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James Frederick (Fred) Watson (1878–1945)

by Ann M. Mitchell

This article was published:

James Frederick William Watson (1878-1945), editor, historian and medical practitioner, was born on 27 June 1878 in Sydney, fourth child of James Watson, a merchant from Ireland, and his Scottish wife Margaret Salmon, sister of James Ewan. Educated at Sydney Grammar School, Fred attended the University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., 1903). He was resident surgeon at Toowoomba Hospital, Queensland, for five months and assistant medical superintendent at the nearby Hospital for the Insane in 1903-05.

In 1906 he joined the surgeon (Sir) Neville Howse at Orange, New South Wales. On 12 September Watson married Muriel Palmerston Marks at St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, Sydney. When the partnership with Howse was dissolved in 1908, Watson took his family to Europe where he studied X-rays in 1909. Returning to Sydney, he maintained medical rooms in Macquarie Street for about two years, but made no serious attempt to establish a career in radiology.

Recognized as a knowledgeable collector of Australiana, Watson was appointed a trustee of the Public Library of New South Wales in October 1910. He served on the 1911 subcommittee investigating the library's internal administration and was honorary acting principal librarian in January-June 1912. Watson was recommended by the trustees as librarian, but F. M. Bladen's forced retirement had offended the Public Service Board and, after bitter wrangling, W. H. Ifould was appointed.

Meanwhile, Watson developed his flair for documentary research. His first major publication, The History of Sydney Hospital (1911), was commissioned and published within six months. It could not have been attempted without familiarity with Historical Records of New South Wales, edited by Bladen between 1892 and 1901, and James Bonwick's transcripts of official papers in London. While acting librarian, Watson had inherited the responsibility for supervising continuing work on the transcripts. In August 1912 he was formally appointed editor for the H.R.N.S.W. series that was expected to resume publication.

The Library Committee of the Commonwealth Parliament managed the project on behalf of the government (which had agreed to finance it in 1907). On Watson's recommendation the project was renamed Historical Records of Australia; its scope was enlarged to include all Australian colonies and the H.R.N.S.W. chronology was abandoned in favour of seven subject-based series. Watson surveyed government offices in Sydney and Hobart, discovering hundreds of early colonial records. He produced some of these in facsimile as The Beginnings of Government in Australia (1913). In 1914 the first volume of H.R.A. appeared.

His untutored prose attracted such criticism that George Arnold Wood, professor of history at the University of Sydney, was appointed literary consultant. Watson's style gradually improved, though Wood was never able to convince him of the need to provide evidence of his documents' location. Watson took advice in good part, but could not always afford to act upon it: scholarship took time and the library committee was in a hurry.

Despite several financial setbacks, Watson had a private income and would not commit himself to H.R.A. on a professional, salaried basis. He was not always sensible about money matters or tactful in dealing with colleagues. The need to re-negotiate short-term contracts with the library committee and the adherence to payment by volume tried everyone's patience. Watson's wish to serve abroad with the Australian Imperial Force was thwarted, but work on H.R.A. was suspended from mid-1917 until January 1919. The last contract was signed on 13 July 1922.

By the time Watson realized that the task was beyond one person, his relationship with the library committee was ruptured beyond repair, leading to well-publicized legal proceedings in 1925-26 (which he won) and to the collapse of H.R.A. Series I (governors' dispatches) had been virtually completed and two other series begun. Almost single-handed between 1914 and 1925 Watson had collated, edited and supervised through the press thirty-three volumes of documents covering the period from 1786 to 1848; despite their flaws, they effectively laid the foundations for the study of much of Australia's colonial history.

Like Bonwick and Bladen, Watson promoted the idea of government archive offices at State and national levels. By 1924 problems with the location and control of records in all States had become so severe that he contemplated suspending the publication programme and creating a Commonwealth archives. A similar idea was developed in a report on the future of H.R.A., compiled by Professor (Sir) Ernest Scott with some assistance from Wood. Watson refused to co-operate with the preparation of the report which was unkind to him.

Reputedly expecting to be appointed government archivist, in 1927 Watson moved to the Canberra district. There he bought Gungahleen where he lived until 1940. He was an elected member of the Federal Capital Commission in 1929; within six weeks he resigned, alleging maladministration and raising doubts about the commission's legality.

Watson shielded his family from the tumult that surrounded his professional and financial worries. He took special delight in the last of his children, James, whose death in 1940 at the age of 19 came as a severe blow. A sociable man, Watson enjoyed dinner parties and, in a short career as owner, had won the Victoria Racing Club's Cup Steeplechase with Pilot on 3 November 1908. A member of the Australian Club and the Royal Australian Historical Society, he was responsible for the first Canberra imprint when he published A Brief History of Canberra in 1927. Other works included a contentious monograph about James Cook's voyages (1933) and a stream of communications to the press on sundry topics. His unpublished manuscripts include an autobiography.

Survived by his wife and three daughters, Watson died of cancer on 22 January 1945 at Vaucluse, Sydney, and was buried in Rookwood cemetery; his estate was sworn for probate at £2574. His reputation had suffered from controversy not always of his own making.

Select Bibliography

  • J. F. Watson (compiler), Papers Relating to the Editing of the Historical Records of Australia (Syd, 1926)
  • Historical Studies, 20, no 79, Oct 1982
  • Australasian, 7 Nov 1908
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Aug 1926, 16 Apr 1927, 12 Mar, 6 May 1929, 24 Jan 1945
  • A. M. Mitchell, Dr Frederick Watson and Historical Records of Australia (paper delivered at the Australian National University, 1 May 1980, copy on ADB file)
  • Watson family papers (National Library of Australia)
  • G. A. Wood papers (University of Sydney Archives)
  • Historical Records of Australia correspondence (National Library of Australia and State Records New South Wales)
  • Commonwealth Parliamentary Library correspondence (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Ann M. Mitchell, 'Watson, James Frederick (Fred) (1878–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


27 June, 1878
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


22 January, 1945 (aged 66)
Vaucluse, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (not specified)

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