“What obstacle can stay the mighty force of the sea-seeking river in its course?” asks Ella Wilcox.
“There is no chance, no destiny, no fate,” she proclaims, “that can circumvent, or hinder, or control the firm resolve of a determined soul. Gifts count for nothing; will alone is great; all things give way before it sooner or later… Let the fool prate of luck. The fortunate s he whose earnest purpose never swerves, whose slightest action or inaction serves the one great aim. Why, even Death stands still and waits an hour sometimes for such a will. All things give way before it, soon or late.”
“All that I am, I made myself!” said James Tyson, Australia’s first self-made millionaire.
“Fighting the desert. That has been my work. I have been fighting the desert all my life, and I have won. I have put water where there was no water, and beef where there was no beef. I have put fences where there were no fences, and roads where there were no roads. Nothing can undo what I have done, and millions will be happier for it after I am long dead and forgotten.”
James Tyson was born in 1819, and although he had amassed a great fortune by the end of his life, he maintained frugal habits throughout his life, working no less continuously at seventy than he had done at seventeen, wearing a modest suit and eating the same food that had served him when he was younger.
Throughout his life, he lived outdoors and could boast that he had never tasted beer, wine or spirits, and that he attributed his astonishing success to the simple fact that, having started out as a mower as his first job, he “mowed longer and stronger than the rest of the boys,” and that he knew the economy of money.
His first experience earning his own bread outside of his family circle began when he was seventeen where he received wages of thirty pounds per year, the modern equivalent to five thousand dollars, working as a mower at a local farmstead. He was such a diligent worker that he mowed more in one season than all the other farmhands did over three seasons. On one occasion, his coworkers attempted to “cut him out” by hogging the shorter scythes in order to get an advantage over him. But he being big and strong, standing at 6’4, was able to take the larger scythe and still stay ahead of everybody else.
He left the farm at age twenty-four after saving sixty pounds — the equivalent of ten thousand dollars today — in the five years that he worked there, and used the money to purchase several livestock where he took off and lived off the land.
During this stint, he lived completely alone, hunting and trapping small game, with his rations including wheat to grind on a block for damper — a classic Australian staple traditionally cooked by Aborigines. For lack of time, he would often chew the wheat raw instead of going through the trouble of mixing it to make the bread. This occurred especially when he was riding on long trips, where he kept some of it in his pocket and occasionally threw handfuls in his mouth, “gristing it on the hoof,” as he put it, and then washing it down with some water.
He habitually rose at dawn and went to bed at dusk, so that he could save the oil in his lamp for when he needed it most. He lived in a distant section of the then-unknown interior where he was constantly in fear of being attacked by certain Aborigines who were still aggrieved by the genocidal colonization of their country by the Europeans.
He stayed on this station for a year and a half where he herded the cows and sold some off at the nearest towns, working hard and saving thirty-six pounds, which he then added to the first sixty pounds, giving him a total of ninety-six pounds in savings, about fifteen thousand dollars today. With this in hand, the ambitious young Tyson then called upon his younger brother William, who agreed to join him in the cattle herding business.
With a land lease from the bank, they began their first business venture and took up a small holding where they purchased more cattle. But bad seasons followed that year which caused them to leave that land which they had leased in search for better grazing pastures. While droving through this land, they forgot to renew their lease at the previous land, resulting in them loosing it to someone else. Furthermore, the bank where they had deposited all of their money went insolvent, causing them to lose all of their savings. The final blow was that the field where they were grazing had poisonous weeds which killed off most of their cattle, leaving just a handful.
The brothers left the venture, beaten but not defeated, to find work elsewhere where they could recover their losses. Tyson however, kept the cattle that remained, and grazed them slowly until they had regained their health, and sold them once again to neighboring towns, saving every penny which he made from each sale. After eight years of this effort, he had saved one hundred pounds, and again called his brother William to give the cattle ranching business another go. This time however, they found the perfect spot situated besides a river near a busy market in New South Wales, wagering that this was the perfect place, but bad luck followed them again. In their first year of business, a nationwide drought ensued and all of their newly purchased cattle died. They were again, to their dismay, broke, landless and this time without any surviving cattle at all. All Tyson had to his name was now just one coin, a shilling.
Defeated, but not daunted, he decided to find modest work, accepting an offer to work in a contract known as “thirds,” which means all the risk to the owner and a third of the increase to the caretaker. To do this, he needed upfront capital to the sum of five pounds as insurance, which he did not have. His net worth was one shilling, but he remembered that a certain Sir John Hay, for whom he had driven cattle for in the past, still owed him five pounds for work he had carried out but was not paid for. But all he knew about Sir John Hay is that he lived somewhere along the Murray River which was roughly 300 kilometers away. The country between the Murray and his current location was virtually trackless, but he knew the land somewhat, and decided that if he followed a certain path along the nearest river, the streams flowing down it would lead him to the Murray. And thus, he set out on horseback to find his debtor, Mr. Hay.
He brought some snacks along with him in addition to his one shilling, safely tucked in his rucksack. The journey, however, proved longer than he had anticipated, and after several days riding, his food rations were depleted, so that for the next three days he sustained himself with Sweetgrass which he gathered alongside the road.
When he did finally cross the range, tired and weak from hunger, he began to fear what any man would have feared from the beginning: that he would never find Mr. Hay’s mansion.
Travelling a bit further up he began to see signs of civilization, and noticed a cottage in the distance with an old man preparing to enter. He approached the man, wanting to ask his way, but hesitated, due to his shyness. As he reluctantly drew nearer, a young lady suddenly came out, “a beautiful bush bred girl, dark rosy, and well grown.” The finest woman he ever laid eyes on. He told her that he had wished to ask his way. She looked him up and down, and without answering, bade him to come inside and eat. He politely declined. But she laid both hands on his arm, and with a gentle nudge of persuasion, drew him in, saying, “You’re hungry, come in and eat.” Being “near famished,” he admits, and supposing she saw the truth in his eyes, he let himself in and did as she asked. She then called her sister to help get some food prepared and within minutes he was seated before a good hearty meal. He was not in the house longer than fifteen minutes before politely thanking them, and saying that he needed to be on his way.
He left, and never saw the girl again. But for twenty years afterwards he continued to visit the neighborhood to inquire about her, until he learned that she was now married. Then he thought it was time to discontinue his visits. His shyness, he explains, kept him from seeking to speak to her, but added, “she was the only woman I ever thought of marrying.”
When he finally did reach Mr Hay’s house, he discovered that he had no money for him, so he had to make the long journey back empty handed. Discouraged, he returned, this time taking a different route, following the river and catching fish along the way.
With his last remaining shilling, he purchased a boat to take him back to the other side of the river, knowing it would be better to be in a familiar place with no money than in an unfamiliar place with money.
When he reached where he was living, he was delighted to be reunited with his brother who had come with good news: he had sold the previous station they owned for twelve pounds. Thus, with this new capital, they decided to give the cattle business one last shot. They roamed far and wide in search of the best grazing land and eventually settled on the prosperous Murrumbidgee area.
One of the secrets of their success was that they relied on a method of grazing called “slow grazing,” which involved driving the cattle as slow as possible through other men’s fields. This fattened their cows and made them well nourished.
They carried on this wa for 2 years with great success, adding more and more cattle to their fold. It was later reported that gold had been discovered in Bendigo, an area near Murrumbidgee. While James had no interest in mining seeing as he was a herdsman, he reasoned that wherever there were miners, especially in that remote location, there would be a need for meat. Thus, he persuaded his brother that they should take their cattle and graze near there.
When they got to the mines, they set up their partnership in this manner: William was in charge of selling the meat while James roamed the countryside in search of livestock. His strategy was to meet exhausted drovers on the final stages of their long journey who had failed to sell at the quarry and offer them a fair price for their cattle, which they eagerly accepted. He would then slow graze the cattle for about two weeks, after which he would return back at Bendigo with fresh new cattle in good condition and sell off the meat.
Because it was widely believed that the gold rush would not last, cattle owners sold many of their cattle very quickly because they wanted to capitalize on the gold rush while they still had the chance. James, on the other hand, made a more accurate assessment of the situation. By examining the mine’s development, the area’s isolation, and keeping track of everyone who came and went, he correctly predicted that the market would persist for a good while, perhaps even decades.
The brothers then came up with a more effective business strategy, buying primarily from drovers rather than droving themselves, allowing them to concentrate solely on the butchery. In this way, the meat came to them rather than them driving to it. Because of the efficient supply network, drovers traveled great distances to sell to them, and both parties felt they had received a fair price. Later, two more brothers joined them. After four years, they split up, with James receiving 200,000 pounds (or, roughly, twenty-nine million pounds in today’s money). What the other brothers did with their money is unknown, but it is supposed that they took early retirement. James’s iron will however, moved him to buy even more cattle and even more property. He expanded his enterprise first to include the purchase of cattle not only on the road but also as far north as Queensland, and later to the purchase of stations and animals all over the outback, constructing wells, roads, fences, and introducing new stations wherever he went.
In Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland, he steadily bought up and acquired runs and holdings, properties, and stations, so that by his late 50’s he was the richest man in Australia and eventually the largest landowner in all seven colonies. He was also no absentee landlord, as he frequently visited his stands and developed them using methods that were far ahead of their time.
Although he spared no expense or effort in his business affairs, he kept frugal habits in his personal life, which can be traced back to his struggle for survival in his early years. He had no formal education but was a well-informed man with a flowing hand who must have been a financial genius. All of his difficult business was handled by himself, with particulars and specifics recorded in notebooks in his saddle bags. He moved between his stations on horseback, then later in a buggy, with the assistance of an Aborigine or two, of whom he stated were kind individuals; “I like the blacks,” he said of them. “Treat them well, and they will treat you well.”
On several occasions while out on business, he would randomly turn up to see how things were going and who was looking after his affairs while he was away. His lifelong chronic shyness and disdain for the flashy life saw him camp out in the open even when he was within eyesight of a settlement or a homestead where he would have been most welcome. He chose rather to remain anonymous, providing the names “Smith” or “Brown” if he met strangers. He could seldom recall the names of the individuals he met, and often addressed everyone he spoke to as “Mister” or “Misses,” and, strangely, avoided speaking to women entirely if he could help it.
He rarely visited cities, and when he did, he traveled in second class, claiming that he did so solely because there was no third class. When he got to a town or city, he stayed at the cheapest hotels, and was even known to swim across rivers to save a few shillings at the toll gate, with his matches and cheque book tucked away in his cap or between his teeth. On one such occasion, after drying himself out, he bought a property worth five million pounds in today’s money, signing a bank-guaranteed cheque for the entire amount on the spot.
His basic habits inspired numerous anecdotes and nicknames over the years, including “Daylight Jimmy,” which arose from his life-long habit of “early to bed, early to rise,” and also “The Billycan Millionaire,” for preferring his tea served out of a smoke blackened tin tea-pot instead of a regular tea pot. Later in life, while sitting around a campfire with a group of men, he was asked by one of them who was striking a match and lighting a pipe:
“And how, Sir Tyson, did you make all of your money?”
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing I didn’t do,” replied Tyson, humorously. “I never used a match to light a fire when a firestick would do.”
He believed there were more important things to do with his money than spend it the way others expected him to. He was accustomed to say that “Money, muscle, and intelligence were made for use, not abuse.” “Money shoved down a man’s throat or squandered on frivolous luxury might as well be tossed into the sea.”
His primary mission was to leave the world a better place than he found it, and gave generously to worthy causes. His lending of money without security to hardworking, needy people earned him a reputation as a generous philanthropist.
However, one incident cost him this reputation in some circles. When a church committee asked him for a donation toward building a church on the Darling Downs, he replied that he had no objection to it, despite not being a religious man, but on one condition only: that the whole bill be presented in one sum. The condition was graciously accepted and he gave a check without criticism for the full amount of the estimate presented.
The following year on his return to the station, the responsible authorities approached him again with an apology, saying they had forgotten an essential item when presenting their bill, and that he should please reconsider his original stipulation and give them more money for the construction of a lightning rod. Sensing that he was being duped, but being the gentleman that he was, politely replied, “No, gentlemen. That I will not do. I have already entrusted a church to almighty God, and if God can’t defend his own church from his own lightning, why should I?”
He had no love for worldly riches and used to say of the fortune he acquired that it was nothing but an instrument for his work and not a source of pleasure. When asked questions about his immense wealth he said, “I shall just leave it all behind me when I go, I will have done with it then, and it will not concern me afterwards.”
“But,” he would add with a semi-exultant snap of the fingers, “The money is nothing. It was the little game that was the fun!”
When asked, “What was the little game?” he replied with an energy of concentration peculiar to him:
“Fighting the desert! That has been my work. I have been fighting the desert all my life, and I have won. I have put water where there was no water, and beef where there was no beef. I have put fences where there were no fences and roads where there were no roads. Nothing can undo what I have done, and millions will be happier for it after I am long dead and forgotten.”
To him, as it was to many pioneer settlers in the outback in those days, the “desert” was a thing to be conquered, subdued and tamed for civilization. “The fight” was an epic of heroic endurance and marvelous achievement. As a consequence of his personal fight, however, he lived a long and lonely life, in which there was hardly any time to spare from his work for the formation of family or any of the common pleasures of life. He had no room for any aspiration beyond his purpose and at age seventy-one, having never taken a holiday in his life, he entertained for a while the idea of winding up his affairs and starting to see the world before he died, but finally rubbished the thought as one of self-indulgence and idleness.
His debilitating shyness which kept him from getting too close to people was the real tragedy of his otherwise highly successful life. In a letter to Henry Daniels at Felton in 1898 shortly before he died, he wrote: “I am very lonely. I have never knowingly injured a man in my life and I am over seventy years of age and haven’t a friend in the world. I have any amount of relatives. All the same, when you get old, you feel you would like someone to pay you some slight regard. I get very lonely at times…”
He died, as he had lived his entire life, alone, refusing to see a doctor to the end. But overall, he said of his life it had been a good one. When asked if he had ever been happy, he replied with brave simplicity; “Oh, sufficiently so; I am persuaded that attainment is nothing; the pleasure is in the pursuit, and I have been pursuing all my life. I consider that I have been happier than most men.”
A life in stark contrast to the ideals of others in his day who looked forward to nothing more than coming home to a house full of children, a happy and content wife, and a favorite dog wagging it’s tail at him at the end of a long day.
For these stories and more, check out my book on Amazon — Trials And Triumphs of Hyperachievers