JAMES MIRAMS, MELBOURNE FINANCIER, POLITICIAN & ROGUE (1839-1916)
The item which prompted this paper is not a cover, but a Promissary Note written by James Mirams on 21 January 1889 for the amount of 7 pounds 10 shillings (sterling) and it bears a fiscally cancelled 6d Victorian Stamp Duty with a manuscript ‘JMS’ and date 21/1/89. Payment was due on 24 Feby 1889, made out to the Northern Printing Co. There were 2 different purple stampings, a clear double circle for ‘The National Bank of Australasia’, Clifton Hill and a fainter double oval for the same Bank, Melbourne. The promissory note had a notation ‘Paid’ and James Mirams Snr.’s signature was cancelled by a penline (Figure 1).
The reverse of the promissary note was signed by the Manager of the Northern Printery Co., Frank G. Parka (Figure 2).
James Mirams was born in Lambeth, London in 1839 to James and Elizabeth Mirams. He came to Melbourne at the age of 18 on the Norfolk with his parents and six siblings in June 1857, for his father Rev. James Mirams had been appointed minister of the Congregational Church in Collins Street. James Jnr. tried dairy farming for a few years, but after all his cattle died he became a school teacher in Fitzroy. He then opened a news agency in Collingwood. He was a self-made man, a staunch teetotaller, an indefatigable floater of financial institutions, and an expert extractor of their funds.
He was described as a brisk man, a man of God and he soon became a deacon of the Collingwood Congregational Church and a fervent member of the ‘Undaunted Tent of the Order of Rechabites. He stood for the Collingwood seat in Parliament as a Protectionist and land reformer, and was elected in 1876 by a record majority. He told the voters that he wanted the State to retain permanent ownership of all land and merely lease it to holders. In 1882 he was appointed to the chairman of a Royal Commission on the Customs Tariff, and for 3 years of its sittings he gave conscientious service.
James’ success in raising finance for the church, and his widening circle of highly placed friends, gave wings to his own ambitions. He sold his news agency and started the Premier Permanent Building Association, bringing together a strong group of seven directors on the board.. In 1886, he lost his Collingwood seat and decided to concentrate on his land and building enterprises. He built a magnificent five story edifice in Collins Street for his thriving Premier Building Association, and money flowed in as a torrent; in 1887 deposits were £300,000 and in 1888, £660,000. There was a land boom in Melbourne, and he wrote: “I was personally.... largely concerned in land purchases, the aggregate amount involved being close on £1 million.” His land buying was not confined to Melbourne but spread to the rural areas of Victoria.
The number of enterprises he started, the involvement of so many parliamentarians on his Boards, and the amount of money that was siphoned off into Mirams’ personal accounts were legion, and he appeared to have the ‘Midas Touch’. He was described as “active, energetic, irrepressible, with a marvellous aptitude for figures, a keen perspicacity, a power of lucid expression, and a far-reaching grasp of circumstances and conditions”. He certainly had an imposing face and at the time of his downfall and gaol sentence, the judge allowed him to retain his beard! (Figure 3).
Soon the irrepressible Mirams saw storm clouds on the economic horizon and a succession of disasters overwhelmed him, and he was one of the first ‘boomers’ to fall. In March 1890 he filed his application for Liquidation by Arrangement and his schedule showed his debts amounted to more than £370,000. Liquidation of the Premier Building Association followed quickly. Mirams’ estate finally paid 2d. in the £1. Mirams and most of his directors were accused of a series of brazen frauds.
So far Mirams, although shown to be extremely reckless, had not been proven to be a criminal under the laws of the day, and the proceedings which finally gaoled him were one of the most hotly debated trials of the 19th century. There were 3 charges against all men, 2 charges were dismissed, but Mirams was charged with the third offence, that of issuing a false balance sheet with intent to defraud. He was charged guilty and sentenced to imprisonment for 12 months, an event cartooned in the Melbourne Punch on 13 February 1890 (Figure 4).
Mirams kept claiming his innocence and even stood for the first Commonwealth of Australia Federal Election in 1901, but the electors were not impressed, and he finished fourth in a field of five with only 7.7% of the vote in the electorate of Bourke, Victoria. Following his release from gaol, he continued to live in Melbourne, worked as a milkman, petitioning Parliament for redress for his wrongful imprisonment and writing a book called The Present Depression - Its Cause and Cure.
Further insight into James Mirams can be gained from a letter that he wrote to Alfred Deakin (who was in his second term as Australia’s Prime Minister in 1906), which is reproduced here.
To Hon. A Deakin M.P.
My son has shown me the reply which he received from your private secretary. You will not forget him I hope and when a favorable opportunity occurs your good offices on his behalf will be fully appreciated.
There is a public matter to which I would draw your attention, namely that of Preferential Voting. You will have forgotten that in 1888 I brought this matter before the Victorian Assembly. You will find my speech upon the question in Vol 58 page 1357,- 8 & -9. The following extract will suffice to make it plain that I was 18 years before my time so far as this matter is concerned. Page 1358 - “I would meet the case by the very simple plan of making every elector number the candidates on the ballot paper in the order in which he preferred them.”
You might do worse than look up the speech. My chief object in drawing your attention to it is to ask you whether you would do me the justice of making a public acknowledgement of this fact.
This is an example of Mirams' extravagance - he built a magnificent five story edifice in Collins Street for his thriving Premie Building Association, referred to previously, in his hey-days (Figure 5).
I acknowledge that this paper could not have been written without the superb information in Michael Cannon’s The Land Boomers, Melbourne University Press (1966). Figure 5 is taken from the National Library of Australia site, manuscript 540-15-580.