Portrait of Sir James Dickson
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Telegraph, Thursday 10 January 1901, page 4

Late Sir James Dickson.

This community has suffered a shock, and received cause for sincere and deep regret, in the death of Sir James R. Dickson. Our messages yesterday indicated a state of things which forbade the most sanguine to hope for his recovery. Two days ago all hope was given up, if we except that what really is a despairing feeling sometimes called hoping against hope. The last result was one of the usual endings to the kind of affliction from which the deceased had suffered for many years, and against which he bore up with so cheerful a countenance that many persons never knew him to be a sufferer. It is in Queensland's unwritten history that amongst the posts of service and honour which he would have held, save for his affliction, was that of Speaker of the Assembly. On another page we supply a late photograph and a lengthy letterpress sketch of deceased's long personal and public career. Many useful items could be added thereto, hut it will suffice to give strangers a fair idea of the man and his life.

In this place we add a few notes concerning his character. We have taken the precaution to obtain from several well-known public men, short expressions of their feelings and thoughts, and these may be referred to by way of further evidence in support of our own observations. One of the most prominent features of Sir James's character is suggested and expressed by the word diligence. He was capable of doing hard work; and he appeared not to have a single lazy bone. As a man of business, and as a Minister of the Crown, he always gave one the impression of doing everything in real earnest; and therefore, he was a man capable of getting through a considerable amount of business. In his public official life he always was equally courteous. This office sometimes had little encounters with him to obtain official information. His official reticence restrained him from doing what he knew would oblige; and it was rarely that he could he prevailed upon to give way. It was with him, when he was Treasurer, that we had a struggle to obtain Treasury monthly balance-sheets for publication. With many misgivings, he gave us the first that was published, stipulating for its return because it was a public document.

The question of his ability as a Minister of the Crown, calls for a very long series of observations if it were necessary to give them; but this may be said, that he served this country in several high capacities, and his life ended when he was fulfilling the office of Chief Secretary and Vice-president of the Executive Council. The first great public event in the carrying out of which he took a part was the ten million loan affair. It is a way which enemies of the old Liberal party have, to speak of that affair as if it were an astound-ing enormity. The thing that happened was this. By the 1883 Griffith Ministry, Parliament was asked to pass a scheme for the expenditure of ten millions of money. It was not a loan at ail; it was a proposed scheme for the expenditure of that amount of money. The money itself was borrowed in various amounts from time to time as it was required. On a glance at the history of our loan business it may be seen that the money was not borrowed very much, if any, faster than money was afterwards borrowed by the Mcllwraith Government. The circumstance was, and it always has remained, a sort of political bugbear; for it was pleaded that consciousness of having power to borrow so much money made the Government too independent of Parliament. No such disaster ensued, and no consequences followed the ten million loan different from those which have followed the taking up of other loans.

The next great circumstance in deceased's political career was the new Land Act. He was not its author but being in the Ministry he championed the great cause with excessive zeal. Perhaps it was because he was Treasurer that he was so zealous, for he thought he saw fabulous amounts of revenue. From new appraisements of pastoral leases he hoped to receive a revenue equal to the proceeds of land sales under the old statutes; and for grazing farms he expected an annual amount not yet quite equalled, we believe, by the totals received from that particular source up to date. But nothing was left undone by him or by his colleagues faithfully to administer the statutes. Passing over the ordinary run of his public duties, we may note that the late Sir James Dickson, about two years ago, resolved to go over to the side of federationists. At a conference of Premiers held in Melbourne he promised to do this thing. Thereupon, when he had returned to Queensland, he gave himself to the advocacy of federation, with results well known in our recent history.

On Sir James's career as a colleague, opinions may seriously differ. For years he was a stanch [sic] member of what is known as the old Liberal party. The split came over a proposal to impose a land tax to obtain additional revenue. The Premier at the time, Sir Samuel Griffith, felt and said that he must have another source of revenue. It was thought that more money must be spent on defence. At that time private auction land sales had disposed of and distributed large quantities of land, most of which had been bought on deferred payment systems. A land tax would have caused immense havoc. It was opposed in the Cabinet. In the result the Treasurer resigned and went out. His constituency returned him again without much regard to. the cause of his resignation, returning him on his personal character. It is a little curious that his opponent at that election was Mr. Drake, one of his colleagues in the present Ministry. Afterwards, also, instead of trying to keep together the remnants of the old party, ho joined with men who had belonged to what used to be called the old squatting party. But all his changes of form were sufficiently like changes made by other men, so that all of them are in the same category of praise or blame, whichever it may be. Of late years circumstances not to be controlled have thrown together as one party nearly all the men who formed parties in olden time. The new Parliament is formed by labour members.

In his strictly personal character Sir James was a man of very cheerful disposition when business did not too fully absorb his attention. He was one of our most hospitable citizens. His kindly disposition did not always lead him to indulge in small charities, a thing of which, sometimes, far too much is thought; but no large charity, coming within the sphere of his observation, ever lacked his assistance when it was re-quired. He was a well-informed man; a reader of the best hooks of history, travel, fiction, and economy. His absence from the counsels of his church will be greatly missed, but he is no more here. It would be in vain to forecast what he might have done as Federal Minister for Defence. Now he never will do it. We have to think kindly of him. All that now remains to us is to render the honour that is due to him in his burial. As a personal friend, a large circle of persons in Brisbane will miss Sir James Dickson as much as, if not more than, they would miss any other citizen still living amongst them. The thought present to most minds is the sudden-ness of his death, just as the deceased had attained the highest ambitions of his life. It would no mere affectation to pretend that public men never dream of knighthoods, and also to pretend that no advocate of federation ever hoped for a portfolio in the Federal Cabinet. Sir James attained both about ten days ago, and then passed to his long rest and higher reward.

Biography of James Dickson

Sir James Robert Dickson (1832-1901), businessman and premier, was born on 30 November 1832 at Plymouth, Devon, England, only son of James Dickson and his wife Mary Maria, née Palmer. He was educated at Glasgow High School, and served as a junior clerk in the City of Glasgow Bank before migrating to Victoria in 1854. He worked first in the Bank of Australasia and then in his merchant cousin's firm, Rae, Dickson & Co. In 1862 he moved to Queensland, taking a position with the estate agent Arthur Martin until establishing his own business in the early 1870s. As an auctioneer and estate agent he acquired wealth and built Toorak House on a magnificent site near the Brisbane River, where he enjoyed what the family firm, in characteristic style, described as 'views marvellous in their magnificence' and 'a varied panorama of ineffable loveliness and grandeur'. Despite these distractions he remained assiduous in his attentions to business and was chairman of the Brisbane Permanent Building and Banking Co. from 1876, foundation chairman of the Queensland Trustees from 1883, and chairman of the Royal Bank of Queensland in the crisis year of 1893.

In 1873 Dickson won the Enoggera seat in the Legislative Assembly. Ministerial office followed rapidly; he was secretary for public works and mines in May-June 1876, and colonial treasurer from June 1876 to January 1879 and from December 1883 to August 1887. In this era of optimism and lavish borrowing he showed his expertise by handling the £10 million loan of 1884. He resigned in August 1887 after disagreement with more radical colleagues over their proposals for a land tax and with the ringing pronouncement that he had yet to learn why it should be 'a crime to be a freeholder'. His constituents seem to have approved the resignation, for his vacation of his assembly seat, to test their judgment, was followed by overwhelming victory in a keenly contested by-election in September. But his seat was less secure than this win suggested: after a redistribution of constituencies and the intervention of a rival Liberal candidate he was defeated in the Toombul portion of his old electorate in the 1888 general election.

Next year Dickson retired from his auctioneering business and travelled widely in Europe. Soon after his return, at a by-election in April 1892, he won the Bulimba seat by supporting Sir Samuel Griffith on the need to resume the importation of South Sea islanders for labour in the Queensland tropics. However, he had to wait for ministerial office until February 1897 when he was appointed to the minor role of secretary for railways in the Nelson government. Thereafter, Dickson's rise was rapid; he became postmaster-general in March, home secretary in March 1898, retaining this place in the Byrnes ministry, and premier, however stopgap, in October after Byrnes died suddenly and (Sir) Robert Philp was reluctant to accept the office. Alfred Deakin later maintained that Philp, favoured for the premiership by the Liberal caucus, withheld his candidature on the understanding that Dickson, who, as Queensland's representative in the Federal councils of 1886 and 1888 had opposed the colony's participation in the Convention movement, should now fight the Brisbane commercial-oriented opposition to Federation and rally support for the cause. Whatever the truth of this contention, or of Sir Thomas McIlwraith's less-charitable observation that Dickson supported Federation primarily to promote his own self-esteem, the ministry was chiefly notable for its successful conduct of the Queensland referendum on the Commonwealth bill, on 2 September 1899. Deakin was to acknowledge Dickson's 'invaluable assistance' in the contest, noting that 'his government was by no means unanimous for federation, Parliament distinctly critical, the Assembly about equally divided, the Council emphatically hostile', and the metropolis opposed to a measure which seemed to threaten Brisbane's trade.

Prudently Dickson had introduced a provision whereby Queensland might be divided for the purpose of electing members of the Senate, and this prospect, naturally attractive to the sparsely inhabited north, was a factor, if only minor, in solidifying North Queensland's overwhelming and decisive vote for Federation.

The Dickson ministry did not long survive the referendum, but its successor, the Anderson Dawson Labor ministry was promptly rejected by the assembly, and Dickson returned to office as chief secretary in Philp's administration. He thus became a member of the Australian delegation to England in connexion with the passage of the Commonwealth bill through the Imperial parliament. In England he sided with Joseph Chamberlain in opposing the proposed abolition of the right of appeal from the High Court of Australia to the Privy Council. Dickson's stand symbolized the man: the enthusiastic Imperialist, whose ministry had seen that Queensland was the first colony to offer troops to vindicate the Imperial cause against the Transvaal, and who disapproved of colonial separatism; and the 'commercial man' who welcomed the British House of Lords as a security for property and business interests in a Federation which might move in a radical direction. It also reflected, according to Deakin, the continuing influence of Griffith, still manipulating the affairs of Queensland from the Queensland bench. In the event Chamberlain, Griffith and Dickson secured only a severely qualified success.

The final stage of Dickson's career was tragic, dramatic and brief. Appointed K.C.M.G. in January 1901 and minister of defence in the first Federal administration, he was taken ill at the Commonwealth's inaugural ceremonies in Sydney, and died there on 10 January after one week in office—he had been a diabetic for about eighteen years. Queensland provided a state funeral for the businessman-politician who somewhat accidentally had become one of its leading Federal spokesmen. He was buried in Nundah cemetery.

Dickson was for many years a prominent layman in the Church of England, particularly as financial adviser to the diocese of Brisbane. He was a justice of the peace and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of Great Britain and of the Royal Colonial and Imperial Institute. He married first Annie Ely (1838-1880) on 8 November 1855 at Collingwood, Victoria, and second, on 5 January 1882 at Carcoar, New South Wales, Mary MacKinlay (1841-1902) who became the first headmistress of the Brisbane Girls' Grammar School. He was survived by six sons and seven daughters of the first marriage. His second son, Frederick (1859-1928), became Crown prosecutor in Brisbane and as acting judge of the Arbitration Court handed down the Dickson award for the sugar industry in 1916. Portraits are in Parliament House, Canberra, and in the board room of the Brisbane Permanent Building & Banking Co..

Courtesy of the Australian Dictionary of Biography


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