Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Swan (1811–1891)

by Clem Lack and A. A. Morrison

This article was published:

James Swan (1811-1891), newspaper proprietor, was born in Glasgow, Scotland, son of Daniel Swan, a private in the Highland Light Infantry killed in the Peninsular war, and Jennet McLaren, a deaf mute. In August 1823, his mother was murdered by another woman in his presence in a quarrel over a man. The boy gave evidence at the trial, was taken into a foster home and later entered a lawyer's office. Leaving the law, he was apprenticed first to a carver and gilder and finally to the printing office of the Scots Times. In 1831 he married Christina Mackay.

Swan was offered employment in Sydney by John Dunmore Lang in 1836, his second year as a journeyman. He arrived with Lang in the Portland on 3 December 1837, served for three years on Lang's newspaper the Colonist, then undertook a brief, unsuccessful farming venture in the Illawarra district. Returning to his trade he joined the Sydney Herald when the Colonist closed in 1841 and, after a second farming failure, took employment at Brisbane in June 1846 as foreman printer for A. S. Lyon's new Moreton Bay Courier. Early in 1848 Lyon was in financial trouble and in July Swan bought him out. He employed William Wilkes as editor till 1856 then, leasing the paper to W. C. Belbridge and Charles Lilley, visited Scotland.

Swan resumed management of the Courier in September 1858 and probably also became editor; he spoke of the liberal attitude taken by the paper in opposing convict labour and squatters, an attitude probably shared with him by Wilkes. He participated strongly in the movement to separate Queensland from New South Wales but when it was achieved in 1859 he sold the Courier and retired. In 1873-75 he was mayor of Brisbane when the first bridge was built over the Brisbane River and on 18 April 1878 he was appointed to the Legislative Council as a supporter of (Sir) Samuel Griffith.

As an ardent Baptist, Swan had been a foundation member of the temporary united Church for Congregationalists and Baptists established in August 1855; he welcomed the first resident Baptist minister in September 1858. His extensive real estate investments included two successful suburban hotels, and he had supported the establishment of the Democratic Association.

Swan's wife died on 27 January 1888 and on 10 January 1889 he married Christina Street, aged 31. The couple sailed for Scotland in 1891 but he died in the Red Sea on 26 May and was buried near Port Said, Egypt. After legacies to friends, relations and a number of charities, the remainder of his £33,100 estate was left in trust for his widow. On her death in 1930 it passed to the Baptist Church for the support of evangelists of impeccable theological orthodoxy.

Select Bibliography

  • T. W. H. Leavitt (ed), Australian Representative Men, 3rd ed (Melb, 1888)
  • J. J. Knight, In the Early Days (Brisb, 1895)
  • Baptist Assn of Queensland, Queensland Baptist Jubilee: Record Volume, 1855-1905 (Brisb, 1906)
  • F. J. Brewer and R. Dunn, Sixty-Six Years of Municipal Government (Brisb, 1925)
  • A. G. Davies, ‘Queensland's pioneer journals and journalists’, Journal (Historical Society of Queensland), 3 (1937-47)
  • Moreton Bay Courier, 15 July 1848, 2 Oct 1858
  • Moreton Bay Free Press, 20 Apr 1858
  • Brisbane Courier, 2 June 1891, 2 Apr 1894
  • Queenslander, 7 Aug 1909.

Citation details

Clem Lack and A. A. Morrison, 'Swan, James (1811–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 18 July 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

Life Summary [details]


Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland


26 May, 1891 (aged ~ 80)
at sea

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.