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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sellar, James Zimri (1830–1906)

by Elizabeth Warburton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

James Zimri Sellar (1830-1906), tea merchant and politician, was born on 4 November 1830 at Vauxhall, London, second son of William Sellar, bootmaker, and his wife. They migrated to South Australia in 1849. Although Jewish, James joined Stow Memorial Congregational Church and always worshipped there. In 1851 he married Elizabeth Campbell (d.1864); three daughters survived infancy.

Energy and ambition marked Sellar's erratic career. Always ready to make speeches and take public office, he acted as spokesman for his workmates at the Kooringa copper-mine demanding shorter working hours. Among the first diggers at Bendigo, Victoria, he unearthed 250 ounces (7776 gm) of gold in a fortnight. With the proceeds he built Vauxhall House on a busy corner at Stepney, near Adelaide. It stood out as a two-storied grocery and corn-store with a ten-roomed dwelling and stylish verandah, set in an orchard and vineyard. Large stables accommodated his horses and spanking delivery carts. On 1 January 1866 at Vauxhall House he married Sarah Barnden; they had no children. That year Sellar met the common colonial fate of insolvency and, in 1867, a less common gaol sentence for attempting to deceive the official assignee; in July this conviction was quashed and he was discharged. His next venture, the Colonial Tea Co. in the city, was more prosperous.

Sellar became a senior major in the Volunteer Military Force. Voluble at public meetings on local government, he was elected to the first Stepney District Council. Socialist beliefs led him to found the Adelaide Reform Club, which became the Democratic Club in 1887; he was also a founder and vice-president of the Homestead League of South Australia. He preached a tax on unimproved land values, retention of state lands, protection, exclusion of Asian labour, the eight-hour day, a ministry of labour, factories and workshops legislation, and everything else on the evolving United Labor Party platform. He was secretary of the labour Herald Newspaper Co. In 1891 he won a seat on the Adelaide Municipal Council which he retained almost until his death.

Zimri Sellar was an old man before entering parliament; he had suffered twelve resounding defeats from 1881. His reformist views did not win a sufficient vote until 1905 when he won an Adelaide seat in the House of Assembly for Labor—but 'his fighting spirit had been consumed by the chilliness of closing years'. Nevertheless he substantially increased his vote at the election next year.

Although the Critic described him as a flagrant democrat, Hansard does not reveal a fiery stance. He deplored the adulteration of milk, coffee and wine; as a devoted smoker he opposed the 1905 cigarettes abolition bill; and as a drinker for 65 healthy years, he supported local option and Sunday trading. His approach was anecdotal and personal, his instincts rational. He had enjoyed the Sabbath since his youth, when he took his sweetheart boating on the Thames, and he scorned Sabbatarians.

This amiable family man, attentive to his neighbours and the poor, one who had at last achieved his highest ambition, nonetheless died in a condition of melancholia at his South Terrace home on 20 December 1906. He was buried in West Terrace cemetery and his estate was sworn for probate at only £116.

Select Bibliography

  • Daily Herald (Adelaide), Labor's Thirty Years Record in South Australia (1923)
  • Parliamentary Debates (South Australia), 20 Dec 1906
  • Quiz and the Lantern, 10 Apr 1891, 29 Jan 1892, 4 Feb 1897
  • Critic (Adelaide), 24 Jan 1906
  • Observer (Adelaide), 12, 26 Jan, 27 Apr, 15 June, 13 July 1867, 22 Dec 1906
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 10 July 1867.

Citation details

Elizabeth Warburton, 'Sellar, James Zimri (1830–1906)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 26 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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