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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Levey, James Alfred (1846–1944)

by Laurie O'Brien

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

James Alfred Levey (1846-1944), public servant and philanthropist, was born on 30 December 1846 at Camberwell, Surrey, England, youngest of four sons of George Levey, printer, and his wife Anne, née Richards. The brothers, after completing their education in London, settled in Victoria between 1851 and 1863. Soon after his arrival in Melbourne, aged 16, James joined the Crown Lands Department as field clerk and draftsman; the surveyor-general C. W. Ligar was his brother G. C. Levey's father-in-law.

As the land Acts brought the department an ever increasing volume and complexity of work, Levey gained considerable administrative experience. He became secretary to the Land Warrant Board and to the board of examiners for the Survey Department (1870), and private secretary to J. J. Casey during an inquiry into fraud on the part of a colleague (1874); he was a crucial witness before the Victorian Crown Lands Commission in 1878. That year he was a victim of the 'Black Wednesday' dismissals, though reinstated within ten weeks.

In 1887 Levey moved to the Chief Secretary's Department. As chief inspector of factories (1887-93) he condemned the regulations for factory sanitation as 'circumlocutionary' and urged amendments to the 1885 Factories and Shops Act to extend and rationalize the regulation of labour. In a report to parliament on the 'sweating system' in the clothing trade (1890) he recommended legal control of outwork to curb exploitation, especially of women; he noted also, at the 1890 Australasian Conference on Charity, the 'very large percentage' of outworkers living on charity. Yet he later claimed that regulation was scarcely feasible unless it were possible 'to alter human nature and make us all more charitable'.

In 1893 Levey was promoted to head the Police Department as chief clerk, an office never popular with the uniformed police. Within three years, at 49, he retired on health grounds with a reluctantly granted life pension at half salary.

Levey's marriage on 21 August 1882 at St Peter's Church, Melbourne, to Sarah Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Grice, had allied him with a wealthy and influential family. In 1886 he joined the Melbourne Club and in 1888 was a foundation member of the Charity Organisation Society. Throughout his long retirement his public life centred on the administration of philanthropic bodies. President of the C.O.S. in 1902-23 and an executive member until 1944, he also served on the committee of management of the Austin Hospital for Incurables (later Chronic Diseases) in 1898-1932 and on the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital committee in 1907-44 (president, 1931-35). In 1904 he succeeded E. E. Morris on the Felton Bequests Committee which allocated money to charities and for the purchase of art works for the National Gallery of Victoria. During his forty years on the committee and chairmanship in 1931-44, both the Melbourne Hospital and the C.O.S. benefited substantially from the bequest. Though disclaiming any authority on art, Levey offered cautious opinions; he supported the purchase of Corot's 'The Bent Tree' in 1907 ('lovely famous') but disparaged Whistler's lithographs and Blake's drawings ('most quaint').

With his wife and two daughters Levey lived in a large house at South Yarra. They entertained extensively and made three protracted trips to Europe before World War I. After his wife's death in 1923 Levey moved into the Melbourne Club. A well-known figure in the city, immaculate in spats, gloves and bowler hat, in his nineties he would outpace the young up Collins Street hill. He regularly attended St Paul's Cathedral and enjoyed bridge and the theatre. A grandson has described him as 'the smartest old man I can remember'. He was nearly 98 when he died at East Melbourne on 11 December 1944; he was cremated. His surviving daughter was the main beneficiary of his estate, valued for probate at £16,912.

Select Bibliography

  • Charity Organisation Society, Melbourne, Proceedings of the 1st Australasian Conference on Charity (Melb, 1890)
  • L. B. Cox, The National Gallery of Victoria, 1861 to 1968 (Melb, 1970)
  • Hospital Magazine, Jan 1945
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 5 Sept 1912
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 Dec 1944
  • Royal Melbourne Hospital Archives
  • Citizens Welfare Service, Melbourne, Archives
  • Grice papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Laurie O'Brien, 'Levey, James Alfred (1846–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 30 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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