James Mitchell (Australian politician)

Sir James Mitchell, GCMG (27 April 1866 – 26 July 1951) was an Australian politician. He served as premier of Western Australia from 1919 to 1924 and from 1930 to 1933, as leader of the Nationalist Party. He then held viceregal office from 1933 to 1951, as acting governor from 1933 to 1948 and governor of Western Australia from 1948 until his death in 1951.

Sir James Mitchell
20th Governor of Western Australia
In office
5 October 1948  30 June 1951
Acting governor: 11 July 1933 – 5 October 1948
MonarchGeorge VI
PremierSir Ross McLarty
Preceded bySir William Campion
Succeeded bySir Charles Gairdner
13th Premier of Western Australia
In office
17 May 1919  16 April 1924
MonarchGeorge V
GovernorSir William Ellison-Macartney
Sir Francis Newdegate
Preceded bySir Hal Colebatch
Succeeded byPhilip Collier
In office
24 April 1930  24 April 1933
MonarchGeorge V
GovernorSir William Campion
Preceded byPhilip Collier
Succeeded byPhilip Collier
Personal details
Born(1866-04-27)27 April 1866
Dardanup, Western Australia, Australia
Died26 July 1951(1951-07-26) (aged 85)
Glen Mervyn siding, Mumballup, Western Australia, Australia
Political partyNationalist
SpouseClara Robinson Spencer (m.1888–1949; her death)

Mitchell was born to a farming family in Dardanup, Western Australia. He became manager of the Western Australian Bank's Northam branch. He was first elected to the Parliament of Western Australia in 1905 and held the seat of Northam for nearly three decades. Mitchell rose quickly to ministerial office where he was a keen advocate of agricultural development. He favoured government support of primary industry and sought to use assisted migration and soldier settlement to supply the necessary labour.

Mitchell first became premier in 1919 after a period of instability in state politics, governing in coalition with the Country Party despite earlier conflict. His first term saw minor social reforms and development initiatives, but was primarily known for the Group Settlement Scheme which established the South West dairy industry. Mitchell won the 1921 state election but was defeated in 1924. He returned as premier in 1930 at the height of the Great Depression, but suffered a landslide defeat three years later and lost his own seat. He notably authorised a secession referendum in 1933.

After losing office, Mitchell was appointed lieutenant-governor by his successor Philip Collier. The office of governor was left vacant during the Great Depression as a cost-saving measure, with Mitchell serving as acting governor until being formally commissioned in the role in 1948. He died in office in 1951.

Early life

Mitchell was born on 27 April 1866 in Dardanup, Western Australia. He was the oldest of thirteen children born to Caroline (née Morgan) and William Bedford Mitchell; his father was a farm manager and grazier.[1]

Mitchell was educated in Bunbury and joined the Western Australian Bank in 1885. He was initially posted to Geraldton before becoming manager of the bank's Northam branch in 1890. Both he and the bank prospered during the Western Australian gold rushes, with Northam serving as a key staging point on the Eastern Goldfields Railway. Mitchell's success allowed him to take up farming and he remained keenly interested in agricultural development throughout his political career. He was appointed as a justice of the peace in 1897.[1]

Political career

Mitchell was elected to the Western Australian Legislative Assembly at the 1905 Western Australian state election, winning the seat of Northam.[2] In parliament he "earnestly advocated agricultural settlement and deplored Western Australia's dependence on imported produce, seeking to place families on the land, particularly as the goldfields declined and miners looked elsewhere".[1] He was made a minister without portfolio in Newton Moore's government in 1906 and in 1909 was promoted to Minister for Agriculture and Lands. He added the Industries portfolio in 1910 when Frank Wilson replaced Moore as premier.[2]

At the 1911 state election, Wilson's government was defeated by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) under John Scaddan. Mitchell as agriculture minister had presided over an expansion of the area of land under cultivation, with government support initiatives and the introduction of superphosphate pushing out the eastern boundaries of the Wheatbelt into the Yilgarn. However, unusually low rainfall in the early 1910s led to the failure of many farms. Mitchell "was blamed for his bland optimism in allegedly throwing new settlers into the bush with just an axe". He was targeted by the newly formed Farmers' and Settlers' Association, which evolved into the Country Party and won eight seats at the 1914 state election. Wilson returned as premier in 1916 in an alliance with the Country Party, which refused to allow Mitchell to return as agriculture minister.[1] He was reappointed to the industries portfolio and also made Minister for Railways and Water Supply.[2]


On 17 May 1919, Premier Hal Colebatch resigned and Mitchell succeeded to the position. Mitchell won the 1921 election and remained premier until 1924. During this period he garnered much publicity for his strong support for the Soldier-Settlement Scheme in the south-west of Western Australia. As a result of his enthusiastic promotion of this scheme (which ultimately proved very costly in terms of money and resources) he was dubbed "Moo-Cow" Mitchell by the local press.[3] Nonetheless, the establishment of a dairy industry in Western Australia can be largely credited to him. He also proved adept at dealing with the divisions between the Nationalist Party and the Country Party.

Mitchell took steps to develop the North-West, including the appoint of a resident commissioner to encourage cotton-growing and tropic agriculture. Together with his senior ministers Hal Colebatch, John Scaddan, and William George, Mitchell pursued interventionist economic policies, and thereby "antagonized conservative businessmen by their pragmatic willingness to maintain state-owned industries and state intervention in price-fixing and other industrial activities".[1]

In his first term as premier, Mitchell's attorney-general Thomas Draper introduced legislation to allow women to stand for parliament and to liberalise the state's divorce laws. Draper was subsequently defeated by Edith Cowan at the 1921 state election, who became the first Australian woman elected to parliament.[4] In 1922, Mitchell supported Cowan's successful private member's bill to allow mothers to inherit an equal share from their children who died intestate. He also supported her anti-sex discrimination bill to allow women to be admitted to the legal profession, although he opposed a clause eliminating the marriage bar.[5]

Mitchell's election to a second term in office coincided with the onset of the Great Depression. His government was defeated at the 1933 state elections, in addition to which he became the first Western Australian premier to lose both a state election and his parliamentary seat (of Northam).


As a result of financial difficulties during the Great Depression, Tasmania had appointed a lieutenant governor in the 1930s. With the approval of the major political parties, in July 1933 Mitchell was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Western Australia. This meant that, although he resided in Government House, Perth, and was governor in all but name, he drew no salary, thus making a reduced demand on the public purse at a time when ordinary people were under severe restraint. He held the position until he was finally appointed Governor of Western Australia in 1948. Mitchell was the first Australian-born Governor of Western Australia; he remains the only person to have served as both premier and governor of the state. He retired from the post in June 1951. One month later he died in his railway coach during an overnight stop at Glen Mervyn siding, about 26 kilometres (16 mi) from Donnybrook, Western Australia, while on a tour of the southwest of the state. He was 85.[6][7]

Personal life

In 1888, Mitchell married Clara Robinson Spencer, the daughter of Bunbury mayor William Spencer. The couple had three sons and a daughter; three of his children predeceased him and he was widowed in 1949. He died on 26 July 1951, aged 85, in his personal railway carriage while stopped at the small siding of Glen Mervyn near Collie. He was granted a state funeral and buried at Karrakatta Cemetery.[1]


The Mitchell Freeway was named in his honour, as was Sir James Mitchell Park in South Perth and Sir James Mitchell National Park. The botanist Charles Gardner named the rapier featherflower Verticordia mitchelliana in his honour.[8]


  1. Bolton, Geoffrey (1986). "Mitchell, Sir James (1866–1951)". Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  2. "James Mitchell". Biographical Register of Members of the Parliament of Western Australia. Parliament of Western Australia. Retrieved 20 September 2022.
  3. "THE CALAMITOUS MOO-COW". Sunday Times (Perth, WA : 1902 – 1954). Perth, WA: National Library of Australia. 16 February 1908. p. 3 Section: FIRST SECTION. Retrieved 22 January 2014. the SundaY Times piece suggests the name was given a lot earlier
  4. Bolton, Geoffrey; Simpson, Pat (1981). "Draper, Thomas Percy (1864–1946)". Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  5. Phillips, Harry (1996). The Voice of Edith Cowan: Australia's First Woman Parliamentarian, 1921-24. Edith Cowan University. ISBN 9780729802888.
  6. "Death of Sir J. Mitchell on W.A. Tour". The Advertiser. Adelaide. 27 July 1951. p. 2. Retrieved 25 September 2020.
  7. "In memoriam – The Honorable Sir James Mitchell, G.C.M.G., our late president [Obituary]", Journal and Proceedings, 4 (pt.3): 31, 1951, ISSN 1837-8285
  8. Elizabeth A. (Berndt) George; Margaret Pieroni (illustrator) (2002). Verticordia: the turner of hearts (1st ed.). Crawley, Western Australia: University of Western Australia Press. p. 294. ISBN 1-876268-46-8.

Further reading

  • Devenish, Bruce (2014). Sir James Mitchell: Premier & Governor of Western Australia. Hesperian Press. ISBN 9780859055284.
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