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James Watson (1837–1907)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

James Watson (1837-1907), by unknown photographer

James Watson (1837-1907), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

James Watson (1837-1907), merchant and politician, was born on 17 December 1837 at Portadown, County Armagh, Ireland, second son of James Watson (d.1847), farmer, and his wife Sarah, née Maclean. Educated at the parish school, Richhill, in 1853 he entered the office of Thomas Carleton, a solicitor in Portadown. He followed his brothers George and William John (d.1886) to Victoria, arriving in Melbourne on 1 June 1856 in the Champion of the Seas with his youngest brother Thomas and £100. They went from rush to rush at Pleasant Creek (Stawell), Dunolly, Mountain Hut and other Victorian goldfields with little success.

In 1861 they moved to Lambing Flat (Young) and next year opened a store, Watson Bros, which was provisioned by John Frazer; in 1866 a flour-mill was added. James became a trustee of the School of Arts and a church warden of St John's Church of England. In January 1869 he bought a quarter-share in John Frazer & Co. and moved to Sydney, while William continued to run the firm in Young.

On 28 December 1869 Watson was elected to the Legislative Assembly for the Lachlan, defeating W. B. Dalley; he represented the seat until it was divided in 1880 when he won Young. At first he supported (Sir) James Martin's ministry and in 1872 became an independent supporter of (Sir) Henry Parkes, although in November 1873 he harassed G. A. Lloyd, the treasurer, with questions about his interest in the Circular Quay lease; and he voted against Parkes on the release of the bushranger Frank Gardiner. In August 1877 he refused office under (Sir) John Robertson.

On 8 April 1871 in Sydney Watson had married Margaret Salmon, sister of his partner James Ewan and sister-in-law of Frazer; they lived at Glenworth, Darling Point. Watson became prominent in Sydney commercial circles: a justice of the peace, chairman of the City Bank of Sydney in 1874-85, a director and sometime chairman of the Pacific Fire and Marine Insurance Co. of Sydney, the Australian General Assurance Co. and a committee-man and vice-president of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce. A New South Wales commissioner for the exhibitions in Philadelphia (1876) and Melbourne (1888), he was also a trustee of the Sydney Bethel Union, and a councillor of the New South Wales Academy of Art in the 1880s. In 1877 with William he invested in two cattle stations near Young.

Watson became a close friend and creditor of Parkes (in 1879 he lent him £1000), and from 21 December 1878 to 4 January 1883 served in the Parkes-Robertson coalition as colonial treasurer. Lloyd warned Parkes not to 'allow yourself to be influenced too much by Watson on questions of Finance as he is very self willed'. In July 1879 Watson came into conflict, over the government's account, with Shepherd Smith, the tactless manager of the Bank of New South Wales, who was suspicious of Watson's refusal to resign as chairman of the City Bank. Parkes had to intervene, but he defended Watson to D. Larnach on 11 September: 'our Treasurer too is in the heyday of his physical strength full of confidence in his own resources; and he is not a man to be played with in any sense'.

At the end of 1879 Watson had a Treasury deficit of £468,250: although early next year he reintroduced stamp duty and increased the duty on spirits, the House rejected his excise on colonial beer, and he withdrew proposed duties on tobacco and later was forced to abandon export duties. However revenue improved and he had no need to impose additional taxes. At the Intercolonial Conference in January 1881 he proposed a commission of all Australian colonies to consider and construct a common tariff; only Victoria opposed it. Advised by G. Eagar, he floated a new loan in London in June on very favourable terms for the colony, and in December announced a large surplus. On the question of amending the land Acts, he strongly advocated fixity of tenure and higher rents for squatters and came into conflict with Robertson. In January 1882 he intended to resign as treasurer because of Ewan's ill health, and after the defeat of Robertson's land bill in November he again tendered his resignation, but Parkes refused to accept it; in December he was defeated for the seats of Young and Illawarra. However in April 1884 he won a by-election for Gundagai, which he held until October 1885, and was highly critical of (Sir) Alexander Stuart as premier.

That year Watson took his ailing wife on a visit to Britain; she died soon after their return in 1886. He was appointed to the Legislative Council on 15 February 1887, served on the royal commission into the civil service from December to August 1888 and on the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works in 1888-89, and as chairman in 1890-92. In March 1889, although pressed by Parkes, he refused the vice-presidency of the Executive Council, 'in the interests of my children'. In the 1890s with Ewan he incurred heavy losses on two cattle stations in Queensland. He became a director of the Australian Joint Stock Bank in 1897.

A lavish host, Watson collected pictures and furniture. He suffered for ten years from chronic nephritis and uraemia and died at Glanworth on 30 October 1907; he was buried in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery. He divided his estate, valued for probate at almost £65,000, equally among his two sons and four daughters who survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Dec 1869, 8 Oct 1885, 31 Oct 1907
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 30 May 1874
  • Town and Country Journal, 11 Jan 1878
  • Bulletin, 14 Aug 1880
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 8 July 1882
  • G. C. Morey, The Parkes-Robertson Coalition Government, 1878-1883 (B.A. Hons thesis, Australian National University, 1968)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Bank of New South Wales Archives (Sydney)
  • CO 201/591/36, 592/50, 595/73, 115, 587, 597/463
  • private information.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Watson, James (1837–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 16 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 Watson (1837-1907), by unknown photographer

James Watson (1837-1907), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

Life Summary [details]


17 December, 1837
Portadown, Armagh, Ireland


30 October, 1907 (aged 69)
Glanworth, Queensland, Australia

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