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James Chisholm (1772–1837)

by Chis Maxwell and Alex Pugh

James Chisholm (1772–1837), soldier, merchant and landowner, was born at Mid Calder, in the Scottish lowlands. At the age of 16, he enlisted in the 29th Regiment of Foot, transferring to the NSW Corps in 1790 with the rank of private. He travelled to NSW as part of the Third Fleet contingent of the NSW Corps, guarding convicts on the whaler Britannia. He arrived at Port Jackson in 1791 where he was assigned to Major Francis Grose’s headquarters company.

In 1793, Chisholm assisted the Surveyor-General, Baron Augustus Alt, to set out town allotments along Spring Row, later George Street. Chisholm himself resided at one of these lots, adjacent to the new Parade Ground and Barracks, where he undertook the duties of a tailor. By July 1798, when he was promoted to corporal, he had become the “Master Taylor” of the Regiment. Because of these duties, Chisholm did not have active involvement in the suppression of the Castle Hill Rebellion of 1804. In 1806 he married 21-year-old Mary Brown, daughter of the Scottish free emigrant settler, David Brown. Later that year their son, James Chisholm Junior, was born. Chisholm was illiterate at the time of his marriage but, under Mary’s tutelage, was able to read and write as early as 1808 when he was promoted to Sergeant.

Chisholm was not a player in the Rum Rebellion, which deposed Governor Bligh in January 1808. He was aligned with Joseph Foveaux and William Paterson, both of whom were opposed to the perpetrators of the Rebellion. Governor Macquarie later favoured Chisholm for his loyalty to the Crown. In 1808 Chisholm dealt as an agent in real estate and mortgage transactions, obtained his first rural land at the Eastern Farms and began trading in agricultural commodities. The following year he purchased the lease on two town lots, previously owned by Sergeant-Major William Jamieson, and adjacent to his own land in Spring Row, where he was licenced to retail wine and spirits. The premises, later named the Crown and Thistle, was continuously licenced until 1822.

In 1810 Chisholm requested and received his discharge from the army, never returning to military service or tailoring. Macquarie renewed the leases to his land in George Street (as Spring Row was renamed), and granted him one of only 20 liquor licenses issued in 1810. Chisholm then launched into a career as an importer and retailer of wine and spirits, a producer of rural produce for sale into the Commissariat, a trustee of deceased estates and mortgages, a land agent and developer. As a consequence of his mercantile interests, he was an early agitator for monetary reform and the establishment of a colonial currency. He also accumulated town and country real estate in his own right, eventually owning some 23,000 acres stretching from the County of Cumberland to the Southern Tablelands. His Sydney real estate included a 379-foot frontage along the eastern side of George Street. With a few minor setbacks, the diversity of his business allowed him to weather the economic crisis of 1812-1815 and he become a wealthy and influential Sydney businessman.

Chisholm’s first wife died in 1817. Soon after, 11-year-old James Chisholm Junior travelled to Calcutta, where he lived, worked, and attended school, under the care of his father’s business partner John Campbell Burton. In 1818, while his son was away, Chisholm married 21-year-old Mary Bowman (1796-1878), daughter of John and Honor Bowman of Archerfield, Richmond.

In 1817, Chisholm was one of the “principal merchants” invited by Governor Macquarie to a meeting that led to the formation of Australia’s first trading bank. He sold his spirits licence to Mary Reibey in 1822, and leased the Crown and Thistle to the Bank of NSW, wherein it conducted business until 1853. He was one of the original shareholders in the bank and later became a director (1826).  In 1821-22, Chisholm commenced building a substantial country residence on his 57-acre Newtown Farm, today in the suburb of Redfern, and it became his principal residence for the remainder of his life.

Chisholm gave to public and private charitable institutions and served on their councils and committees. The Presbyterian Church sponsored many of these charities, but he also supported the construction of the first Roman Catholic chapel in Hyde Park. He contributed to Scots Church in Sydney (1826) and its associated religious-social schemes, principally through his loyalty to the spiritual leadership of Rev. John Dunmore Lang (1799–1878). He was a founding trustee of the Sydney Public Free Grammar School of Dr Laurence Hynes Halloran (1824), a founding governor of Sydney College (1830), and a supporter, shareholder and councillor of Lang’s Australian College (1831). In the field of assisted emigration, Chisholm was a committee member and treasurer of Lang’s Emigrant’s Friend Society (1832). In addition to his interests in the Bank of NSW, Chisholm became a founding shareholder in the Bank of Australia in July 1826, and later a trustee of the Savings Bank of NSW, which opened in 1832 at his property next door to the trading bank.

Chisholm had long and active involvement in the colonial court system of NSW (1822-37): serving as a member of the Governor’s Court (1822-23) and the ‘grand juries’ and juries of the Quarter Sessions courts (1823-36), being their first Foreman (1824). He was prominent in initiatives for political change through his association with William Charles Wentworth (1790-1872). He backed Wentworth in his campaigns for trial by jury, taxation reform and representative government in the form of an elected Legislative Assembly, being a founding member of the Australian Patriotic Association (1835). While aligned with Lang and Wentworth, two of the most turbulent characters of his age, Chisholm was a democratic reformer, rather than a radical. Throughout his public service, he maintained his family and business interests, and remained loyal to his friends.

James Chisholm died in March 1837, aged 65. His second wife, his eldest son James Junior and seven children of his second marriage survived him. He was initially buried on Newtown Farm, according to the rites of the Presbyterian Church, but the remains were moved with his first wife to St Stephen’s Church of England Cemetery, Camperdown, in 1867, where they remain. His descendants built upon Chisholm’s legacy as a wealthy merchant, political reformer and landowner. His widow Mary Chisholm was a successful pastoralist and businesswoman in her own right. James Chisholm Junior became a pioneer sheep breeder and woolgrower, an elected member of parliament for the seat of King and Georgiana (1851-56) and a Legislative Councillor (1865-88).  His sons, James Junior and his half-brother John William, expanded the Chisholm family land holdings over the Breadalbane Plains west of Goulburn, and beyond, throughout the nineteenth century, eventually controlling some two million acres of Australia.

Original Publication

Select Bibliography

  • Bonwick Transcripts, 1641-1892, Mitchell Library (ML): BT 1-88, Series 1, BT 27
  • Chisholm, J. K , Speeches and Reminiscences , Sydney: Angus & Robertson
  • Chisholm, Miriam, Papers, National Library of Australia (NLA) MS6207 [Series (S) 1 to 8, Folders (F) 1-103; 19 document boxes (B), 3 Folio boxes]
  • Chown, Carolyn , The Clan Chisholm in Australia, 1790-1990 , St Ives NSW: Carolyn Chown
  • Maxwell, Chis and Pugh, Alex , The Merchant of Sydney: James Chisholm (1772-1837) , Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing
  • National Archives of the United Kingdom (NAUK), Muster Books, Muster Rolls and Pay Lists of the 102nd Foot (NSW Corps), War Office Records (WO)
  • State Records of New South Wales (SRNSW), Colonial Secretary Papers, 1788-1825

Additional Resources

Citation details

Chis Maxwell and Alex Pugh, 'Chisholm, James (1772–1837)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 May 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


23 January, 1772
Mid-Calder, West Lothian, Scotland


31 March, 1837 (aged 65)
Newtown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


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