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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Brown, James Drysdale (1850–1922)

by Kay Rollison

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

James Drysdale Brown (1850-1922), businessman and politician, was born on 21 April 1850 at York, England, son of John Brown, accountant, and his wife Jessie, née Gilmour, both of Scotland. They later moved to France where he was educated at Le Havre and Paris. In January 1862 the family arrived in Victoria, attracted by gold discoveries at Woods Point. From his years in this isolated settlement he developed a lifelong interest in mining, but also retained an almost exaggerated respect for European ways.

In 1866 Brown moved to Melbourne and worked for the Hobson's Bay Railway Co. as a clerk. At 23 he joined the Bank of Victoria, becoming an accountant at Inglewood and St Arnaud. In 1877 he transferred to the Colonial Bank, establishing and managing several suburban branches until 1888 when he contracted typhoid. Living then on savings and mining investments, he travelled first to New Zealand and the south Pacific and then to London to study law. He was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in 1893, practising only briefly in London, but making useful financial contacts before returning to Australia; he was admitted to the Victorian Bar in May 1894. But he had arrived in the worst of the depression; neither law nor banking offered many opportunities and so he turned to mining investment, just when British capital was bringing about a small boom in gold-mining. He became actively involved through his large shareholding in the Charlotte Plains gold-mine, acquired in 1889. This deep-lead mine at Moolort near Maryborough was water-logged, and Brown used capital he had attracted while in England to drain it, eventually with some success. He became an influential promoter of deep-lead mining in the area.

In 1904 Brown contested Nelson Province in the Legislative Council; it covered the central mining district where his interests lay. Avoiding overt party allegiance in his campaign, he appealed to the electorate in terms of State development, stressing his interest in mining; he described himself as 'liberal minded'. He was easily elected above two sitting members and retained the seat until his death.

In January 1909 Brown became attorney-general and solicitor-general in the John Murray ministry. Although politically moderate and limited in his legal experience, he was far more compatible with the members of the new government than most of the other councillors and was sympathetic to its land taxation and land resumption policies. He retained his portfolios in the first W. A. Watt ministry from May 1912 to December 1913. He then became minister of mines, forests and public health and vice-president of the Board of Land and Works in the second Watt ministry from December to June 1914, and again under Sir Alexander Peacock until November 1915. As a minister, he made no striking impact, working within the accepted convention that good government was essentially good administration. He was a shrewd, if dour, administrator, mostly concerned with rural development schemes such as promoting Australian timbers and prohibiting gold-dredging in rivers. He was elected chairman of committees on 10 August 1920.

Brown never married. A brother John Vigor Brown was a successful merchant and politician in New Zealand. Drysdale Brown, as he was known to his friends, lived comfortably in South Yarra, never becoming Australian in speech, manner or dress, retaining the habits of an educated English gentleman. He was, however, a follower of Charles Strong's Australian Church. For the last ten years of his life he suffered from arteriosclerosis, from which he died on 5 April 1922; he was buried in Boroondara cemetery. He left his estate, valued for probate at £10,337, to his nieces in Melbourne and New Zealand.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Council, Victoria), 1922, 7
  • Age (Melbourne), 24 May 1904, 8 Jan 1909
  • Punch (Melbourne), 4 Feb 1909
  • Argus (Melbourne), 8 Apr 1922.

Citation details

Kay Rollison, 'Brown, James Drysdale (1850–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 September 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 7

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