McCOLL, James Hiers (1844–1929)
Senator for Victoria, 1907–14 (Anti-Socialist Party; Liberal Party)

James Hiers McColl was born in South Shields, County Durham, England, son of Hugh McColl, a printer at the time of James’ birth, and his first wife Jane, née Hiers, on 31 January 1844. McColl arrived in Australia with his family in January 1853, his mother having died on the voyage. The family settled at Bendigo, where his father became a prominent irrigationist and advocate of closer settlement, and a member of the Legislative Assembly for Mandurang (1880–85). James was educated at the Model School in Bendigo, and for a short time at Scotch College, Melbourne. He served a local apprenticeship as a fitter and turner, then joined the firm of insurance agents and ‘legal managers’ established by his father, later becoming its manager.

Following his father’s death in 1885, McColl was elected to the Legislative Assembly seat of Mandurang in 1886, and, in 1889, to the new, adjoining seat of Gunbower which he held until 1901. He served as Minister of Mines and Minister of Water Supply in the Patterson Ministry (1893–94), appointing, in 1893, a Waterworks Inquiry Board. Between 1899 and 1900, he was President of the Board of Land and Works, Commissioner of Crown Lands and Survey, and Minister of Forests in the McLean Ministry. During these years, he pressed for irrigation, dry farming and closer settlement. During the Gillies Ministry (1886–90), he had become a shareholder in Country Estates, a land developing company engaged in subdivision in Gippsland.[1]

In 1901 McColl, who had been in favour of Federation, was elected to the Federal Parliament as a Protectionist for the House of Representatives seat of Echuca. He was re-elected in 1903. A fluent speaker, he expressed the hope that Australia would become ‘the greatest federation on the face of the globe’, but pointed out that the ‘great duty’ was that of development. He spoke of the need to utilise ‘our great rivers’ in order to make the desert ‘bloom and blossom as the rose’. He quoted the Victorian experience in opening up lands, constructing railways and providing rewards for gold discovery, and later spoke of the Commonwealth’s responsibility for development of rivers under the Inter–State Commission.[2]

At the 1906 election, McColl stood, successfully, for the Senate as an Anti-Socialist.With Simon Fraser and T. Skene, he had received the endorsement of an alliance established between the Australian Women’s National League and the Farmers’, Property Owners’ and Producers’ Association. In the Senate, water conservation remained a major public policy interest, as he supported moves by the states to coordinate the management of the waters of the Murray River, protesting against allowing ‘water to flow in sinful waste to the sea’. As in the House, he spoke on the related subject of land, and, frequently, on the tariff schedule. In January 1906, Punch declared: ‘What wobbling there has been in his course has been due to the influences of town and country struggling for mastery in him’. In his first speech, McColl described himself as an independent protectionist, an advocate of imperial preference, and willing to support any government in accord with his policies. He stated that he would not oppose the Australian Industries Preservation Bill (though he felt it would do more harm than good) and declared his satisfaction with the ‘fair and reasonable’ Customs Tariff Bill of 1908, claiming that the Bill now settled the tariff dispute.[3]

He criticised the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill, which he believed would encourage industrial strife and harm rural industries. In 1911, he attempted, unsuccessfully, to move an amendment to exclude rural industries from the arbitration provisions of the Bill. He criticised the Land Tax Assessment Bill of 1910, suggesting that its title should be ‘A Bill to cheapen land, and strike a blow at landed property’. He spoke also on topics other than those connected with water and land. In 1908, he supported the Invalid and Old-age Pensions Bill, which, he claimed, had been a plank in the platform of the Victorian Liberal Party.[4]

In 1909, McColl bore the cost of attending a dry farming congress in Wyoming in the United States, presenting a report to the Deakin Government on his return. Like his father before him, he found Alfred Deakin a receptive listener on irrigation and water supply matters. Publishing several papers on agricultural topics, in 1914 he presented apaper to the Victorian Historical Society on the work of his father and ‘the water question in northern Victoria’. Forsaking water for patriotism, in 1915 McColl published a collection of his songs, entitled, Patriotic Songs for Australia Day, in aid of the ‘Wounded Soldiers Fund’.[5]

McColl, who had been a Temporary Chairman of Committees (1907–12) was appointed Vice-President of the Executive Council in the Cook Ministry (1913–14). Regarded as an able and principled politician, if sometimes ‘a trifle brusque’, in 1908 he described the Senate as ‘a Chamber of review’ whose duty it was to correct anomalies. In the choice of the federal capital site his vote became crucial when, in the second Senate ballot of 6 November 1908, he switched his vote from Tumut to Yass-Canberra. Earlier, he had argued vehemently against the possible choice of Dalgety: ‘Let us have a Capital which will be typical of Australia, and not of Siberia’.[6]

In 1911, McColl attacked compulsory enrolment for elections on the basis that such a measure would assist the Labor Party. During the short-lived Parliament of 1913–14, he claimed that though ‘the strength of the parties was so nearly equal in the country, there is a very great difference in the numbers by which we are respectively represented in the Senate’. Like other Senate colleagues, he called often for a double dissolution. When it came in 1914, he lost his seat at the subsequent election.[7]

In 1917, he purchased an irrigation property at Gunbower, Victoria, though he spent his later years in Melbourne. On 1 January 1867 he had married Emily, née Boyle, of Bendigo. They had four children. Emily died in 1898, and on 29 January 1900 McColl married Sarah Ann, née Thomas, of Stawell; there were three children of this marriage.

McColl died in Melbourne on 20 February 1929 and was buried in Bendigo Cemetery. He had been an active Presbyterian and Freemason. His second wife survived him; also two children of the first marriage, Jane and Alice, and those of the second, James, Ivan and Sadie. The son, Hugh, of his first marriage, had been killed in France in 1918.

 The Argus reported that a large number of mourners at the Bendigo Cemetery were former students of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Sunday school in Bendigo, where McColl had taught for fifty-five years. In Canberra, Senator George Pearce referred to McColl’s ‘constant advocacy of irrigation and dry farming’ as ‘an outstanding feature of his public career’. In Melbourne, Sir John Quick spoke movingly of his lifelong association with McColl as ‘friends and comrades in the social, industrial, literary, and political activities of Bendigo’, as neighbours in Hamlet Street, Quarry Hill, Bendigo, and as ‘fellow-members of four successive Commonwealth Parliaments’.[8]


L E Fredman


[1] Australian Mining Standard (Melbourne), 6 May 1893, p. 245; Argus (Melbourne), 21 February 1929, p. 7; Amanda M. Rolfe, ‘McColl, James Hiers’, ADB, vol. 10; J. N. Churchyard, ‘Hugh McColl, M. L. A.: Visionary and Legislator’, Aqua (State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, Victoria), vol. 7, August, 1956; Punch (Melbourne), 4 January 1906, p. 4; Colin Swinburne Martin, Irrigation and Closer Settlement in the Shepparton District 1836–1906, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1955, pp. 45, 52; VPD, 14 July 1886, pp. 700–708; Michael Cannon, The Land Boomers, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1995, pp. 53–54.

[2] Australian Mining Standard (Melbourne), 6 May 1893, p. 245; CPD, 30 May 1901, pp. 508–526, 12 July 1901, pp. 2507–2514, 23 March 1904, pp. 821–832, 29 November 1905, p. 5979. 

[3]P. Loveday, A. W. Martin and R. S. Parker (eds), The Emergence of the Australian Party System, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1977, pp. 427–428; CPD, 28 May 1914, pp. 1548, 1549; Punch (Melbourne), 4 January 1906, p. 4; CPD, 21 February 1907, pp. 74–76, 79, 10 October 1907, p. 4514, 23 January 1908, p. 7587.

[4] CPD, 18 August 1910, pp. 1707–1708, 15 November 1911, pp. 2580–2590, 25 October 1910, p. 5043, 4 June 1908, p. 12025.

[5] CPP,Reports by J. H. McColl on dry farming, and the prickly pear, 1909; J. H. McColl, Agriculture and Irrigation, T. Cambridge, Bendigo, 1906, ‘Hugh McColl and the Water Question in Northern Victoria’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol. 5, June 1917, pp. 145–164; Patriotic Songs for Australia Day, Bolton Bros., Bendigo, 1915; Martin, Irrigation, pp. 23–26, 32–35, 45, 52, 55, 66.

[6] Punch (Melbourne), 4 January 1906, p. 4; CPD, 23 January 1908, p. 7588, 2 August 1907, p. 1362, 29 October 1908, pp. 1667–1679, 6 November 1908, p. 2108.

[7] G. S. Reid and Martyn Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament 1901–1988, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1989, p. 113; CPD, 19 October 1911, p. 1600, 10 September 1913, pp. 1021–1022, 1028, 28 May 1914, pp. 1539–1541.

[8] James Smith (ed.), The Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol. 1, 1903, Cyclopedia Company, Melbourne, pp. 173–174; Argus (Melbourne), 21 February 1929, p. 7, 22 February 1929, p. 10; CPD, 21 February 1929, p. 424; Bendigo Advertiser, 22 February 1929, p. 9.


This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 1, 1901-1929, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Vic., 2000, pp. 301-303.

McCOLL, James Hiers (1844–1929)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Vic., 1907–14

Member of the House of Representatives for Echuca, Vic., 1901–06

Vice-President of the Executive Council, 1913–14

Victorian Parliament

Member of the Legislative Assembly, Mandurang, 1886–89; Gunbower, 1889–1901

Senate Committee Service

House Committee, 1907–14