Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gordon, James (1779–1842)

by A. Rand

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

James Gordon, copy of original painting, believed to be by Thomas Wainewright, which was lost in a bushfire in 1967, n.d.

James Gordon, copy of original painting, believed to be by Thomas Wainewright, which was lost in a bushfire in 1967, n.d.

photo provided by the Historical Society of Sorell, Tasmania

James Gordon (1779-1842), magistrate, was born at Forcett, Yorkshire, England, the son of John Gordon, steward of the Stanwick estates of the Duke of Northumberland, a noted exporter of stud Teeswater sheep to New South Wales. In 1806 he emigrated to Sydney and soon entered mercantile life there, trading with China, New Zealand and Macquarie Island. In the rebellion against William Bligh he remained loyal and signed an address of sympathy to the deposed governor. In January 1814 he married Elizabeth Emily, daughter of Dr Thomas Arndell.

Recommended by his English connexions, in April 1814 Gordon was appointed Naval Officer at Hobart Town, and soon afterwards became treasurer of the police fund, a magistrate and a member of the Lieutenant-Governor's Court, but in August 1815 he left the Naval Office to farm his 600-acre (243 ha) grant at Sorell. His name soon appeared regularly on lists of those supplying the commissariat and visiting ships with meat and vegetables, and by 1819 he had wheat, peas, barley and potatoes growing in commercial quantities, as well as 300 cattle and 450 sheep. In 1826 he was made a coroner and as local magistrate represented district interests in official quarters. Appointed in 1820 to the committee for distributing imported rams, he encouraged local farmers to invest in them to improve their flocks. He ensured the assignment to the district of skilled labour during crucial harvest months, suggested improvements in the management of the ferries vital to Pittwater settlers, and preached the wisdom of treating kindly the Aboriginals. An advanced farmer, in 1830 he was asked to report to Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur on the agricultural possibilities of the colony, and presented an authoritative account of the suitability of various crops to local soils and conditions. He experimented successfully with a steam process to reduce the incidence of smut in wheat; of less creditable memory is his introduction of the Scotch thistle, apparently for sentimental reasons.

On the death of John Lakeland, the principal superintendent of convicts, a nephew of Gordon's and married to his wife's sister, Arthur enthusiastically appointed Gordon to the office in December 1828 at £350 a year. It proved an exhausting and thankless post, and he was glad to be promoted the following June to be police magistrate at Launceston. Transfer to the vacant police office at Richmond in September suited his interests even better, but discovery of the confusion left in his records while at the Convict Department brought a warning of the need for 'the most active and attentive habits of business' as an administrative officer in a penal colony. Five months later there commenced a series of complaints from other colonial departments affected by his failure to keep regular financial returns, a defect William Sorell had noticed as early as 1819. He was cleared of suspicion of fraud, promised to reform and at once prepared twelve of the eighteen outstanding monthly returns; but punctuality and precision seemed foreign to his nature, and there his efforts ended and the complaints resumed. Finally in March 1832, after two more inquiries and repeated warnings, he was asked to resign. For the moment thankful to Arthur for not gazetting his removal, he was later riled by the checking of his accounts by a tactless young police officer, and turned a sympathetic ear to the rebellious Gilbert Robertson. Persuaded that he had been removed to provide a sinecure for Arthur's private secretary, William Parramore, he presented his case to the Colonial Office and, despite the financial difficulties which in 1832 brought several sheriff's notices against him, went to the expense of publishing The Correspondence Relating to the Resignation of Mr. Gordon as Police Magistrate of Richmond (Hobart, 1832). The appeal to the Colonial Office failed, and the pamphlet proved disastrous. A review in the Tasmanian incensed Gordon, who charged Henry Savery, a convict holding a ticket-of-leave on the Tasmanian's staff and thought to have been author of the review, with violation of the regulation forbidding convicts to write for newspapers. The real objects of the trial were not so much to punish Savery as to inconvenience the editor of the Tasmanian and to discredit in England the lieutenant-governor under whose administration convicts were employed by the press. Gordon's instructions to his counsel to this effect were discovered and read to the Executive Council who recommended his removal from the Commission of the Peace and from the Legislative Council to which he had been appointed in 1829. Although not deprived of council membership at once, Gordon lost all sense of dignity with his exposure, and began publicly abusing the council outside its doors; finally Arthur's patience became exhausted, and he appealed for Gordon's replacement, which was made in 1835.

His disastrous relationship with Robertson and his unscrupulous anti-Arthur confederates caused the complete collapse of Gordon's former character as an honourable and responsible public servant. Gordon retired to his estate, devoted his energies more profitably to the upbringing of his Lakeland wards, of whom, childless himself, he was very fond, cleared his property of debt, became churchwarden at Sorell, and recovered sufficient esteem to become a friend of the Franklins. After some months illness, he died at Forcett on 18 August 1842, leaving his estate, valued during the depression at £2000, to his wife for her disposal among their close relatives.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 7, 8, series 3, vols 2-4
  • E. M. Miller, Pressmen and Governors (Syd, 1952)
  • CO 323/135/16
  • correspondence file under Gordon (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

A. Rand, 'Gordon, James (1779–1842)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/gordon-james-2106/text2557, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 27 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017

James Gordon, copy of original painting, believed to be by Thomas Wainewright, which was lost in a bushfire in 1967, n.d.

James Gordon, copy of original painting, believed to be by Thomas Wainewright, which was lost in a bushfire in 1967, n.d.

photo provided by the Historical Society of Sorell, Tasmania