Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

James Thomas Watson (1872–1938)

by Peter Bell

This article was published:

James Thomas Watson (1872-1938), mining engineer, was born on 24 July 1872 at Ballarat, Victoria, eldest of five sons of Scottish-born parents William Watson (d.1881), engineer, and his wife Johanna, née Holland. James began working in mines about 1885, and took a course in coal-mining and mine surveying at the Newcastle branch of Sydney Technical College. He earned his colliery manager's certificate in 1898, managed the Stockton and Gunnedah collieries for two years, and taught coal-mining and mining surveying at Newcastle Technical College from May 1901. On 3 November 1898 at North Lambton he had married with Particular Baptist forms Elizabeth Pickering, an English-born waitress. They had six children.

Appointed government inspector of collieries at Wollongong in August 1902, Watson zealously prosecuted managers who breached regulations. After the Mount Kembla mine explosion of 1902, when ninety-six miners died, he played a large part in the enquiry in which the manager William Rogers became a scapegoat for the disaster; Watson also chaired a panel that drew up stringent new safety regulations.

In 1907 he became manager of the Paparoa colliery, New Zealand, and in 1910 of the Corrimal colliery, Wollongong, New South Wales. A 'man of considerable note in the coal world' by 1912, Watson was retained by the Chillagoe Co. Ltd to report on their coal prospects at Mount Mulligan in North Queensland. Appointed superintending engineer of the new mine when it opened in 1914, he installed the latest mining plant. On 19 September 1921 an underground explosion killed seventy-six miners; it was the third-worst industrial disaster in Australian history. Watson bravely led the rescue efforts until he collapsed.

Defending himself before the subsequent royal commission, Watson claimed that he was superintending engineer—a title unknown in Queensland mining law—and had not been involved in the management of the mine. The underground manager and his deputies were all dead; the commissioners found that these men had all tolerated gross breaches of safety regulations, but rejected Watson's evidence and placed the responsibility for the disaster squarely on him. The irony increased when in 1922 the Royal Humane Society of Australasia presented him with its (Sir William John) Clarke silver medal, for his courage in the disaster aftermath. Watson left Mount Mulligan early in 1923 and never worked in the mining industry again. He wrote several articles over the next few years seeking to blame others for the disaster. After working as manager of the Inkerman Irrigation Area, Queensland, from about 1927 to 1932, he became a consulting engineer in Brisbane, at one time working for the Queensland Department of Main Roads. He retired in 1937.

There is little doubt that Watson was unfairly treated by the royal commission, which was a cynical political exercise, dominated by friends of the premier E. G. Theodore. The commission conspicuously avoided comment on the failings of Chillagoe Ltd and the Queensland Mines Department. At the time, the government was secretly negotiating to purchase the Mungana mines near Chillagoe—a fraudulent transaction that would end Theodore's political career. The hasty Mount Mulligan enquiry was preoccupied with averting bad publicity, and neither satisfactorily explained the cause of the disaster nor convincingly established Watson's culpability.

A big impressive man, grim-faced in later years, Watson was a founding member of the Institution of Engineers Australia, and remained active in his profession until he died of cancer on 19 January 1938 at Coopers Plains, Queensland. His wife, four daughters and one son survived him. He was cremated with Presbyterian forms.

Select Bibliography

  • Mount Mulligan Colliery Disaster (Brisb, 1922)
  • P. Bell, ‘If Anything, Too Safe’ (Townsville, Qld, 1996)
  • S. Piggin and H. Lee, The Mt Kembla Disaster (Syd, 1992)
  • Journal of the Institution of Engineers Australia, 11, Dec 1939, p 440
  • Cairns Post, 25 Sept 1912
  • A1007/1, item 1905/48 (National Archives of Australia)
  • information from the Royal Humane Society of Australasia, Melbourne
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Bell, 'Watson, James Thomas (1872–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 17 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


24 July, 1872
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia


19 January, 1938 (aged 65)
Coopers Plains, Queensland, Australia

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.