Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Balfour, James (1830–1913)

by Graeme Davison

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

James Balfour (1830-1913), by unknown photographer, c1910

James Balfour (1830-1913), by unknown photographer, c1910

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H42054

James Balfour (1830-1913), merchant, churchman and politician, was born on 10 May 1830 in Edinburgh, the second son of John Balfour (1776-1859), a corn merchant of Leith, and his second wife Robina, née Gordon (1795-1879). He was sickly as a child and did not follow his brothers from Edinburgh Academy into a profession but entered the Edinburgh office of the City of Glasgow Assurance Co. as a protégé of his cousin, Robert Balfour. In 1848 he went to London to gather further business experience in the maritime insurance office of his half-brother, Buchanan Balfour. About this time, as a member of the Regent Square Presbyterian Church, he came under the favourable notice of Hugh Matheson who offered him a situation as Matheson & Co.'s representative in their corresponding house, the Melbourne mercantile firm of Hart, Henty & Co. On 7 August 1852 Balfour embarked for Victoria.

Aged 22, he was a model of the 'sound principles … steady habits, thoroughness … and capacity of adaptation' that he was to specify as the 'chief points' of the successful immigrant. He began his colonial career as a clerk on £200 a year with the expectation of a partnership which was duly offered and accepted by him in 1856. In 1855 he had been appointed James Henty's representative in Geelong where he busied himself in church and community affairs: he was a deacon and later elder of the Free Church, conducted the first of his young men's Bible classes and shared in negotiations to unify the Victorian Presbyterian Church; he was a president of the Chamber of Commerce, a magistrate and a lieutenant in the Volunteer Corps. In 1857 he went to Scotland. But he knew already that 'if spared, my future probably lies in Victoria' and next year returned to the colony. On 1 April 1859 he married Frances Charlotte, James Henty's eldest daughter.

With the closing of the Geelong establishment in 1863, Balfour returned to Melbourne where his activities were broadened in influence rather than altered in direction. Proposals for a Presbyterian Theological Hall which he presented to the assembly in 1862 were brought to a successful issue in 1866, largely through his own fund-raising efforts. As a member of the Board of Public Instruction in 1865-68 and as a witness before the royal commission on education of 1866 he strenuously advocated a system of non-sectarian biblical instruction in the publicly-provided schools. He succeeded James McCulloch as commander of the St Kilda Volunteer Artillery Corps but resigned when he entered the Legislative Assembly in 1866 as a member for East Bourke. He staunchly supported McCulloch and was a prominent spokesman for the Darling grant. In that year, however, he suffered an eye injury which proved so troublesome that in 1868 he took his family on an extended European tour. He returned late in 1869 with his sight much improved but, although he consented to act on the royal commission on charitable institutions in 1870, he did not again present himself to the electors until 1874, this time as a candidate for the Southern Province of the Legislative Council. In his successful campaign and during the constitutional crises of the later 1870s he kept company with most of his fellow merchants as a 'moderate constitutionalist'. He supported a reduction of the property qualification for the council but feared that payment of members would unduly curb their independence.

Signs of strain had already appeared in the firm in 1868 when James Henty bitterly opposed Balfour's journey to Europe. In 1878 a crisis was precipitated by Henty's impending retirement. His heir, Henry, determined that his power in the firm should be 'absolute' and, sensitive to the plight of his younger brother Herbert, whom the partners were shielding from his creditors, forced Balfour to withdraw his capital in the form of the company's station, Round Hill, north of Albury, and retire from the firm. Although Henry Henty at first proposed that he should turn to pastoral pursuits, Balfour insisted on his right to continue as a merchant. After a short visit to England to secure financial support he established James Balfour & Co. in 1879; his elder sons were later to assume the management of Round Hill.

The breaking of his connexion with the Hentys coincided with the beginnings of Balfour's closer association with three of his Bible-class protégés, John, Joseph and Matthew Davies. From the late 1870s they joined in various enterprises, extending from suburban land speculation to Queensland sugar plantations. In 1874 Balfour had become the first chairman of the Australian Deposit and Mortgage Co. which was managed by a fourth brother, G. S. Davies. In 1887 Balfour's mercantile firm was converted into a limited liability company with an authorized capital of £250,000 held in five shares by Balfour, his managing director E. C. Elliott, Joseph Davies, Matthew Davies and John Moodie. In 1889 he became a director of another Davies company, the ill-fated Freehold Investment and Banking Co. Balfour's business activities at this time display a characteristic accommodation of commercial and religious impulses: he employed his knowledge of the land market as convener of the Presbyterian Sales, Sites and Mortgages Committee and as a financial adviser to several speculating clergy; the profits of his own ventures were largely directed to the church, missions and private charity. His continuing interest in Christian journalism bore a similar aspect. As a boy he had floated a little 'joint-stock company' to finance a hand-written newspaper, 'The Watch Tower' which he circulated among the members of his church. In Victoria he had helped to establish the Banner in 1853 and the Southern Cross in 1874. In 1883 with a syndicate of Christian gentlemen he bought the Daily Telegraph which was to be edited by William Fitchett in accordance with sound morality and evangelical religion.

As a leader in Melbourne's commercial community Balfour was president of the Chamber of Commerce in 1885-86 and in 1887 was invited by Matthew Davies to join the royal commission on banking institutions. In parliament he was prominent in the activities of the so-called 'morality party', a small but vocal group of members organized in support of temperance, Sabbatarianism, nondenominational biblical instruction in schools and British annexation of the New Hebrides in missionary interests.

Deeply committed as he was to the ventures of the Davies, Balfour inevitably shared their financial humiliation. His partner, E. C. Elliott, who was heavily indebted to the Davies companies, became insolvent in 1892 and later that year Balfour had to answer to a hostile shareholders' meeting for his actions in connexion with the Freehold Investment and Banking Co. He claimed not to have been a director when large sums were lent to Balfour Elliott & Co. whose board closely interlocked with that of the Freehold Investment and Banking Co., and that he had been absent in Europe at the time of the most reckless operations. These claims were literally true, although Balfour's justification was more soundly based on his private questioning of the Davies actions than on his total ignorance of them. Of the directors he alone was able to respond to the liquidators' claims and his promise to pay £5000 over ten years certainly forestalled further action against him. Only the continued prosperity of Round Hill saved him from personal bankruptcy. Compelled to economize, he sold his splendid Toorak house, Tyalla, and moved to the less pretentious Windella; the Daily Telegraph was sold and Fitchett's plans to buy an evening newspaper lapsed.

Balfour painfully rebuilt his mercantile business although after 1900 he seems gradually to have withdrawn from its direction. He remained a director of insurance and trustee companies and was a dutiful member of the Legislative Council where, by seniority and temperament, he was better suited to mediation than leadership; he was a minister without portfolio under Gillies in 1890 and McLean in 1899. He spent his energies and resources unstintingly in the referendum campaigns on biblical instruction in state schools in 1908 and made characteristic excursions into the federal sphere with his insistence on prayers at the opening of the Commonwealth parliament and his private representations to Alfred Deakin on behalf of Presbyterian missionaries during the prolonged New Hebrides crisis. He was a sponsor of the Chapman-Alexander missions in 1909 and 1912 and maintained a paternal interest in a band of Christian young men, 'Balfour's Boys', until his death from pneumonia on 24 August 1913. His wife, five of his six sons and four of his five daughters survived him. His estate was valued for probate at £24,483.

Balfour's Christianity, muscular and evangelical, was the idiom of his personal intercourse and the maxim of his actions both in business, where his native diligence and method were sometimes only scant defence against his importunate co-religionists, and in politics, where the general recognition of his abilities could not tempt him from the single pursuit of moral and religious issues which, though they moved ever closer to the boundaries of legislative competence, seemed most directly to challenge his guiding conviction that 'the practice of religion is a work of every day'.

His portrait by Muntz Adams in 1908 is in Ormond College, University of Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Harper, The Honourable James Balfour M.L.C: A Memoir (Melb, 1918)
  • Balfour papers (privately held).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Graeme Davison, 'Balfour, James (1830–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/balfour-james-55/text4227, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 23 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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