Agnew, Sir James Willson 1815-1901, prime minister of Tasmania, born at Ballyclare, co. Antrim, Ireland, on 2 Oct. 1815, was son of James William Agnew and Ellen Stewart of Larne, co. Antrim. Educated for the medical profession at University College, London, at Paris, and Glasgow, he qualified as M.R.C.S. in 1838 and graduated M.D. at Glasgow in 1839. He almost immediately started for Sydney, N.S.W., sailing on the Wilmot. He spent a few months practising in Sydney, and then tried for a time the rough station life of the western part of Victoria. Subsequently he reached Hobart, and there he was disappointed of the post of private secretary to Sir John Franklin, then governor of Tasmania. On 24 Dec. 1841 he became assistant surgeon on the agricultural establishment; in July 1842 he was removed to Saltwater Creek in the same capacity, and on 28 Feb. 1845 he was transferred to be colonial assistant surgeon at Hobart, with charge of the general hospital. With this work he combined a general practice which laid the foundation of his influence amongst the people of Hobart. Yet he found time for studies in science and art; one of the founders of the Tasmanian Royal Society, he joined the council in 1851, and became honorary secretary in 1860.
In 1877 Agnew gave up his practice and entered the legislative council as member for Hobart at the general election of July 1877. From 9 Aug. 1877 to 5 March 1878 he served with Philip Oakley Fysh as minister without a portfolio, and continued in the ministry as reconstructed under Giblin till 20 Dec. 1878. He was again in office with Giblin from 29 Oct. 1879 to 5 Feb. 1880, when he resigned in order to visit the Melbourne Exhibition, being president of the Tasmanian Commission; thence he proceeded to England (see Fenton's Hist. Tasm. p. 370, note).
Returning from England in 1881, Agnew re-entered the legislative council in 1884. On 8 March 1886 he formed a ministry in succession to (Sir) Adye Douglas [qv.], and was premier till 29 March 1887; he was also chief secretary till 1 March. His tenure of office was marked by educational reform. In 1891 he left the colony for a long visit to England, returning to Tasmania in 1894, when he was made K.C.M.G. In 1899 he was disabled by illness, and died at Hobart on 8 Nov. 1901. He was accorded a public funeral and buried at the Cornelian Bay cemetery.
Good doctor Agnew left his mark on Tasmania alike in public life, science, and art. He was a contributor to the Journal of the Tasmanian Royal Society, his chief papers (1843 and 1864) being on the poison of Tasmanian snakes. He was a liberal donor to the museum at Hobart, of which, as well as of the botanic garden, he was the first chairman. In 1888 he bore the cost of the last shipment of salmon ova to Tasmania. He was a member of the council of education and of the university till 1891, when he resigned on absence from the colony. He was also president of the racing club.
Agnew married: (1) in 1846, Louisa Mary, daughter of Major J. Fraser of the 78th highlanders; she died on 10 March 1868; by her he had eight children, of whom one married daughter survives; (2) in 1878, Blanche, daughter of William Legge, of Tipperary, widow of Rev. Dr. Parsons of Hobart; she died without issue on 16 Dec. 1891.
A portrait painted by Tennyson Cole is in the Art Gallery in Hobart.
Tasmanian Mail, 9 and 16 Nov. 1901 (with portrait)
Mennell's Dict. Australas. Biog.
Burke's Colonial Gentry, ii. 592
Tasmanian Blue Books
Contributor: C. A. H. [Charles Alexander Harris]