to his farm, Amberley, in 1903. He was a coroner from 1907, a director of the Blythe Tin Mine, chairman of directors of the Table Cape Butter and Bacon Factory and in 1911 a warden of Table Cape municipality. Aged 65 he died of chronic myocarditis on 20 January 1911 at Flowerdale, and was buried in Wivenhoe cemetery, survived by his wife, four daughters and two sons. His estate was sworn for probate at £8531. The 870 dispatches he wrote in 1869-1903 to the court of the Van Diemen's Land Co. are an important source for the regional economic history of the colony.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (House of Assembly, Tasmania), 1884 (118), 1885 (155)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 24 Feb, 11, 17, 18 Sept, 29 Oct 1885
  • Tasmanian Mail, 22 Dec 1900, 26 Jan 1911
  • Examiner (Launceston), 23 Jan 1911
  • Emu Bay Times, 26 Jan 1911
  • H. J. W. Stokes, North-West Tasmania 1858-1910: The Establishment of an Agricultural Community (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1969)
  • J. W. N. Smith papers (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • Van Diemen's Land Co. papers (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

Peter Chapman, 'Smith, James William Norton (1846–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 20 April 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 William Norton Smith (1846-1911), by J. W. Beattie

James William Norton Smith (1846-1911), by J. W. Beattie

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125881003

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Norton Smith, James William

Nailsworth, Gloucestershire, England


20 January, 1911 (aged ~ 65)
Flowerdale, Tasmania, Australia

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