Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Henry Watson (1841–1934)

by Diane Langmore

This article was published:

James Henry Watson (1841-1934), businessman and historian, was born on 2 December 1841 at East Stonehouse, Devonshire, England, third son of Robert Watson, a clerk in the Royal William Victualling Yard, and his wife Agnes, née Thomson. Educated at the New Grammar School, Plymouth, James planned to follow his eldest brother into the navy, but, on the latter's death at sea, acquiesced in his mother's wishes and took a position in his uncle's furnishing warehouse at Newcastle upon Tyne. In 1861 Watson found employment with a London firm.

Offered a position with Buckley & Nunn, drapers in Melbourne, he arrived in the Yorkshire on 21 February 1864. When he had served out his contract, he partnered a shipmate on a small station on Quail Island, Western Port, before joining Farmer & Co. Ltd in Sydney. Watson returned to Victoria in 1868 and worked for several months at Ballarat and Clunes, then signed on a ship bound for Bombay where he entered the service of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway Co. Discharged with a serious foot injury (eventually cured by a Parsee doctor), he sailed for Liverpool.

After three months in England, Watson returned to Melbourne on Cup Day 1872 and became a draper at Geelong. On 24 March 1875 at South Yarra he married Emma Grundy with Congregational forms. In 1880 he moved to Sydney to become a department manager for David Jones Ltd. A founder (1889) of Beard, Watson & Co., carpet warehousemen, he retired from business in 1901 on the eve of its expansion into Beard, Watson Ltd, carpet warehousemen, upholsterers, cabinet-makers and general house furnishers. Having previously served with the British militia, the Royal Victorian Volunteer Artillery (Melbourne) and the Duke of Edinburgh's Highlanders (Sydney), in 1885 Watson had helped to form the Hunters Hill Corps, Reserve Corps of Infantry. In 1889 he was promoted captain, 1st Infantry Regiment, New South Wales; he resigned his command in 1892 and remained in the reserve of officers until 1902.

In retirement Watson indulged a passion for historical research. A pioneer in the study of Australian history, he was a member of the (Royal) Australian Historical Society from 1904 and president in 1909, 1926 and 1927. As honorary research secretary (1915-32), he answered a myriad of questions about local and family histories (including the vexed subject of convict ancestry), and indefatigably explored graveyards and cemeteries in search of genealogical information. He was made a fellow of the R.A.H.S. in 1916 and a life member in 1925. An authority on church and maritime history, and on early Sydney, he frequently contributed to periodicals such as the Scottish Australasian. He was a staunch Anglican and a member of synod for fifteen years.

Straight-backed, trim-bearded, keen-eyed and sprightly, Watson was a familiar figure in the city streets. Predeceased by his wife, he died at North Sydney on 11 February 1934 and was buried in Gore Hill cemetery. Two daughters and a son survived him. His estate was sworn for probate at £2709.

Select Bibliography

  • Scottish Australasian, Aug 1917
  • Oddfellow, 15 Dec 1924, 15 Feb 1934
  • Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 20, part 7, 1934, 73, part 4, 1988
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Feb 1926, 3 Dec 1929, 12, 13 Feb 1934
  • Watson papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'Watson, James Henry (1841–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 13 April 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]


2 December, 1841
East Stonehouse, Devon, England


11 February, 1934 (aged 92)
North Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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