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James Backhouse Walker (1841–1899)

by Neil Smith

This article was published:

James Backhouse Walker (1841-1899), solicitor and historian, was born on 14 October 1841 in Hobart Town, son of George Washington Walker, shopkeeper, and his wife Sarah Benson, daughter of Robert Mather. Educated at the High School, Government Domain, Hobart, and at the Friends School, York, England, he was first employed as junior clerk in the office of T. D. Chapman and later in his father's Hobart Savings Bank. But in 1872 he took articles and on 7 July 1876 was admitted as barrister, solicitor and proctor of the Supreme Court of Tasmania. Senior partner in the firm J. B. Walker and Wolfhagen he was also an active councillor of the Southern Law Society. From 1877 he was a member of the Tasmanian Club.

Of advanced liberal views, socially committed, Walker was a member of the Bathurst Street school board and the Tasmanian Board of Education. In evidence before the royal commission on education in 1883 he favoured the appointment of a director of education as permanent professional head, but feared political patronage in the appointment of teachers. In 1889 he proposed an examining university with affiliated colleges, as a first step towards a teaching university. Next year he was appointed member of the first council of the new university, and in 1898 became its second vice-chancellor.

As a trustee of the Tasmanian Public Library Walker did much to establish its collection of manuscripts and books. He was credited with having one of the finest collections of Australiana. Elected to the council of the Royal Society of Tasmania in 1888, he was a regular contributor to its proceedings. Most of his papers on the discovery, early settlement and Aboriginal inhabitants of Tasmania were tabled in parliament and printed; they were collected and published posthumously in 1902 as Early Tasmania: Papers Read Before the Royal Society of Tasmania Between 1888 and 1899. Reprinted in 1914 it remained a standard work for many years. In 1892 he read a paper on 'Old and New Hobart' to delegates to the Hobart conference of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science. He was also a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, London.

Walker attributed his 'wider views of God and religion' to the teachings of his friend Rev. G. Clarke. A member of the Society of Friends, he was also for many years a Sunday school teacher in the Davey Street Congregational Church. An active supporter and sometime secretary of the Hobart Working Men's Club, he sought improved conditions for workers and better attitudes to work. Later, disenchanted with militants in the labour movement, he wrote, 'the tyranny of the Trade Unions in Australia has been quickly growing unbearable'.

A bachelor, Walker died of pneumonia at his home in Davey Street on 4 November 1899. His estate was sworn for probate at £1106. The J. B. Walker Memorial Prize commemorates him in the Law School of the University of Tasmania.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of Tasmania (Hob, 1900)
  • P. B. Walker (ed), All That We Inherit (Hob, 1968)
  • P. Bolger, Hobart Town (Canb, 1973)
  • J. N. D. Harrison (ed), Court in the Colony (Hob, 1974)
  • Royal Society of Tasmania, Papers and Proceedings, 1899
  • Advertiser (Hobart), 5 Feb 1859
  • Mercury (Hobart), 23 Oct 1882, 6 Nov 1899.

Citation details

Neil Smith, 'Walker, James Backhouse (1841–1899)', 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

James Backhouse Walker (1841-1899), by J. W. Beattie

James Backhouse Walker (1841-1899), by J. W. Beattie

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125883694

Life Summary [details]


14 October, 1841
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia


4 November, 1899 (aged 58)
Hobart, 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.