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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Paterson, James (1826–1906)

by G. R. Henning

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

James Paterson (1826-1906), shipowner and coal merchant, was born on 17 July 1826 at Middlethird Farm, Galston, Ayrshire, Scotland, eldest son of Robert Paterson, farmer, and his wife Agnes, née Howie. Educated locally, he won the Highland Agricultural Society of Scotland prize for agricultural chemistry in 1845. He remained on the farm until he sailed from Liverpool in June 1852, arriving at Melbourne in October.

For five months Paterson was a successful gold-digger at Forest Creek, near Castlemaine, and then spent a lucrative year as a teamster, operating between Melbourne and Ballarat. Illness forced him to quit and on returning to Melbourne he established a coal-importing business in partnership with Edward Newbigin. James Paterson & Co. soon acquired a fleet of small sailing ships and continued with them even after the first steamer was bought in 1875. In the 1870s the firm became the largest coal importer in Melbourne and diversified into the bay towage business after buying two iron paddle steam tugs, an investment that remained important for the life of the company. Although Paterson was seen as a brusque martinet he was also considered to be fair and a shrewd businessman of undoubted probity.

Paterson's civic life was varied. He was elected to the Melbourne City Council and represented Lonsdale Ward from 1870 until 1885. He was mayor in 1876-77, and also worked hard to have the Eastern Market rebuilt; it was reopened in 1880. His influence was present again in maritime matters as a member of the Victorian Shipowners' Association from its inception in the mid-1860s and chairman in 1875. In addition he represented the shipowners at the inaugural meeting of the Melbourne Harbor Trust in April 1877. Moreover he was closely involved with the development of the port while a commissioner of the trust in 1877-79. He was also a member of the Marine Board of Victoria for some time. Other public offices included the royal commissions on low-lying lands in 1873, and the Paris Exhibition in 1878.

An active churchman, Paterson materially assisted in establishing the West Melbourne Presbyterian Church and was associated, especially in his later years, with Scots Church and the Hawthorn Presbyterian Church. He was always generous in his gifts not only to the church and its agencies but also to many other charitable and philanthropic institutions. His main sporting interest was horse-racing and for some time he served on the committee of the Victoria Racing Club. He was an owner-breeder of several fine thoroughbreds, the best known being Hymettus, and the successes of his stable included the Oaks, the Adelaide St Leger and two Caulfield Cups.

Paterson died on 6 November 1906, survived by his wife Mary Jane, née Forbes; they had no children. The nearest kin were nieces and nephews, of whom Henry Masterton was Paterson's chosen successor to control the business. His estate was valued for probate at about £300,000.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Humphreys (ed), Men of the Time in Australia: Victorian series, 2nd ed (Melb, 1882)
  • F. Doherty, The Paterson Story (Melb, 1958)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 10, 29 Nov 1906
  • Age (Melbourne), 12 Nov 1906.

Citation details

G. R. Henning, 'Paterson, James (1826–1906)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 10 August 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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