Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Paul (Jim) Whelan (1864–1938)

by David Dunstan

This article was published:

James Paul (Jim) Whelan (1864-1938), wrecker, was born on 30 June 1864 at Stawell, Victoria, second son of eight children of James Whelan, miner, and his wife Mary, née Brett, both Irish born. His father died from phthisis in 1885, leaving the family destitute. Big and strong as a youngster, Jim went to Melbourne at the age of 19; by carting timber during the 1880s building boom, he saved enough money to buy his own horse and dray, and became a well-known figure around the wharves. On 17 March 1896 at St Joseph's Catholic Church, Collingwood, he married Elizabeth White, a barmaid and daughter of a coachman. In 1892 Whelan was given a start as a wrecking contractor by the builder David Mitchell who wanted to demolish some shops in Swanston Street and who offered the wrecked materials as sole payment. The experience enabled Whelan to survive the 1890s depression by buying and wrecking empty cottages in East Brunswick. Establishing premises there as a timber merchant, he was to become Melbourne's leading wrecker.

The London and American Supply Stores, the Leviathan Clothing Co. and Monahan's buildings in Swanston Street, the Yarra Bend asylum, McCracken's brewery, the old Melbourne Hospital, and all manner of mansions, cottages and skyscrapers fell to Whelan's hammers. His methods were crude but effective. Buildings were gutted with pick and hammer until only the walls remained: rather than being knocked down, these were pushed inward. Whittled away, brick by brick, by 'cats' on top, the rubble was removed by 'bulls' below, leaving a vacant site displaying a hoarding that read: 'Whelan the Wrecker Is Here'. This famous advertisement had prosaic origins as a site directive to delivery men; a change to the past tense supplied a familiar Melburnian dictum for Australian servicemen in both World Wars who posted it on areas of enemy devastation.

Eventually, Whelan was to wreck buildings for whose construction he had carted timber, and in one reversal of activity he painstakingly moved St James's Cathedral from William and Collins streets to its present site in King Street, Melbourne. Although he boasted that he had never received a claim from a member of the public, Whelan experienced many accidents himself. His arm and leg were broken in the collapse of a brick kiln; his head was struck by a brick dropped from six storeys; his last accident, a fall from four storeys, left him with a permanent limp and kept him off the top of buildings thereafter. It did not keep him from demolition sites where his lanky frame, complete with black bow-tie and billycock, could be seen sitting on a box as he directed activity.

Big, jovial, and tough, Whelan was a benevolent patriarch who provided members of his extended family with jobs and houses, and retained his workers throughout the 1930s Depression when there were few contracts. Barely able to read or write, he paid cash for everything and managed both men and finances in his major concerns. As a proprietary company with a capital of £20,000, the business passed wholly to his sons shortly before he died at Fitzroy on 2 March 1938. Survived by his wife, three sons and three daughters, he was buried in Melbourne general cemetery; his estate was sworn for probate at £19,759.

Select Bibliography

  • Herald (Melbourne), 21 June 1930, 16 Jan 1932, 2 Mar 1938, 31 Dec 1955
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 9 Jan 1932
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 19 Feb 1927
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 May 1963
  • Argus (Melbourne), 23 Jan 1937, 12 Feb 1938
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Dunstan, 'Whelan, James Paul (Jim) (1864–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 30 May 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]


30 June, 1864
Stawell, Victoria, Australia


2 March, 1938 (aged 73)
Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, 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.