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Brett, James Fairlie (1884–1966)

by Margaret Steven

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

James Fairlie Brett (1884-1966), timber merchant and industrialist, was born on 19 May 1884 at Maryborough, Queensland, second of six children of English-born Horatio Alma Brett, auctioneer, and his wife Marion, née Fairlie, from Scotland. Following Horatio's death in 1895, the family lived with the Fairlies. Jimmie was educated at Maryborough State School and at 14 joined his uncle's local timber firm, James Fairlie & Co. Having learned the trade and been the company's travelling salesman, about 1905 he joined a log-dealer Abe Boldery in what was to be a thirty-year association. They cleared farmland at Kingaroy where settlement was spreading rapidly: bullock-teams hauling logs to the railhead turned the main street into a deep-rutted, red-dirt track. From 1908 the partners worked out of a small sawmill at Blackbutt, south of Nanango. 

For a brief time Brett also managed timber companies at Blackbutt before establishing his own business there in 1914. In the previous year he had bought Martello—a house with great verandahs overlooking the Brisbane River—where he installed the women of his close-knit family. He himself lived at Blackbutt where he was a councillor (1914-20) and chairman (1922-24) of Nanango shire. In 1918 he joined his brother Bertie and two others in B. C. Brett & Co. Operating from Windsor and supported by a Victorian government contract, this venture in 1921 became Brisbane Sawmills Pty Ltd. Two years later the complementary hardware business of Brett & Co. Pty Ltd was opened in Brisbane.

Short, lean, dark and dynamic, James began the pattern of constant travel, supervision, organization and negotiation that would hold together an expanding group of firms. When facilities in Brisbane became necessary, he acquired and reclaimed riverside land at Hamilton on which to build the wharf and vast warehouses that became a city landmark. Bretts' Wharves & Stevedoring Co. Ltd (incorporated in November 1928) handled general cargo, as well as huge quantities of timber for export.

As an enthusiastic promoter and deputy-chairman (1928-31) of the Primary Producers Bank of Australia Ltd, Brett made strenuous but unsuccessful efforts to solve its Depression-induced problems. He was credited with never having sacked any of his own employees during this period. Though he avoided political affiliations (and was known to have deliberately misdirected his donations to rival parties to emphasize his impartiality), Brett was outspoken about government responsibility for the economy—while predictably opposing state-run sawmills. After Premier Forgan Smith ultimately agreed to relinquish state mills at Imbil, Nanango and Yarraman, Brett formed the joint-venture Yarraman Pine Pty Ltd, of which he was founding chairman from 1932 until 1966. In 1934 Blackbutt and Yarraman's first agricultural show was held on fifteen acres (6 ha) donated by Brett and Boldery who gave the show society five cottages and provided another for the local branch of the Country Women's Association.

Keen to promote organisations for ensuring price stability and the regulation of marketing, from 1933 Brett was deputy-chairman of the Pine Exports Association. That year his Brisbane Sawmills began to manufacture plywood. Dubbed 'Mr Plywood' (rather inappropriately, considering his bluntness and fierce independence), he was a driving figure in founding both the State and the Australian Plywood Boards, and was the latter's first chairman (1939-65). As foundation chairman (1943-62) of the Queensland Sawmillers' Association, he presided over the meeting which resolved on the amalgamation to establish the Queensland Timber Board. On the opening of a new timber frontier in New Guinea, a Brett enterprise was established there in 1942, but it remained moribund during World War II. Headquarters in the three-storeyed Bretts Building in Brisbane, where the group's interests were centralized after 1947, were refurbished in the finest timbers, making it a showpiece for the industry.

Wharves and half a dozen new mills were acquired between 1944 and 1949, and a distributing agency was opened in Sydney. A pre-war millionaire, and one of Queensland's most influential industrialists, Brett was chairman of all companies in the family group, and director of wool, gold, oil and several cement companies. While recognizing a responsibility to live well, he remained largely indifferent to his personal comfort. Timber remained his first, and last, love. By no means averse to the company of women, he never married, and on occasion earnestly recommended this policy to others. Brett died on 31 March 1966 in Brisbane and was cremated with Presbyterian forms; his estate was sworn for probate at $1,578,503.

Select Bibliography

  • Industrial Australian and Mining Standard, 29 Mar 1928, p 319
  • Queensland Chamber of Manufactures, Yearbook, 1972, p 17
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 24 Aug 1967
  • private information.

Citation details

Margaret Steven, 'Brett, James Fairlie (1884–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/brett-james-fairlie-9576/text16873, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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