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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James, Charles Henry (1848–1898)

by E. A. Beever

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Charles Henry James (1848-1898), businessman and land speculator, was born on 7 December 1848 at Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland, son of James James, farmer, and his wife Catherine, née Shiels. He arrived in Victoria probably in 1867. He reputedly began business as a grocer in North Melbourne and at some stage lived in South Australia. About the end of the 1870s, in partnership with his brother-in-law Percy Dobson, James began to buy, subdivide and sell Melbourne suburban real estate. He was widely acknowledged to have been Melbourne's first 'land boomer', and while the boom lasted was one of the most successful. Many of James's real estate techniques were adopted by his solicitor, (Sir) Matthew Davies. By 1887 he could claim to have already sold £3,000,000 worth of land, chiefly in the northern and north-eastern suburbs and at the height of his fortunes in the late 1880s was believed to be a millionaire. He then operated a string of companies, including the Dominion Banking and Investment Corporation floated in 1888, owned extensive tracts of agricultural land in Victoria and held pastoral properties in New South Wales. By that time also he lived in a flamboyant world of his own creation: Illawarra, his 'French Renaissance' mansion in Toorak and the Empire Buildings, his 'Domestic Tudor' office block in Collins Street.

In 1887 James entered the Legislative Council for Southern Province, in which his farm holdings and most of his subdivisional activities were located, but even his staunch supporter, the Argus, admitted that he could 'scarcely aspire to the character today of a well-informed politician of mature opinion', though he was 'in sympathy with the settled interests of the community'. In his three years in the council he spoke seldom and then mostly on issues of personal interest such as the development of northern suburbs.

James's fortunes plummeted in the depression of the 1890s. Already by 1890 he had earned much notoriety from the bankruptcy proceedings of his ex-clerk Harold Sparks and the financial convolutions of the Dominion Bank. In July he was replaced as president of the Whittlesea Agricultural Society by an overwhelming vote of its members. He did not seek re-election to the Legislative Council when his term expired in September. He managed to stave off his financial collapse longer than most of his fellow-speculators: his Dominion Bank did not liquidate until the end of 1895; he himself survived until declared bankrupt in May 1897. Weakened on all sides by deflated land, shares and building values, repeated bank failures, bad debts and drought, he could repay only 6¾d. in the £ on his debts of £851,842. During the bankruptcy proceedings James retired to Sydney and after a severe illness died at Burwood on 2 October 1898. He was survived by his wife Harriette Hardy, née Dobson, whom he had married about 1873 in Melbourne, and by five daughters and a son. He was buried with Presbyterian rites at Boroondara cemetery, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne), 1887, 3 Oct 1898
  • Argus (Melbourne), 1887, 3 Oct 1898
  • Table Talk, 1889-90
  • insolvency papers (Public Record Office Victoria).

Citation details

E. A. Beever, 'James, Charles Henry (1848–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 20 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

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