James Shaw, mayor of Adelaide and Coolgardie, South Australian History

James Shaw

Builder, Contractor, Mayor of Adelaide and Coolgardie, Miner, Councillor, Alderman, Investor and Speculator

James Shaw, of Scottish descent and the son of Hugh Shaw, was born in Belfast on 6 May 1846. As an eighteen year old he migrated to New Zealand in 1864 where he started a successful contracting business in Auckland. From his early beginnings he paid fair wages to his workers and never had any problems with them. While residing on the North Island he built many substantial houses. Having taken part in some of the Maori Wars, for which he was granted a Service Medal, he moved to Melbourne where he worked as a contractor for the Railways and Public Works Departments.

After his marriage in Victoria to Margaret Shaw in 1875 and the birth of their son Hugh Hamilton at Kyneton in 1876 the Shaws arrived in South Australia where he once again took up contracting for the building industry and becoming a prominent and popular citizen. A second son, James, was born on 2 February 1878 at Hindmarsh and a daughter Margaret, born on 2 August 1880 at Norwood.

One of his first employees in Adelaide was stone cutter Tom Price, the later Premier of South Australia who stayed with him for 7 years. Among some of the best known contracts he worked on for Shaw was St Pauls Roman Catholic Church in Mount Gambier and Parliament House in Adelaide. Years later Price would recall that Shaw was a fine employer. Shaw did well and was soon submitting tenders for major building projects. When sending in his tender for the East Adelaide School in Flinders Street in 1877 it was accepted. Unfortunately for him he had made a mistake with the calculations and wanted to withdraw his tender. This was permitted but he lost his substantial deposit.

A few months later his tender of £7,466 for the Hindmarsh School was accepted. Here too he ran into trouble as the stone from the Dry Creek quarry, on which his quote was based, became unavailable due to high demand. To finish the contract in time he had to use more expensive stone from the Glen Osmond quarry. After much hassle he was paid an extra £170 by the Education Department. In October 1878 he became Overseer of works at the new governor’s residence at Marble Hill, designed by William McMinn. This extravagant building was home for South Australia's Governors from 1880 until 1955 when it was destroyed during the Black Sunday bushfires.

On 24 July 2015 The Weekender Herald reported that while digging some trenches four underground water tanks, crafted in 1878 and holding 65,000 litres, had been discovered on the property. Despite having been bitumised over and driven on for almost 100 years the tanks are still in top condition. They still hold water without leakage!!

Hindmarsh School officially opened by the Minister of Education N Blyth on 5 July 1878.
(Picture SLSA)

While major building works became his trade mark, Shaw also erected many smaller and domestic buildings. When successful with his £55,795 tender for the government Torrens buildings on Victoria Square he commenced with the work in January 1880. It had to be finished within three years. He completed the contract in just two years. During this time he also was the Clerk of Works supervising the building of the Torrens Dam.

If all this was not enough, he still found time to take an active part in civic affairs and was an elected Councillor for the city of Adelaide, the oldest municipality in Australia, founded in 1840. He became an Alderman in 1883. In 1885 he was living at Trinity Street, College Town (St Peters) but by 1886 his office was in King William Street from which he operated until 1891. While an Alderman he was a member of the Market and Torrens Lake Committee. Between 1884 and 1888 he was Chairman of several other committees, among them Public Works, Town Hall and the By-Laws and Salaries Committee.

When all these works were completed he was warmly complemented on the quality of his work and received a bonus of £750. Among the buildings finished or started in 1883 were the English, Scottish and Australian Chartered Bank and the National Mutual Life Assurance Association of Australasia buildings. His largest project was the successful tender of £98,754 for the new Parliament House.

Work on this project had been started in 1883 but two years later only the foundations had been completed. After a lengthy dispute the government terminated the contract and called for fresh tenders. When completed in 1889 by Shaw it was said to be the most beautiful building in the Southern Hemisphere and, according to the Building Committee, the work had been carried out to their entire satisfaction and reflected the utmost credit upon Mr James Shaw.

During his time in Adelaide he became one of the chief building contractors. If one of his workers met with an accident or death, the family was well provided for. In doing so he earned the esteem of most inhabitants. At the same time he identified himself with protective societies and most public movements, taking much interest in sporting clubs. It was said that his progressive conduct and unselfish spirit endeared him to his fellows.

In September 1886 Shaw took a large group of international visitors on a guided tour of the Kapunda Marble and Lime Company quarries at Koonunga, which provided the marble for the Parliament House. The original marble deposit was discovered on land belonging to Irishman P Mathias Hansberry, an early settler at Johnstown. Two months later Shaw was re-elected Alderman. A year later he was appointed Vice President of the Kapunda-Dutton Rifle Club. In January 1888 Alderman Shaw was invited by the NSW government to attend the Centennial Banquet on 26 January in Sydney.

The year 1888 turned out to be a very eventful year for James Shaw. In April his tender of £17,575 for the building of the Commercial Bank of South Australia was accepted. In October Shaw was nominated for the position of Mayor of Adelaide and sworn in as such on 1 December, taking over from Sir Edwin Thomas Smith. Contractor and Builder James Shaw was now The Right Worshipful the Mayor of Adelaide with an allowance of £1,000 per annum. It seemed that he was a man of unlimited energy. As chief magistrate of the city and now a member of seven permanent committees, he proved to be better than most people had expected.

In May 1889 he was elected to the South Australian Caledonian Society of which he became Director in 1890. During that year he also became a member of the City Board of Health as well as Vice President of the South Australian Cricketing Association. He was now among some well-known and much respected people such as Charles Todd, Sir Henry Ayers, and CC Kingston.

Sanitation and health problems were of great concern to him and he did all he could to improve them wherever he was. At his final attendance of the City Council meeting on 25 November 1889, he signed an eviction order of a dwelling on Town Acre 400 in Gouger Street as it was considered unfit for human habitation. He also signed an order for William Henry Beaglehole to 'cleanse and remove all filth and rubbish from acre 516 in Halifax Street'.

At the end of the meeting Alderman Fuller moved 'that this Council tender The Right Worshipful The Mayor their hearty thanks for the able and impartial manner in which he had presided over their meetings and for the generous and cordial manner in which he had treated the Council on every possible occasion'.

Having completed his term as Mayor he went on a trip to England in July 1891. Not just for pleasure but also to study municipal affairs, visiting sanitary works and buildings as well as major industrial centres, ship building yards and coal mines. In his ‘spare’ time he wrote articles for seven newspapers advertising South Australia.

After his return from England he focussed his attention on Western Australia to which he had been invited while Mayor of Adelaide. In 1893 he visited the newly opened Coolgardie goldfields and in 1894 he was supervising the opening up of the Bayley’s South Extended gold mine. He was not the only one interested in the possible riches of the West. With very poor economic conditions in South Australia many hundreds of young, and not so young, men and some women left for Western Australia.

Among some of the South Australians who made their mark in the West was Percy Stuart Hocking who was born in Nairne on 30 January 1862. He was one of the founders of the Kalgoorlie newspaper which became known as The Kalgoorlie Miner. This was very successful and is still published today. Hocking died very young on 8 March 1900 and is buried at the Kalgoorlie cemetery.

Buyers and sellers at the Londonderry. James Shaw seated on the right.

In July 1894 Shaw became the managing director of the Londonderry gold mine in which he had a 1/24 interest worth £3,000. On 17 November 1894 the prospectus for the floating of the mine in London was listed in the Mining World and Engineering Record. It proposed to issue 700.000 £1 shares of which 233.000 would be reserved for the vendors.

Captain MH Matthews, general manager of the Bayley's Reward wrote a favourable report on it. The mine became the sensation of the hour and was rumoured to be the richest in the world. He bought 40 shares for £1000 which increased in value to £7.600. Eventually Shaw acquired shares in many of the local mines, among them Oroya, Ivanhoe, Golden Age, Crusoe, Lake View and Mount Charlotte. Many of his investments proved very remunerative.

Most of his attention during that year was directed to the Coolgardie goldfield. In August the Coolgardie Stock Exchange was opened and a month later he was appointed Justice of the Peace. It was also in August 1894 that he was elected the first Mayor of Coolgardie. One of his first efforts was to promote the building of a railway from Fremantle to Coolgardie to lower the cost of freight to the town. During that year the value of gold produced in Coolgardie exceeded £1,000,000 for the first time. While only a few weeks into his new job Shaw was not afraid to speak his mind.

Having tried several times unsuccessfully to get information from the Attorney General in Perth, he wrote; The Coolgardie Town Council regrets your want of courtesy and attention in not replying to their previous communications…. As in South Australia he again showed an enormous amount of energy. Apart from attending to his own personal affairs, such as investing, speculating and managing mines, he also looked after the interest of the council and the town at large.

In November he opened the first government school in town which was conducted in a large tent. He also invited all the Colonial Governors to Coolgardie for the Caledonian gathering on New Year’s Day. The first race meeting was held at Kalgoorlie on 7 November 1894 on Hannan's Lake. Both Shaw and James Brookman, another South Australian investor, entered a horse.

Coolgardie's first school. (Picture Moya Sharp)

Another effort of Shaw was directed towards the improvement of the sanitation on the goldfields and the town. After some major improvements it was said to be better than Melbourne. Sadly it did not stop his 18 year old son from contracting typhoid fever of which he died on 22 December 1894. He was buried the next day. The funeral procession was nearly a kilometre long.

James Shaw at his son's grave (Picture Moya Sharp)

Among other South Australians buried at the Coolgardie cemetery are explorer Ernest Giles and telegraph operator Johannes Friedrich Gotthilf Auricht. He was the 4th son of the Rev. JC Auricht from Kapunda. He had only been in Coolgardie for a year or so when he died on 28 March 1895, aged 26. Nearby is the grave of Douglas, son of Thomas and Emily Fotheringham of Gawler. He too was only 26 years old when he died on 18 January 1897. Douglas wasn't a novice to mining as his father had been a director of the Lady Alice mine on the Barossa goldfield in 1873.

The Barossa goldfield became also known in the West. Leslie Robert Menzies who had discovered the Menzies goldfield in October 1894 in Western Australia later opened the Menzies gold mine on the Barossa field in June 1896. It became known as the Menzies Barossa Gold Mining Syndicate and its provisional directors were all from Perth.

While Mayor of Coolgardie James Shaw was a Police Magistrate, a Free Mason, President of the Local Court and Hospital Boards, President of the Coolgardie cricket and football club, patron of the cycling club, Vice President of the Chamber of Mines, established on 20 February 1895, member of the Stock Exchange and Coroner.

Suffering from poor health he spent the first three months of 1895 in Adelaide. Although thousands of kilometres away, he was still appointed Vice President of the new Chamber of Mining and Commerce. Its object being to establish an Institute and Museum and look after the interests of the goldfields generally. He returned to Western Australia in March looking a picture of health and full of renewed energy.

Back in Coolgardie he called a public meeting in May to hasten the construction of the railway. He, or maybe his name, was much in demand by new companies who wanted to be listed on the Stock Exchange. He now became a provisional director of the Kalgoorlie Aerated Water Manufacturing Co., which hoped to attract investments of £40,000. Other companies who listed him as provisional director or board member were the Kalgoorlie Brewing Company, the Bulong IOU Water Company, the Fredericka Gold Mining Company and the Londonderry gold mine in which he owned 40 shares (some reports say 160) valued at £190 each.

During 1896 he became a provisional director for Cosgroves, the Prince of Wales Mine, the Black Flag Consolidated Extended GMC., the General Gordon Main Lode Extended and many others. That same year he made a tour of the fields around Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie.


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