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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Dwyer, James Francis (1874–1952)

by Ken Stewart

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

James Francis Dwyer (1874-1952), author, was born on 22 April 1874 at Camden Park, New South Wales, fifth son of Michael Dwyer, farm labourer, and his wife Margaret, née Mahoney, both from Cork, Ireland. The family moved a few miles to Menangle in 1883 and next year to Campbelltown. James was educated in local public schools until, at 14, he was sent to relatives in Sydney, where he worked as a publisher's clerk. He became a letter-carrier at Rockdale in May 1892, and despite a brief meeting with Robert Louis Stevenson which turned his thoughts towards writing, he remained in suburban post offices, eventually becoming a postal assistant from 1895 at the Oxford Street branch. On 7 November 1893 he married Selina Cassandra Stewart, who bore him a son and a daughter.

In May 1899 Dwyer, with two associates, was convicted of forgery and uttering and received a seven years sentence. After serving nearly three years in Goulburn gaol, he was released in 1902. While he was in prison, one of his poems was sent to Jules Francois Archibald of the Bulletin, who published it; on the day of his release two short stories appeared. As 'J.F.D.', 'Burglar Bill', 'D' and 'Marat', he wrote verse and 'pars' for the Bulletin, and worked consecutively as salesman, pigeon-buyer and signwriter. He was befriended by a coterie of writers, including Victor Daley, Roderic Quinn and Albert Dorrington and turned to journalism, freelancing for Truth and Sydney Sportsman.

Throughout a long and eventually lucrative career, Dwyer believed that 'the Australian writer has no real chance in his own land'. Ignoring advice from Rudyard Kipling he sailed in 1906 to London, where he sold stories 'in insufficient quantities'. Next year he moved to New York, worked as a streetcar conductor and in other jobs, sold stories, and, after winning a contest, received a good commission to write for the Black Cat in Boston. Thereafter his stories, published in Harper's Bazaar, Collier's and other popular magazines, proved very profitable. The first of ten novels, mainly stories of mystery and adventure, period thrillers or romances, was The White Waterfall (New York, 1912). To gather material for his settings he travelled in America and Europe; he briefly revisited Australia (where one novel and several short stories are set) in 1913. In December 1919 he was divorced, and on 30 December married Catherine (Galbraith) Welch, his agent.

In 1921 they established the Dwyer Travel Letters to inform prospective American tourists about places in Europe. Dwyer settled at Pau, in the French Pyrenees, but his search for exotic settings and tourist information, and his wife's interests as a cultural historian, carried them through Europe, Asia and North Africa. Three of his later romantic novels, however, are influenced by Provençal traditions. When France fell in 1940 they escaped through Spain and lived at Dover, New Hampshire, United States of America, during World War II; they returned to Pau in September 1945 and Dwyer died there on 11 November 1952. In 1949 he had published his autobiography, Leg-Irons on Wings (Melbourne).

Described by Sir Frank Fox as 'a big sinewy fellow with the eagle look', and 'wildly generous, solidly faithful to his friends, aggressively indignant towards snobbery and pomposity', Dwyer could also be truculent and impetuous, and, he conceded, vain and obstinate and ill-tempered. Sensitivity about his imprisonment as a young man developed in him a determination to succeed and to achieve public recognition. Having abandoned Catholicism he adopted a faith which 'took in all forms of Christianity'. He believed, too, in extra-sensory perception, and claimed to have experienced prophetic visions. Throughout his expatriation he vigorously affirmed his Australian nationality.

Select Bibliography

  • Bookfellow, 1 Jan 1912
  • J. F. Dwyer letter, 6 Apr 1911, Ad 51 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Ken Stewart, 'Dwyer, James Francis (1874–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Burglar Bill
  • Marat

22 April 1874
Camden, New South Wales, Australia


11 November 1952
Pau, France

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence