DRAKE James George

Years active
24 September 1903 – 27 April 1904
Portrait of James George Drake - National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn4672668. Portrait of James George Drake, ca. 1900, 2.



James George Drake was born on 26 April 1850 in London, England, the son of publican Edward Drake and Ann Fanny, née Hyde. After attending King's College School in London, he worked for some years for wholesale merchants dealing in spices, foods and beverages. At age 23 he emigrated to Australia, arriving in Brisbane on the iron barque Abbey Holme on 14 January 1874. Unsuccessful in his initial search for work in the Stanthorpe tin mines, he found clerical jobs in stores in Toowoomba and Brisbane. He also worked briefly as a jackaroo at Barcoo in Western Queensland before starting a career as a journalist.

Employed first by provincial newspapers in Bundaberg and Rockhampton, then by the Brisbane daily papers, the Courier and the Telegraph, Drake went to Melbourne for a time as a parliamentary reporter with the Argus. His interest in politics stimulated, he returned to Queensland in 1876 to work as a Hansard reporter for the next six years. A competent shorthand writer he was at one time president of the Queensland Shorthand Writers' Association.

Studying law while on the Hansard staff, Drake was admitted to the Queensland and Victorian Bars in 1882, then quickly established a flourishing legal practice in Brisbane. Opposed to the division between barristers and solicitors he insisted on being known simply as a legal practitioner. Elected to the Queensland Legislative Assembly as the member for Enoggera in 1888, Drake held the seat, in Opposition, until 1899. That year he accepted appointment as government leader in the Legislative Council, serving until 1901 in that role and those of Postmaster-General and Secretary for Public Instruction. Co-founding and editing a radical newspaper, Boomerang, between 1887 and 1890, he used it and his later publication, Progress, to promote his political causes – protectionism, the general restriction of non-white immigration, federation of the Australian colonies, and opposition to the use of Kanaka labour in Queensland. During the same period he was an officer in the 1st (Moreton) Regiment of the Queensland Defence Force, rising to the rank of major by 1901. On 25 June 1897 he married Mary Street in a Baptist ceremony in a private house in Quay Street, Brisbane.

Enthusiastic about federation as a product of popular sentiment, Drake chaired the Queensland Federation League and was influential in disseminating the messages of the federal movement to the general public. When Australia's first Minister for Defence, Sir James Dickson2, died on 10 January 1901 after just a week in office, the inaugural Commonwealth ministry which preceded the first federal elections had to be restructured. Drake was invited by Prime Minister Edmund Barton to take on the portfolio of Postmaster-General. Reappointed after being elected to the Senate as a Protectionist on 30 March 1901, Drake was tasked with establishing the largest of the seven new government departments, and with the creation of a uniform national post and telegraph system. Convinced that government should be truly federal, he insisted that no State should get preferential treatment in the provision of services. Thorough and deliberate in his personal approach, he objected when legislation was rushed through the Senate. In Parliament he called for the abolition of Kanaka labour, supported the appointment of a public service commissioner and board to control the Commonwealth public service and urged the appointment of more judges to the High Court, which he believed should be Australia's final appellate body.

Minister for Defence for six weeks in August-September 1903, just before Barton's resignation and the end of this government, Drake helped steer the Defence Act 1903 through Parliament. Attorney‑General in the Deakin ministry from 24 September 1903 to 27 April 1904, Drake was the first to present his commission to the High Court at its inaugural sitting on 6 October 1903 – and he led successfully in the first constitutional case in the Court, D'Emden v Pedder.3 The decision in this case prevented the States collecting stamp duty on salaries paid by the Commonwealth and defined the limits to Commonwealth legislative power in relation to the States and vice versa. Described by his departmental Secretary, Robert Garran, as a 'capable administrator' and a 'sound lawyer',4 Drake provided more than 50 formal opinions on various topics during his seven months as Attorney-General.

Vice-President of the Executive Council in the Reid-McLean coalition government from August 1904 to July 1905, but not included in Deakin's next ministry, Drake opted to retire at the end of his term, on 31 December 1906. In an attempt to counter anti-federal feeling in Queensland he had founded a new broadsheet, Commonwealth, but the paper was boycotted. Unsuccessful in his bid for the State seat of North Brisbane in 1907 Drake returned to practising law. From 1910 to 1920 he was the State crown prosecutor, retaining the right of private practice, and on occasion served as a deputy judge in district courts. Retired from State government posts on the grounds of age, he continued practising at the Bar until he was 91. Late in life he continued to serve as a councillor of the Brisbane branch of the Royal Society of St George and as chairman of the local committee for the Trinity College of Music in London. Always modest about his achievements, he was renowned for his superb memory and exceptional knowledge of English literature. He was a long-term member of Brisbane's Johnsonian Club, and had been vice-president of the Brisbane branch of the English-speaking Union.

After 1935, Drake was the last remaining member of the first Commonwealth ministry. He died in Brisbane Hospital at the age of 91 on 1 August 1941 and was buried in Toowong Cemetery. Outliving his wife by 17 years, he was survived by their son and their three daughters.

  1. Biography written by Carmel Meiklejohn with reference to:
    • Derek Drinkwater, 'Drake, James George (1850‑1941)', in Ann Millar (editor), The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Volume 1, 1901–1929, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, 2000.
    • HJ Gibbney, 'Drake, James George (1850–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/drake-james-george-6013/text10275, accessed 24 May 2012.
    • Parliamentary Library, Department of Parliamentary Services, 43rd Parliament: Parliamentary Handbook of the Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2011.
  2. Sir James Robert Dickson (1832-1901) was previously Premier of Queensland.
  3. D'Emden v Pedder (1904) 1 CLR 91.
  4. Sir Robert Randolph Garran, Prosper the Commonwealth, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1958, p. 156.

Opinions by this author

Opinion Number Subject Opinion Date
Opinion Number. 158


Opinion Number. 159


Opinion Number. 160


Opinion Number. 161


Opinion Number. 163


Opinion Number. 166


Opinion Number. 167


Opinion Number. 168


Opinion Number. 169


Opinion Number. 171