James Munday (1840 – 1906), a man of enterprise and foresight, was a well-known Geelong identity. He was not only the founder of a successful family business which continued through four generations, but he was also a big-hearted, generous man whose various houses were filled with his numerous children, relatives and friends. He was a colourful character, with a touch of larrikin, who made and lost large amounts of money, and held several positions of responsibility in Geelong and Torquay. He was a member of the Torquay Improvement Association and appointed by the Minister for Lands as a Trustee of the Torquay Recreation Reserves. James was also a member of the Torquay Racing Club. It was at his instance that the annual race meeting be conducted on New Year’s Day with the finish post at the front of the Palace Hotel.
James, the son of Neil and Ann (Doherty) Munday was born in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, Ireland, in 1840. The family moved to the United States of America when James was a child, along with many other Irish people escaping the notorious potato famine of the 1840s. Although James settled in Australia, and was grateful for the riches the new land provided, he never naturalised and often boasted of his American background. He erected a flagpole at all the houses he owned. E. J. Taylor recalled James constructing a pine double masted pole at his Torquay house and always flying the American flag. His father, J.W. Taylor, not to be outdone, built another flagpole, double masted, two feet higher than James Munday’s. The Taylor family flew the Union Jack and the Australian flag. William Beales, not to be outdone, put up a flagpole and as he called his home “The Pirates’ Lair” he always flew the scull and crossbones. In the 1890s, a Geelong journal described him as a “thoroughly cosmopolitan, for whilst to all who know him he is undoubtedly an Irishman he is also an American citizen, and yet we have long accepted him as an Australian.”
James apprenticed to a Newark, New Jersey tanner, completing his Diploma of Tannage at Cleveland, Ohio in 1863. In the same year, he sailed for Australia aboard the Leonora. With him was his lifelong friend and fellow tanner, Peter McGlynn. It is unknown whether it was the American Civil War or some rumoured strife Peter McGlynn was involved in that caused the two to set sail for Australia. James was known for his tall stories.
The pair arrived in Sydney and for a time worked on the Queensland Overland Telegraph Line before moving to Victoria. Peter established a tannery in Richmond and James one in Geelong.
The prosperous Munday tanning business had its modest beginnings when James worked on the banks of the Barwon River downstream from a fellmongery. He would collect the sheepskins that floated as waste down the river to make shammy and basil leather. By 1866, he had built up sufficient capital to rent a tannery in South Geelong from a Mr. Douglass.
On 10th May, 1870 he married Margaret Harvey of Richmond. It was a fruitful marriage with eight children born, though only five reached adulthood.
About this time, James leased a fellmongery, formerly conducted by Mr. Foster Marshall, at Barwon Bend and set up the Barwonside Tannery. It was the first tannery in the area to branch away from ordinary leather, manufacturing in fancy leathers such as moroccos, kid and coloured roans. He continued to produce ordinary leather for shoe soles and uppers at his original establishment a quarter of a mile upstream. At this time, he employed about twenty hands and he used about eighty to ninety hides weekly as well as sheepskins, calfskins and goatskins. The Geelong Advertiser wrote in 1873 that the Barwonside Tannery was being guided by the spirit of a “pushing, energetic man, who is rising slowly and surely in the scale of prosperity”.
Although his main production line was to become leather belting for driving machinery, James’ major interest was fancy leathers. He was a pioneer in the development of treatment methods. Despite the high quality and comparative cheapness of his products, initially James had marketing problems. There was considerable prejudice in the Colony in favour of imports over local products, James succeeded in overcoming the resistance and his goods were to be famous at home and in England, where he managed to establish a market.
Overcoming some strong opposition, in 1875, after sustained agitation, James bought two acres of river frontage and quickly built a state-of-the-art tannery which he named “The Geelong Tannery”. His business quickly expanded.
James’ wife, Margaret Munday, died on 30th April, 1885 and on 14th July, 1886 he married Teresa Cass, of Glenrowan. This marriage was also a productive one, with nine more Munday children being born. Four of these children died in infancy.
Clarice McCabe Doyle, whose parents were close friends of the Mundays, recalls staying at the Munday beach house in Torquay. The girls stayed there through the summer and the boys rode down on their bicycles at the weekend. The place was always full of people and there was a sort of dormitory for the girls and another for the boys. There were picnics and walks and always singing. Everyone sat around the table where Pa (James) carved the joint and there was much hilarity. There was no mixed bathing in those days and whichever group got in first (it was usually the boys) took priority. The others waited until they returned to the house before heading off for their dip.
James was a gregarious man with many interests and fondness of a drop of whisky. He loved horses and was involved in harness racing. In 1886, his three-year-old trotter, “Barwon”, won the second Australian Sires Produce Stakes at Elsternwick. Agnes (James daughter was five when her father died) recalls hearing that he and his friends had an unofficial “racing course” around the Geelong streets where they raced their buggies. Hence is commitment to horse racing in Torquay.
As well as his contribution to the development and growth of Torquay, James was vice-president of the Geelong Imperial Cricket Club, member of the Geelong Volunteer Fire Brigade and a Life Member of the Geelong Fox Terrier Club. The Geelong Advertiser wrote in 1892 that “He brought his progressive and enterprising sprit to bear on public affairs.” For years, he represented the South Barwon ward on the Geelong Town Council, was a member of the Geelong Hospital Committee, the Geelong Chamber of Commerce, the Geelong Free Library and was the elected Director of the Exhibition Hall Committee. In the 1890s, he was one of the businessmen who put up money to bring electricity to Geelong and to establish a tramway service.
‘Riviera’, the Munday home in Myers Street, had seventeen rooms. It was the original Holy Cross Hospital, later St. John of God. The house was then demolished to make way for modern extensions.
On 7th September, 1906, James died suddenly of a ruptured aneurism of the aorta.