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Moffat, John (1841–1918)

by Ruth S. Kerr

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

John Moffat (1841-1918), mine owner and entrepreneur, was born on 26 May 1841 at Newmilns, Ayrshire, Scotland, son of James Moffat, starcher, and his wife Elizabeth, née Loudoun. Trained as a commercial clerk in Glasgow, he migrated to Queensland in 1862, became a shepherd on an outstation of Mount Abundance, and in 1864 began work in J. & G. Harris's Brisbane store. Ambitious for material success and independence, Moffat opened stores with Robert Love in Queen Street, Brisbane, South Brisbane (1866) and Stanthorpe (1872). He bought tin for the Brisbane smelters and gained some prominence on the Stanthorpe and New England tinfields, erecting the Tent Hill smelter. The result was a financial débâcle which culminated in the liquidation of Love & Moffat in 1876.

The discovery of the Great Northern tin-lode at Herberton in 1880 by Moffat's former employees John Newell and William Jack transformed his career. With the backing of Sydney merchants Caird, Maxwell & Co. and the skilled negotiations of James Forsyth, Moffat's Glen Smelting Co. secured a monopoly over mining and reduction works. Within five years John Moffat & Co., the North Queensland branch, had developed tin-lodes and reduction works at Herberton, Watsonville and Irvinebank. The Loudoun mill, with battery and smelter, began work at Irvinebank on 10 December 1884. Over the next twenty years it acquired forty head of stamps working three shifts a day within earshot of Moffat's modest timber house. During the boom on the British and southern capital markets Moffat sold the company's prime leases to repay the mortgages. The prospect of high returns after a relatively short wait and small initial outlays on prospecting drew him into the Montalbion silver and Glen Linedale (Oberlin Tin Co.) ventures from 1886. His substantial share in floating these companies on the British capital market enabled him to phase out the Glen Smelting Co. and in 1890 to form the Irvinebank Mining Co. That year on 1 March in Brisbane he married Margaret Linedale with New Jerusalem Church forms.

Moffat floated Montalbion and Muldiva silver-mining companies and Oberlin Tin Mining Co., eliminating his mortgages, but none paid dividends. The Vulcan tin-mine, opened in 1889 at Irvinebank, turned out a spectacular success. His initial control of almost 40 per cent of the capital of the Vulcan Tin Mining Co. rose to 75 per cent in 1906. The mine became the deepest in Australia and the mainstay of Irvinebank district tin-production for twenty years, and the company was the first on the North Queensland tinfields to pay a dividend. By 1919, when it closed, it had paid £117,000.

The Irvinebank Mining Co. survived the 1890s depression. A steady output from the Vulcan, Great Southern and Tornado mines at Irvinebank was augmented by supplies from Tate River, California Creek and Koorboora. From 1888 Moffat was quietly developing the rich surface copper deposits in the Chillagoe district. The Chillagoe Pty Co., promoted in 1897 to construct a railway, stimulated the North Queensland copper boom. However, fierce opposition by Labor politicians against the company's (unlawful) leases of 'public lands' and its proposed hydro-electrically powered smelters above the Barron Falls forced Chillagoe Railway & Mines Ltd (formed June 1898) to construct expensive, coal-fuelled smelters inland. When estimates of ore reserves decreased, Moffat withdrew from the board of directors in mid-1901 and forced a reconstruction of the financially crippled company with more reasonable provisions for small investors.

Entrusting several ventures to new partners, he invested heavily on the outskirts of his empire at Arbouin and O.K., north-west of Chillagoe, in Mount Mulligan coal mines (1907), wolfram at Wolfram Camp, Koorboora on Mount Carbine, as well as oil shale at Baffle Creek and coal leases near Lowmead in central Queensland. His interests also extended to the patenting and marketing of the Moffat-Virtue shearing machine, part-ownership of the Walsh and Tinaroo Miner at Mareeba, establishment of a sawmill at Ravenshoe and maize-growing at Atherton. Other, unrewarding, involvements and misjudgements, insufficient ore reserves and conflict with unionists contributed to his empire's decline.

A deeply religious man, a member of the New (Swedenborgian) Church, Moffat was quietly spoken, hospitable and a keen supporter of the Good Templar movement. Believing that his religion obliged him to serve his neighbours, he perceived as crucial his development of their material resources. His honesty was rare among mining entrepreneurs. When the Montalbion project was deemed unprofitable, he refunded £20,000 of the purchase price to the British company. In 1910 he offered to sell his Bailey's Creek land at the original price if a sugar mill was erected. Surrounded by relatives and tradesmen from Tent Hill days, many from the west of Scotland, his manner with workmen blended equality with authority. He neglected, however, to train a successor to the empire and was forced by the Queensland National Bank to retire to his Cremorne home in Sydney in 1912.

Moffat died from influenza at Toowoomba on 28 June 1918 and was buried with Presbyterian forms in Toowoomba cemetery. He was survived by his wife and two daughters. His estate was valued for probate at only £29,431. In 1919 the Queensland government took over the Loudoun mill as a State treatment works.

Select Bibliography

  • G. C. Bolton, A Thousand Miles Away (Brisb, 1963)
  • R. Kerr, John Moffat's Empire (Brisb, 1979)
  • John Moffat's letter books, 1882-92 (Cairns Historical Society and Royal Historical Society of Queensland).

Citation details

Ruth S. Kerr, 'Moffat, John (1841–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/moffat-john-7611/text13299, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 15 August 2018.

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

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