Although little known today, James Tyson was truly a legend in his own life time. He was Australia’s first great cattle king and our first millionaire. When he died in 1898, not only were there obituaries in Australian newspapers, but also in The London Times and New York Times. Banjo Paterson wrote a poem about him entitled simply T.Y.S.O.N.
Yet James Tyson started with nothing. Born in 1819 near Narellan, he became a squatter on the Lachlan River with his brothers. He boosted his fortune by droving cattle to the Bendigo goldfields and butchering the meat for the miners. Leaving the goldfields with a personal wealth of £20,000, James Tyson acquired further property in New South Wales and Gippsland before moving to the Darling Downs. From there, he made huge Queensland acquisitions, including his flagship 2.1 million acre Tinnenburra, near Cunnamulla.
He was a loner who avoided people and was said never to have entered a church, a pub or a theatre. He never married and died intestate: his vast wealth was divided among his extended family.
James Tyson used his wealth to support his adopted state during tough economic times and to develop infrastructure and in 1893 he became The Hon James Tyson MLC, a member of the Queensland Upper House.
By 1898, James Tyson’s properties covered 5.3 million acres. His success came from a strong innate business sense. He practiced ‘management by walking around’, literally, dropping in unannounced on his far flung properties. In today’s terms, he ran a vertically integrated business. His biographer Zita Denholm wrote that there were “Tyson cattle shifted by Tyson drovers riding Tyson horses from Tyson breeding property to Tyson fattening country”.
For James Tyson, “Money was nothing. It was the ‘little game’ that was fun. The little game was ‘fighting the desert.’ That has been my work. I have been fighting the desert all my life and I have won. I have put water where there was no water and beef where there was no beef. I have put fences and roads where there were no roads. Nothing can undo what I have done and millions will be happier for it after I am long dead and forgotten”.
In 1898 James Tyson’s wealth was estimated at £2.36 million (the equivalent of $13 billion today), which was 1.3% of Australia’s GDP. This had been reduced from £5 million by the severe drought of the 1890s.