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Brigden, James Bristock (Jim) (1887–1950)

by Roland Wilson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

James Bristock (Jim) Brigden (1887-1950), economist, administrator and diplomat, was born on 20 July 1887 at Maldon, Victoria, son of James Bristock Brigden, bootmaker and later tram-conductor, and his Welsh wife Mary, née Griffiths. He received his early education in state schools, but left at 16 to ship as a cabin-boy on a brief adventure to England. On his return to Victoria he sought a career in political journalism, but had to eke out his freelance earnings in a variety of pursuits, including poultry-raising and operating an ice-run. He participated extensively in political movements, and was prominent in the early struggles to organize the Shop Assistants' Union.

Jim Brigden enlisted as a private in the Australian Imperial Force in October 1915, qualified as a musketry instructor, and by late 1916 was in France with the 29th Battalion. After being promoted acting corporal, he suffered severe wounds at Beaumetz, and was hospitalized in Oxford, England, for a protracted period from March 1917. There he had the good fortune to attract the care and interest of Mrs Edwin Cannan and, through her, of her husband the distinguished economist. Then followed the award of a Kitchener Memorial Scholarship to Oriel College, Oxford, enabling him to read jurisprudence (B.A., 1920; M.A., 1925) and to follow up his interest in economics under Cannan's unofficial tutoring. He married Dorothy James of London at Ide Hill, Kent, on 26 June 1920; they were childless. After his graduation he took posts as a tutorial class lecturer for the Workers' Educational Association first at Sheffield, England, and in 1921 at Queenstown, Tasmania. His pamphlet, The Economics of Lyell (Hobart, 1922), contains one of the earliest attempts to estimate the national income of Australia.

In January 1923 Brigden became the first Pitt Cobbett lecturer in employment relations at the University of Tasmania, where he came under the influence of L. F. Giblin. During this period he also served on the Queensland Economic Commission on the Basic Wage, which reported in February 1925, and published Employment Relations and the Basic Wage (Hobart, 1925). These works broke new ground by stressing the idea that wage policy should be guided mainly by the principle of 'capacity to pay'. In June 1924 he succeeded (Sir) Douglas Copland as professor of economics in the University of Tasmania. The following year Brigden and Giblin, as members of the committee appointed to inquire into Tasmanian disabilities under Federation, produced a report which was largely responsible for setting Commonwealth-State financial relations on a new course.

Brigden made his most important contribution to theoretical economics in 1927-29 when he served on the prime minister's committee which produced The Australian Tariff: An Economic Enquiry (Melbourne, 1929). 'Brigden and Giblin wrote that report … no one else had much of a hand in it', Professor Torleiv Hytten noted later, while Giblin himself recalled: 'I have a strong impression that Jim supplied the ideas which were the basis of the more significant parts'. Brigden's original challenge to the doctrine of free trade under Australian conditions had come to notice earlier in the first issue of the Economic Record.

By now he was becoming widely known in business and political circles; and with the threat of depression his advice was eagerly sought. In May 1929 Brigden was economist of the Oversea Shipping Representatives' Association, with the task of rationalizing and co-ordinating shipping movements to hold down freight rates in overseas trade. Next month he became economist and deputy chairman of a newly formed body, the Australian Oversea Transport Association. In early 1930 he was appointed first director of the Queensland Bureau of Economics and Statistics (soon the Bureau of Industry), a position he held for eight very productive years. Initially the bureau was concerned with economic research and public education, but it later also became the authority for large public works throughout the State. During 1932 Brigden was also a commissioner of the Queensland State Industrial Court and a member of the Commonwealth Wool Inquiry Committee. In 1935 he was formally made Queensland government statistician.

In these years Brigden believed it his duty to disseminate economic knowledge, a job to which he brought a sense of humour, 'In order that it may have a chance of competing in the din, this book shouts a bit itself', he wrote of the introductory volume of Economic News in 1932. With export prices plummeting, he based his thinking on a reversal of Giblin's famous 'multiplier', and had begun to publicize his findings with a series of radio talks, collected as Escape to Prosperity (Melbourne, 1930). He followed this with PP: On Purchasing Power and the Pound Australian (Brisbane, 1931) and Credit: What is; What is Proposed; What is Practicable (Brisbane, 1932). Railway Economics (Brisbane, 1931) and The Story of Sugar (Brisbane, 1932) were explanations of the working of industry. The first of his Queensland year-books appeared in 1937. As a Commonwealth consultant on development, he was also active in the conferences of economists which formulated the Premiers' Plan. But by 1932 he had personally abandoned the original recommendation to reduce government spending and was advocating reduction of wages and an increase in government spending, a position which led to long-term disagreement with some members of the Industrial Court.

In July 1938 Brigden welcomed an appointment as chairman of the National Insurance Commission, set up to introduce a national scheme of contributory health and pension insurance, somewhat along the lines of the English system. However, despite his enormous efforts to get satisfactory legislation passed, to build up an adequate organization, to defend the proposals against entrenched vested interests and to explain it to the public, the scheme foundered. After Munich the threat of war gave its critics the opportunity to claim that finance was not available simultaneously for war preparations and social reform. Brigden never quite recovered from the abandoning of this great project into which he had poured his very soul.

With other members of his ill-fated commission, he went in June 1939 to the new Department of Supply and Development, first as economist and a few months later as secretary. In August 1940 Brigden also became secretary of the newly formed Ministry of Munitions, assisting to get the great munitions drive under way at that critical time, and in July 1941 was appointed secretary of the Department of Aircraft Production. By the end of 1941 he was exhausted and was given relief by a posting as financial counsellor to the Australian Legation (later Embassy) to the United States of America, thus entering on what was probably the most rewarding phase of his varied career.

He spent the next five years in unobtrusive and self-effacing economic diplomacy — at the time when relations with the United States were not only sensitive but also critical for the defence of Australia, and the foundations were being laid for post-war political, social and economic reconstruction. Brigden won the confidence and support of the highest authorities in the American administration. In the international field he was able to use to advantage his skill and experience in negotiation, his gentle and urbane demeanour, and his patent integrity and good sense. His advice was widely sought and his views accorded a respect out of all proportion to the position he and his country occupied. Particularly notable was his work with reciprocal lend-lease; with the difficult birth of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (of which he was chairman of the committee of supplies); with the International Monetary Fund, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and with the Food and Agricultural Organization (of which he was chairman of the finance committee). At the same time he provided intellectual leadership to the contributions committee of the United Nations.

Brigden's career was characterized by intense vigour. In early life a 'battler', in young manhood a valiant soldier, he developed into an innovative economist, and served faithfully and well as an administrator. He reached his full flower, after tasting the bitter fruits of frustration and mental despair, as a highly regarded diplomat on the wartime and post-war world stage. A tallish man, whose sandy hair had sometimes earned him the nickname 'Blue' or 'Red', he found time to write occasional poetry and, with his wife, maintain an interest in the theatre. His most cherished personal honour was the honorary fellowship of Oriel College to which he was elected in 1941. He retired, ill, in November 1947 and, survived by his wife, died tranquilly on 12 October 1950 at Mitcham, Victoria, from what he lightly used to call his 'bloody old pressure'.

Select Bibliography

  • Economic News (Brisbane), Dec 1950
  • R. Wilson, ‘James Bristock Brigden: a tribute’, Economic Record, June 1951
  • N. Cain, ‘Political economy and the tariff: Australia in the 1920s’, Australian Economic Papers, June 1973
  • Brigden papers, M3730, series 49 (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Roland Wilson, 'Brigden, James Bristock (Jim) (1887–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/brigden-james-bristock-jim-5358/text9061, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 20 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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