Straight-backed, trim-bearded, keen-eyed and sprightly, Watson was a familiar figure in the city streets. – Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12 (1990)

About Watson

Captain J .H. Watson / [portrait painted by] Joseph Wolinski, 1928, ML 780 [Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales]

Born in Devonshire, England, Captain James Henry Watson (1841-1934) served with the British militia and was promoted to captain in the 1st Infantry Regiment, New South Wales, in 1889, later resigning his command in 1892. As well as his military service, Watson had a varied business career. He worked in Victoria, England and India, including time spent in the service of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway Co. In 1880 he moved to Sydney to become a department manager for David Jones. He used the business skills he learnt from his employers to establish his own company in 1889 – Beard, Watson & Co., carpet warehousemen.

After his very successful business career, Watson retired in 1901 to become a major contributor to Australian History. He joined the RAHS (then Australian Historical Society) in 1904 and immersed himself in Australian History research, answering members’ family and local history queries, and exploring cemeteries for genealogical information. Watson’s historical research interests included the history of churches, shipping, and early Australian towns and families. He had twenty-nine papers published in the Journal of Australian Historical Society on his favourite topics.

In 1916, Watson received an RAHS Fellowship to honour his contribution to the RAHS and Australian History. He served as President in 1909, 1926 and 1927. Businessman and historian, Watson was also known as a style icon of his time:

… his erect figure and springy step as he passed along the city streets being the envy and admiration of those who knew him.  – Oddfellows Mag, June 15, 1930

About the Watson Collection

The collection includes 230 glass lanterns slides which showcase early NSW history; 32 volumes of press clippings which contained newspaper cuttings, historical papers and photographs; 20 manuscripts; 80 photographs of the Sydney region and of the RAHS excursions; museum objects and over 60 books. Some of the books include a rare first edition of David Collins’ An Account of English colony in NSW published in 1798 and an original copy of William Well’s A Geographical Dictionary published in 1848. In 2002 the RAHS purchased a small 193-paged journal that recorded Watson’s personal accounts of RAHS historical excursions between 1924-1926. The volume includes photographs, letters, handwritten and typed accounts, maps, newspaper clippings and list of the excursionists.


K.R. Cramp, ‘Captain J.H. Watson. A Life Sketch and an Appreciation’, JRAHS Vol. 20, Pt. 6 (1934): pp. 432-439.

Ian Jack, ‘From the Presidential Desk’, History Magazine, Jun. 2004.

Diane Langmore, ‘Watson, James Henry (1841–1934)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 4 November 2020.

Oddfellows Magazine, 15 June 1930.