James Elder - Port Melbourne hero

James Elder (1876 to 1942) was a waterside labourer who, between 1901 and 1909, saved at least fourteen people from drowning in the Port Melbourne area.

In recognition of the rescues, Elder became the most honoured person in the history of the Royal Humane Society of Australasia. Following some of the rescues he was awarded, over time, a Bronze Medal with two bars, two Certificates of Merit and two letters of Commendation.

The Weekly Times in 1904 reported “his plucky conduct was the more prideworthy as the bay for days past has been infected with sharks”. His record of rescues was widely reported at the time and, after breaking his collarbone during one rescue, the mayor of Port Melbourne collected donations in recognition of his bravery.

Elder died at the age of 65 from broncho-pheumonia.

Image: The Weekly Times, Victoria, 30 January 1904

Extracts from newspapers related to James Elder's actions: 

The Argus Saturday 14 February 1903

The Royal Humane Society of Australasia has awarded certificates of merit to James Elder, of Port Melbourne, who rescued Ida Lister (6) from drowning at the Railway Pier, Port Melbourne on New Year's Day.   


The Australasian Saturday 30 January 1904


James Elder, a casual employee on the Port Melbourne Railway Pier, holds a remarkable record for rescuing drowning people. He has saved nine lives within a year or two. His last rescue was effected on January 22, when a drunken man fell into the sea as the Persic was leaving the Port Melbourne pier. Elder stripped off his coat, and plunged after him. A lifebuoy was thrown, but Elder had actually to lash the man in it in order to prevent him struggling out. Eventually the man was hauled on to the pier, and arrested for being drunk: Elder holds three medals and three certificates for life-saving.


The Argus Thursday 7 October 1909


At about 12 o'clock on Tuesday night a scream was heard coming from the Railway Pier, Port Melbourne, and it was ascertained that Mrs. Allen, wife of one of the engineers on board the Steamship Suevic, had slipped from the pier, where she had been taking a walk with her husband. James Elder, the railway employee, who has saved so many lives, heard the cry for help, and ran about 100 yards and jumped into the water. He managed to get hold of Mrs. Allen and support her till a rope was thrown. Mrs. Allen and Elder were then drawn out of the water. The former was taken on board the Suevic and soon recovered.

This is the fourteenth rescue from drowning made by James Elder, who has been awarded several medals for bravery. On the last occasion, when he broke his collar-bone in rescuing a seaman, a sum of money was collected for him in recognition of his bravery.


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