SIR JAMES MCCULLOCH, KCMG

1819-93
Politician, financier and businessman


Sir James McCulloch
Sir James McCulloch.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Although McCulloch spent most of his working life in Australia, he retired to England and was the tenant of Garbrand Hall, Ewell from about 1886 until his death in 1893.

I could spend a lot of time detailing the intricacies of McCulloch's career, but it has already been done comprehensively by the Australian Dictionary of Biography, so instead we shall look at some highlights.

McCulloch was born in Glasgow on 18 March 1819, the son of George McCulloch and Jane Thomson: George is variously described as a carter, quarry master and contractor. The young James was educated only to primary school standard, but worked his way up in shops until he became a junior partner in the Glasgow mercantile firm of J & A Dennistoun, which had branches in Liverpool and America. In 1853 he and Robert Sellar were sent to Melbourne to open a branch of Dennistouns there. When this closed in 1862 the two of them formed the mercantile firm of McCulloch, Sellar & Co.

McCulloch was prominent in both commercial and political circles: for example, he had been president of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce and was a member of the Legislative Council of Victoria (which, I was surprised to learn, had been part of New South Wales until 1851). Before proceeding, I should sketch in some background on Australia because in McCulloch's time it was nothing like we know it today. Now it has over 23 million people, but in the early 1850s the figure was around 5-6 million. Until the establishment of a federal government in 1901, the country had six self-governing British colonies, each with its own governor and parliament: these were New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia. In 1851 the entire population of Melbourne was only 23,000 (currently over 4 million and rising rapidly), but then came the Gold Rush, which sparked a human avalanche.

Swanston Street
Swanston Street (Melbourne) from Princes Bridge by Henry Burn, 1861.
Image source: National Gallery of Victoria via Wikimedia Commons.

And, to emphasise how things have changed, here is Swanston Street nearly a century later.

Swanston Street 1959
Swanston Street from Princes Bridge, 1959.
Photo by Peter Forster via Wikimedia Commons and licensed under this Creative Commons Licence.

In 1856 McCulloch, who had lost the election in Melbourne, was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Wimmera, Victoria: this is a region rather than a town/city, noted mainly for farming, and it is north-west of Melbourne.

Mount Arapiles Highline
Mount Arapiles Highline, Victoria (above the Wimmera Plains).
Photo by Ed Dunens via flickr and licensed under this Creative Commons Licence

Politically McCulloch was categorised as a 'mercantile liberal' and he was in the Victorian Government of Dr William Clark Haines, 1st Premier of Victoria, as Commissioner for Trade and Customs: this administration fell in March 1858 and McCulloch took the opportunity to visit Britain, returning to Australia early in 1859, by which time John O'Shanassy was Premier. We will not take a ramble into 19th century Victorian political life here - it was complicated and volatile and we would soon become lost; suffice it to say that from the time Victoria had its own government in 1855 and the point at which McCulloch left Australia for good in 1886 the State had 13 Premiers (they are on Number 47 at the time of writing and many of those 47 have served more than one term of office).

In the General Election of 1859 McCulloch won the East Melbourne seat, which he lost just over a year later, so he made another visit to Britain, not returning until the end of 1861; shortly afterwards he was elected for the constituency of Mornington, which is a very pretty seaside area of Melbourne. By June 1863 he was Chief Secretary for Victoria and its 5th Premier. He lasted longer than most of them, staying in office until 1868, which probably says a lot for his political abilities. His successor survived for a matter of weeks and by July of that year McCulloch was back in office, although he was out again in September 1869. The next incumbent soldiered on for a mere few weeks and then it was McCulloch again, now knighted (and made KCMG in 1874), this stint lasting until June 1871. A trip to Britain was then called for and undertaken!

Mornington
Mornington.
Photo by Nigel Heap via Flickr and licensed under this creative commons license.

Despite these trips to Britain (which may have been for business reasons, battery recharge or both), he was not quite finished with Australian politics and in the 1874 General Election he won the seat at Warrnambool, a port area on the Victorian south-west coast. You will not be surprised to learn that in 1875 he became Premier yet again (there had been four others in between his third and fourth stints), but his government was crushed in 1877 - the previous incumbent returned to power - and he gave up politics for good the following year, concentrating instead on his banking and business interests.

In 1886 he came to Britain permanently and took a lease on Garbrand Hall, maintaining some of his banking interests, although there was a report in the summer of 1890 that he had been seriously indisposed for some time but was now recovering; he died on 30 January 1893 (some sources say 31 January) and was interred at Glasgow Necropolis.

McCulloch's first wife, whom he married in 1841, was Susan Renwick, who apparently died in 1845 at Montrose, Scotland; the second was Margaret Boak Inglis from Scotland (married 1867 St Kilda, Melbourne), who died in 1904 in Kent. There were no children of either marriage.

McCulloch has been described as 'feared and admired rather than loved, but he was an effective politician'.

Linda Jackson 2014.

Main source:
Australian Dictionary of Biography (Graham Bartlett)