James Watson (1811-1869) was the first landowner of Flemington, and provided its name.
Watson was born in about 1811 in Angus, Forfarshire, Scotland, son of Hugh Watson, the manager of a large property in Kettins, Angus.
In 1839 Watson arrived in Sydney to manage a company representing clients in Scotland (including the Marquis of Ailsa). By 1840 Watson, with his colleague Hunter, took up a squatting lease on property on the Saltwater (Maribyrnong) River. Watson named it “Keillor” after the estate in Angus where he grew up.
Flemington and Keilor are not the only Melbourne suburbs named by Watson. Rose Anna Farm (now Roseanna) was also purchased by Watson in 1940 and named after his soon-to-be wife Elizabeth Anna Rose.
Watson hit financial troubles after his initial property investments. In April 1843 his company was made insolvent. Roseanna Farm was sold. Watson was charged with fraud and successfully sued.
But in 1847 Watson purchased from the Crown the land that covers most of what we now know as Flemington, bounded by Kent Street in the north, Racecourse Road in the south, and extending from Ascot Vale Road to the Moonee Ponds Creek. Crown Allotments 14 and 15 of Section 4 of the Parish of Doutta Galla cost £386/6/6 and £472/4/8 apiece.
“Flemington” was named after the property in Morayshire, Scotland owned by the father of Watson’s wife, Elizabeth.
On 15 May 1847 Elizabeth died. Shortly afterwards Watson announced in Melbourne newspapers that he was entering the field of competition as an agent for the sale of land and stock. On 2 June 1847 he was granted an auctioneer’s licence. He began operations from an office situated at the city chambers of Hugh Glass.
In The Argus on 20 August 1847 it was advertised that “Mr Watson has provided suitable yards and grazing for sheep and cattle which may be consigned to him at Flemington, 4 miles from Melbourne on the Saltwater River, where he may be seen morning and evening.” By the end of 1847 Watson was selling sheep, cattle horses and pigs and implements and husbandry.
Watson moved into a 7-room stone and brick house in what today is known as Flemington Street. He probably remarried around this time. On his property he built a hotel, several small shops and a blacksmith’s shop. Flemington Hotel opened for business in April 1848.
Within a year or so Watson was again in financial strife. By October 1849 he advertised to sell his Flemington Estate. A preliminary notice in the Melbourne Argus on 5 October 1849 stated:
WM Easey is favoured with instructions from James Watson Esq to sell all that valuable land known as the Flemington Estate – suburban sections 14 and 15. 310 acres of rich alluvial land together with all the buildings erected thereon comprising the Flemington Hotel with stockyards, family residences, blacksmith and butchers shop and numerous other buildings.
On 29 October 1849 the sale was conducted and the following day William Easey conveyed the property to wealthy pastoralist Hugh Glass.
For a short period Watson continued his Flemington auctioneering business, and purchased and leased land nearby. In 1850 his daughter Annie was born in Flemington.
On 10 May 1869 Watson died in his home in Fitzroy Street, Fitzroy.
This is edited from the article James Watson – Squatter of Flemington by Bob Chalmers in the Essendon Historical Journal, Issue No.4, Spring/Summer 2011 (pages 11-14). The Samuel Brees’ painting (courtesy of the State Library of Victoria) shows Flemington Hotel in about 1856, shortly after Watson established the hotel and shops in the area.
Thank you to Bob Chalmers from the Essendon Historical Society for permission to use the article.