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James Whyte (1820–1882)

by Neil Smith

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James Whyte (1820-1882), pastoralist, politician and civil servant, was born on 30 March 1820 near Greenlaw, Edinburgh, son of George Whyte (d.1836), captain in the Yeomanry, and his wife Jessie, née Walker. In the early to mid 1830s the family arrived in Van Diemen's Land and settled at Kelvin Grove, Cross Marsh. In 1837-52 Whyte was in Victoria and with his brothers was a pioneer of Coleraine. Later he became a partner in a large property at Clunes on which gold was discovered. He returned to Tasmania enriched by gold royalties.

In Hobart Town Whyte failed to win the seat of Brighton in 1854 but in 1856 was elected to the Legislative Council for Pembroke. He served on a number of parliamentary committees and in 1857 became a member without portfolio of the short-lived T. G. Gregson ministry. On 20 January 1863 he became premier. His government was noted for its road and bridge-building, authorizing the formation of a company to construct and operate a railway from Launceston to Deloraine, reforms in the public service and courage in pursuing unpopular financial policies. It fell in November 1866 when his fiscal proposals, which included a property and income tax, were thrown out. Despite his failure to solve the financial difficulties of the colony, Whyte's term as premier had been the longest since self-government. He was chairman of committees in 1868-75. Tall and with a large black beard, he has been described as 'a public man, possessing a strong reformist urge rather than an ambitious politician or careerist'.

Whyte contributed notably to the welfare of the colony with his work for the eradication of scab in sheep. Drawing heavily on his Victorian experience, he gave evidence in 1869 before a select committee; against much opposition he helped to frame and introduce a bill to enforce preventive measures. Chief inspector of sheep in 1870-82, he clung to the position despite the 1870 Act precluding holders of offices of profit under the Crown from election to either House. In 1876 he retired from parliament. In 1880 he reported that scab was 'extinct amongst Tasmanian sheep'.

Whyte represented Tasmania at a conference of inspectors of stock in Sydney in 1874, and another in 1877, to consider improving telegraphic communications with England. He was appointed a magistrate in 1857, a member of the Tasmanian Council of Education in 1870 and of the Board of Education in 1876; he was also a fellow of the Royal Society of Tasmania. An active Presbyterian, he was a trustee of Church property and a generous benefactor of the Church and charities. He was one of the original proprietors of the Tasmanian Daily News.

Whyte married three times: first on 3 January 1852 to Sarah, only daughter of Thomas Wilkinson of Bothwell, who died in childbirth in November; second in May 1857 to Elizabeth (d.1865), eldest daughter of T. G. Gregson, and third on 25 June 1868 to Elizabeth, daughter of Dr John Coverdale of New Town. Aged 62, he died in his home in Runnymede Street, Hobart, on 20 August 1882, survived by his only son James Wilkinson. His estate was sworn for probate at £386. A river on the western Tasmanian coast commemorates him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Fenton, A History of Tasmania (Hob, 1884)
  • Cyclopedia of Tasmania, vol 1 (Hob, 1900)
  • F. C. Green (ed), A Century of Responsible Government 1856-1956 (Hob, 1956)
  • Votes and Proceedings (House of Assembly, Tasmania), 1869 (96), 1870 (31, 43), 1875 (25), 1877 (26, 28), 1880 (106), 1882 (81)
  • Examiner (Launceston), 5 Aug 1856
  • Mercury (Hobart), 8 Sept 1866, 27 Mar 1876, 22 Aug 1882
  • correspondence file under James Whyte (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

Neil Smith, 'Whyte, James (1820–1882)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 23 June 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

Life Summary [details]


30 March, 1820
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


20 August, 1882 (aged 62)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

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