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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Martin, James (1821–1899)

by J. B. Hirst

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

James Martin (1821-1899), manufacturer and politician, was born on 23 April 1821 in Foundry, Cornwall, England. His father, who died before his birth, had run the foundry which gave the village its name. Martin had little schooling but early developed his mechanical bent. He worked first for a millwright and then at the Tresavean mine, where he built a working model of a 'man engine' or lift for the engineer who pioneered the adoption of this device in Cornish mines.

Seeking relief from asthma, Martin migrated in the Belle Alliance and in July 1847 arrived in South Australia. After working in Adelaide for John Ridley and others, he moved to Gawler in June 1848 and set up as a blacksmith and wheelwright. He soon became a manufacturer, making bullock drays, agricultural implements and other ironwork; in the 1870s branches were opened at Gladstone and Quorn. In 1874-85 he had as a partner Frederick May whose engineering skill greatly expanded production of mining machinery. Martin added railway rolling-stock and in 1888, as the final seal of success, won a government contract for constructing forty-seven railway locomotives at a cost of £167,000; the first was delivered in April 1890 and by December 1894 he could celebrate the delivery of a hundred locomotives.

Martin was several times mayor of Gawler and a leading member and patron of most of the town's organizations. He was an Anglican but did not confine his financial support to his denomination. He represented Barossa in the House of Assembly in 1865-68 and North-Eastern Province in the Legislative Council in 1885-99. In 1865 he had supported Goyder's valuations of the pastoral runs and in 1885 a protective tariff, both popular causes, but by 1894 he had moved to the right. On the hustings he criticized the Labor Party and favoured the programme of the conservative National Defence League which endorsed his candidature. His greatest parliamentary achievement was to secure the construction of the Barossa reservoir which supplied Gawler with water from 1902. In 1903 a statue with the inscription 'A tribute to his public worth' was placed in the town's main street; it now stands in a park on the banks of the South Para River.

Martin had visited Britain in 1879 to gather information about modern machinery. His firm reached peak production with 700 men and works of 18 acres ( 7 ha) by 15 June 1898 when he celebrated the jubilee of his arrival in Gawler; despite rain the event was attended by some 1500 people. He died a widower on 27 December 1899 and was buried with much mourning in Willaston cemetery. He had been married three times: first, on 28 March 1848 at Trinity Church to Christiana Fox (d.1852) who bore him two children; second, on 6 March 1853 at Gawler to Ann Lock (d.1853); and third, on 2 August 1858 at North Adelaide to Charlotte Vickerstaff Brad(l)ey (d.1894). His estate of £27,000 included landed property which was left to his son John, a farmer; the business went to a nephew, John Felix Martin.

After 1900 demand for mining machinery lessened and government railway workshops took business away from Gawler. Agricultural expansion outside Gawler's hinterland widened the market for agricultural machinery and competition became keener. In 1907 Martin & Co. went into liquidation. The general engineering business was bought by Henry Dutton of Anlaby and the Gawler Implement Co. was formed to carry on the manufacture of agricultural machinery.

Select Bibliography

  • E. H. Coombe (ed), History of Gawler 1837 to 1908 (Adel, 1901)
  • M. Williams, ‘Gawler: the changing geography of a South Australian country town’, Australian Geographer, 9 (1964)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 6 Oct 1889
  • 30 Dec 1899
  • Register (Adelaide), 15 June 1898.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. B. Hirst, 'Martin, James (1821–1899)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 22 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

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