James Munro (Australian politician)

James Munro
15th Premier of Victoria
In office
5 November 1890  16 February 1892
Preceded by Duncan Gillies
Succeeded by William Shiels
Personal details
Born 7 January 1832
Sutherland, Scotland
Died 25 February 1908(1908-02-25) (aged 76)
Nationality Australian
Spouse(s) Jane Macdonald
Religion Presbyterian

James Munro (7 January 1832 – 25 February 1908), Australian colonial politician, was the 15th Premier of Victoria.[1]

Early life

James Munro was born in Armadale, Sutherland, Scotland, to Donald Munro and his wife, Georgina.[2] James Munro's grandparents were an Alexander Munro of the family of Foulis, Ross-shire and Barbara Mackay, a relative of the chief of Clan Mackay.[1] After a primary education at a village school in Armadale, Sutherland he left home for Edinburgh and joined a firm of publishers.[2] He married in December 1853, Jane Macdonald, and had a family of four sons and three daughters. In 1858 he emigrated to Victoria where he set up a printing business.[2] In the 1860s he expanded into banking and then promoting building societies. In 1865 he founded the Victorian Permanent Building Society of which he was manager for 17 years. By 1870 he was a very wealthy man, and he continued to engage in speculation, particularly in land, after entering politics, as was then the common practice. He was also a leading temperance advocate and prominent in the Presbyterian church.

Political career

Munro was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly as one of two members for North Melbourne in 1874. In 1877 he was elected for the new seat of Carlton, then for North Melbourne again in 1881, where he was defeated in 1883. In 1886 he was elected as one of the three members for Geelong, retaining his seat until he resigned in 1892.

Initially a liberal, Munro was Minister for Public Instruction in the first government of the radical leader Graham Berry, but became increasingly conservative in the 1880s and did not hold office in Berry's later governments. He was also preoccupied with business in these years, since his companies, the Federal Bank and the Federal Building Society, were leading players in the speculative Land Boom that gripped the colony. Unlike many of the Land Boomers, he had a reputation for stern Scots integrity, and as the Boom faded in 1890 he emerged as leader of the opposition to the government of Duncan Gillies. In November he moved a successful no-confidence motion in the Gillies government and became Premier — he was the third Scottish-born Premier in succession.

Munro's government was generally liberal, but was weakened by the absence of Alfred Deakin, the leading Victorian liberal, who chose to concentrate on the campaign for Australian federation. It was quite unable to cope with the accelerating financial collapse which began almost as soon as it took office. The crash climaxed in late 1891 with the failure of several major banks. Munro's own companies were soon in trouble as the bottom fell out of the land market, and in December the Federal Bank and the Federal Building Society suspended payments.

Financial ruin

In February 1892 Munro, who was deeply in debt, asked his Cabinet to appoint him Victorian Agent-General in London. He then resigned as Premier and immediately took ship from Port Melbourne. When the news broke there was a storm of protest, led by the many investors whose savings had been wiped out in Munro's companies. Eventually Munro's successor, William Shiels, agreed to recall him from London. To his credit, he returned voluntarily to Victoria, where he was declared bankrupt in February 1893, with personal debts of ₤97,000. His companies left debts of over ₤600,000 – a staggering amount at that time. A few weeks later he was attacked and beaten unconscious in a Melbourne street by a man who had been ruined in the crash.


Munro has gone down in history as the most notorious of the corrupt Victorian politicians of the Land Boom period. The fact that he was an evangelical Christian who loudly criticised the morals of others has seen him branded a hypocrite as well. In fact it was never proved that he was personally guilty of corruption – unlike the four members of Parliament who eventually went to jail, or the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Sir Matthew Davies, who fled the colony in disgrace and narrowly escaped jail. His business practices were dubious, but usually within the very loose legal framework of business regulation of the time. After being discharged from bankruptcy he finished his days as an estate agent in Armadale.


  1. 1 2 Burke, Bernard Sir, 1814–1892. Burke's Colonial Gentry. A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Colonial Gentry. Vols 1 & 2. Baltimore Genealogical Pub. Co. 1970. Pages 638 – 639.
  2. 1 2 3 Serle, Percival (1949). "Munro, James". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
Political offices
Preceded by
Duncan Gillies
Premier of Victoria
Succeeded by
William Shiels
Parliament of Victoria
Preceded by
John Burtt
Member for North Melbourne
Succeeded by
John Laurens
New division Member for Carlton
Succeeded by
John Gardiner
Preceded by
Joseph Storey
Member for North Melbourne
Succeeded by
James Rose
Preceded by
George Cunningham
Member for Geelong
Succeeded by
John Rout Hopkins
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