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Gibson, James Alexander (1814–1860)

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

James Alexander Gibson (1814-1860), company agent, was born on 16 June 1814, the eldest son of five children of James Alexander Gibson and his wife Catherine, née Knox. His father (1772-1841) had joined the army in 1795, married on 15 January 1811, and by 1816 was a brevet major on half-pay. In 1830 he sold his commission and from Kilrea, County Londonderry, Ireland, applied to the Colonial Office for a land grant in Van Diemen's Land. Sickness delayed his departure and in December 1832, when he arrived in Hobart Town with his family in the Edward Lambe, he found himself debarred from a grant by the Ripon regulations. He bought 2000 acres (809 ha), which he called Kilderry, and was appointed a magistrate at New Norfolk. After continuous quarrels with his fellow magistrates and with his family, he stamped out of his homestead on 28 February 1841 in 'temporary nervous excitement'. His body was found a month later and the inquest attributed his death to a visitation of God.

In 1839 J. A. Gibson junior found that Kilderry was to be left to a younger brother. He returned to Britain and in February 1841 the directors of the Van Diemen's Land Co. appointed him their chief agent because of his practical experience in Tasmania and his college education. He sailed in the Emu and arrived at Circular Head in December 1841. The colony was in depression and two months later when he took over the management from Edward Curr he had strict orders to economize. With no clerical aid, he directed the scattered superintendents with meticulous detail, following the directors' view of the company as a great land proprietor, its income derived from woolgrowing and sales of stock to its farming tenants. This vision made retrenchment difficult and, as markets collapsed, Gibson was unable to reduce the costs of his many establishments. He decided to risk unpopularity in London by further calls on shareholders, and quietly set out to convert his directors to a real-estate view of the company.

Gibson's new plan began with a visit to Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin in Hobart where he arranged for a survey of the company's land to be completed and for 300 convicts in three probation gangs, two to be paid by the government, to build roads connecting the company's scattered properties with the settled districts. He also sought the proclamation of a port, to be called Stanley, at Circular Head, and had it and another town site, Burnie at Emu Bay, surveyed. By 1850, from the sale of town lots, he had spent some £3000 on churches and schools, and on near-by land had established sixty farming tenants, their children and dependants numbering more than 800. Elsewhere other tenants were set up with promises that their produce would be bought by the company at fixed prices for seven years.

In London his dispatches conflicted with complaints from superintendents that the company's pastoral projects were sadly neglected, but in 1850, after many changes on the board, the directors hesitatingly adopted Gibson's policy. He was ordered to discharge all the company's indentured servants, to break up the pastoral establishments, and to concentrate on letting and selling land and remitting payments to London. Advertisements in Australian newspapers brought increased applications for farming tenancies, but in May 1851 the directors resolved to end their contract with Gibson. The next mail brought large claims from Gibson for back pay, so they decided to extend his engagement and to appoint James Henty and Ronald Gunn as his local advisers. On 28 November the sale of the company's entire land, stock and plant was advertised in the Tasmanian press, but by that time interest had been diverted to the Victorian gold-fields. Gibson succeeded in leasing some of the larger properties cheaply to pastoralists and on his own account, but in the name of his brother William, bought the company's richest 300 acres (121 ha) at Burnie and several other choice sites.

In 1854 Gibson sailed with his wife and children in the Marlborough for England. Because of the sales of stock, the company had been able to pay its first dividend under Gibson's management and, after discussions with the directors, all his claims were accepted and he was reappointed chief agent for five years at an increased salary. He returned to Tasmania in the Royal Charter in May 1856, made his headquarters at Launceston and was elected a member of the Legislative Assembly. The delays in leasing and selling the company's land displeased the directors, and in October 1858 Sir Edward Poore was sent out on a mission of inquiry. A year later Gibson was replaced by Charles Nichols, who was then an agent for Dalgety & Co. of London.

Gibson returned with his family to England, and settled at Bristol, where he died on 25 May 1860. He was survived by several children and by his widow Rosetta, to whom he left an estate of £7000. Before his death, the title of his 300-acre (121 ha) farm at Emu Bay had been challenged by the company's directors. When no satisfactory explanation was given they took his brother William to court in 1863. The company lost the case as no collusion or malpractice could be proved.

Select Bibliography

  • Van Diemen's Land Co, letter books, minutes and papers (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • CSO 5/171/4062, 8/107/2244 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • CO 201/237.

Citation details

'Gibson, James Alexander (1814–1860)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/gibson-james-alexander-2092/text2631, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 24 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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