Sins of the father: Qld’s gay philanthropist Dr James Mayne


dr james mayne
Image: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Dr James Mayne, the most generous philanthropist in Queensland history, nevertheless avoided the limelight, allegedly because of skeletons in the family closet.

Gay crime of passion

The story of Dr James Mayne begins with a murder — sometimes described as a gay crime of passion — committed long before his birth.

In 1848, north-eastern Australia remained a remote and neglected region of the colony of New South Wales. The township of Brisbane occupied mainly the area that now comprises its CBD. Across the river, the new suburb of Kangaroo Point boasted a handful of buildings and two boiling-down works.

With no bridges yet traversing the Brisbane River, people used boats to travel between the north and south banks. However, records indicate that before dredging, men — especially drunk men — sometimes crossed from Petrie Bight to Kangaroo Point on foot or horseback. The river was apparently less than a metre deep at low tide.

On a Sunday morning in March 1848, a boatman found part of a mutilated body in the river near the Bush Inn at Kangaroo Point. Another section was found nearby and the head recovered from an unfinished building in the vicinity.

The body was identified as Robert Cox, a recently arrived timber-getter. Circumstantial evidence pointed to William Fyfe, a cook at the Bush Inn where Robert Cox was staying. Although Cox only arrived in town days before, he and Fyfe, both former convicts, already knew each other. Witnesses testified they at first appeared like brothers, but then began to argue.

The afternoon before Cox’s death, both he and Fyfe were drinking and two witnesses saw them in Fyfe’s bed together. Later that night, Fyfe told the pub owner that Cox had left despite paying £4 (about a month’s wages) to lodge at the pub. William Fyfe stood trial in Sydney for the murder of Robert Cox, was convicted and hanged.

We’ll return to this 1848 murder. But first…

Patrick Mayne

Irishman Patrick Mayne worked as a low-paid butcher at a slaughterhouse in Kangaroo Point in 1848. But within a few years, he married and opened a butcher shop across the river on Queen Street, Brisbane’s most important thoroughfare. Patrick Mayne prospered, invested in land and became one of the first councillors elected to the Brisbane Municipal Council.

However, by the time of his death, Patrick Mayne faced financial difficulties. On December 1, 1864, a fire raged through the heart of Brisbane, a conflagration the Brisbane Courier described as wreaking ruin and desolation on the town.

“The whole of the business premises and private residences which occupied what may fairly be considered the most valuable site in Brisbane, were, in a couple of hours, reduced to a heap of ruins.”

Among the burned-out premises, a number of businesses belonging to Patrick Mayne. Additionally, he had large loans and seemed unable to recover about £4000 owed to him by customers. But after Patrick’s death, his wife Mary rebuilt the family fortune. His children inherited substantial wealth.

The Mayne children

None of the Mayne offspring ever married.

James, the youngest, received a BA from the University of Sydney before studying medicine at University College London. He worked at the Brisbane Hospital on his return to Queensland, first as Resident Medical Officer and then as Medical Superintendent. He donated his salary back to the hospital.

His eldest sister became a nun and spent much of her life confined in a straight jacket at All Hallows Convent after suffering a nervous breakdown. Brother Isaac, a lawyer, went insane and his siblings supposedly confined him in a boarded-up room of the family mansion. In recent decades, published rumour implicated Isaac in the 1904 murder of a young male Japanese sex worker named Tatsuzo Tobita.

However, newspaper records indicate Tatsuzo Tobita was a successful Fortitude Valley merchant. Associates said he suffered depression because of a broken engagement. A railway worker found his decapitated body on the train line at Milton after an apparent suicide. There is nothing to indicate Tatsuzo was a sex worker or that he was murdered. While that does not disprove a relationship with Isaac Mayne, no evidence has ever been offered of a connection.

However, Isaac did hang himself in a Sydney asylum the following year. Might mean something. Might not.

Dr James Mayne

Meanwhile, Dr James Mayne and his sister Mary Emilia quietly went about good works, renowned for their generosity to Brisbane charities.

Clive Moore describes Dr James Mayne in Sunshine and Rainbows as “always dressed fashionably. He wore a bowler hat, carried a silk paisley handkerchief in his breast pocket, and a sprig of flowers in his buttonhole, topped off on special occasions by a diamond stickpin in his lapel.”

The doctor was friends with Brisbane’s pioneer female medico Dr Lilian Cooper and her lifetime partner Josephine Bedford.

They moved in the same circles, sometimes attended social events together and shared a passion for giving back to their community.

When the University of Queensland looked to move from its confined space at the Botanic Gardens, James decided on St Lucia as an appropriate new location in consultation with his young gay friend Dr Fred Whitehouse, a geologist and keen rower — the riverside location ideal for the institution’s rowing teams.

James and Mary Emilia donated the money to buy the land. On their deaths, they bequeathed their entire estates to benefit medical education at the St Lucia campus.

The Mayne estate provides funds to the university to this day — million every year — through the profits of various real estate holdings including Brisbane Arcade, built by James on the site of his childhood home in Queen Street.

Sins of the father

But what of the skeletons in the Mayne closet?

Back to the aforementioned murder.

In 1997, historian Rosamond Siemon published The Mayne Inheritance, an ostensibly non-fiction book about Patrick Mayne and his family. Dr Siemon claimed the Mayne children made a pact never to marry or bear offspring due to their fear of passing on hereditary insanity.

Rosamond Siemon told how, on his deathbed, Patrick Mayne confessed to butchering Robert Cox in 1848 and setting up William Fyfe to hang for the murder. She narrates how horses balked at pulling the hearse at Patrick’s funeral. Spooky! And she details how Brisbane society ostracised the family over their tainted legacy.

Dr Siemon was an accomplished writer, a wonderful storyteller… and convincing. I loved the book.

Unfortunately, it’s bullshit.

No evidence exists for Patrick Mayne’s deathbed confession, nor his involvement in Robert Cox’s murder, nor that Brisbane society kept the Mayne family at arm’s length.

In fact, the evidence that William Fyfe murdered Robert Cox, although circumstantial, was substantive.

Certainly, at least two members of the Mayne family suffered from mental health problems, something that attracted social opprobrium. But also, at least two of the siblings were gay at a time when authorities punished gay sex severely. That in itself would explain some of the family’s social reserve.

Whether as a result of prejudice over Dr James Mayne’s sexuality, gossip about the family’s mental health issues or just because of his own retiring nature, Dr James Mayne receives little credit these days for his magnificent generosity to health and education in Queensland.

Dr James Mayne died in 1939. He is buried in the family crypt at Toowong cemetery.

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Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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