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Laidley, James (1786–1835)

by George Parsons

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

James Laidley (1786-1835), deputy commissary general, was born in March 1786 in Perthshire, Scotland, the son of John and Sarah Laidley. He was appointed a deputy assistant commissary general on 5 October 1810 and served in the Peninsular war. On 1 July 1814 he was promoted and sent to the West Indies, where he married Eliza Jane Shepheard of Barbados at Bridgetown on 10 August 1819. He then served in Canada and on 7 June 1825 became a deputy commissary general at Mauritius, where he stayed until ordered by the War Office to hold himself ready to proceed to New South Wales to replace William Wemyss.

Laidley arrived in Sydney with his wife and five children in the Orpheus on 12 May 1827. He took charge of the commissariat in a time of deepening commercial and financial crisis. He was soon involved in local newspaper politics and on 25 July 1827 the Sydney Gazette accused the Australian of 'mawkish wheedling' to win his favour. He also made an impression on colonial society and was elected to the council of the Agricultural and Horticultural Society in October 1827, was conspicuous in attendance at social functions and in contributing to charitable causes, and became a foundation member of the Australian Racing Club in 1828. By this time Laidley was well established and had been granted five acres (2 ha) at Woolloomooloo Cove. He also had another six acres (2.4 ha), four (1.6 ha) of which were cultivated, one horse and 150 cattle. Laidley gave evidence on behalf of Dr Henry Grattan Douglass in a libel action in September. Next year he began his own action for libel against Edward Smith Hall, and in June Laidley's Plains was named in his honour by Allan Cunningham.

In June 1827 on instructions from the Treasury Laidley began an inquiry into the administrative efficiency of the commissariat and concluded that the department had long been understaffed, causing undue delays in preparing and transmitting accounts and returns. Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling agreed with these conclusions, the staff was augmented, and in August the commissariat was ordered to divide the colony's expenditure into three classes, 'Colonial, Military and Convict', with separate vouchers and requisitions for each section. A board was also appointed to regulate the accounts between the commissariat and the colonial Treasury, though Laidley never seemed to realize the importance of co-operation between these two departments. Nor did he seem aware that much distress in the colony was being caused by the export of coin to Mauritius, where the rating on silver made it a more profitable form of remittance than Treasury bills.

Laidley showed no initiative in making economic policy decisions, for he saw his duty mainly as the implementation of policy rather than its formulation. He concentrated on the administration of his department, and reported in 1830 that his staff of forty officers and clerks was not unnecessarily large because of the complexity and extent of commissariat obligations. Next year, however, the commissariat was reorganized; when the accounts branch was abolished the Audit Commission objected to Laidley's methods of cash accounting and a new system was instituted.

In 1832 Treasury bills became scarce because of large exports of whale oil and wool, and in January Laidley was forced to seek a loan of £10,000 from the colonial Treasury. Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke predicted to the Colonial Office that the military chest would probably fail unless the loan was granted, and Laidley was directed to retain a quantity of Spanish dollars, which he had been ordered to send to England.

In 1834 Laidley sought to be remunerated for unpaid duties in 1827-31 by being given the purchase money for 3840 acres (1554 ha); the Colonial Office admitted the justice of his claim but rejected his proposal and awarded him £825 10s. from colonial funds. He was also recommended for payment for his services on the committee superintending the construction and repair of all military and convict buildings in 1832-34. Frequent loans were made to the commissariat from the colonial Treasury in 1834-35, and Bourke had to direct that all Treasury bills be paid at par in an attempt to relieve both departments.

On 25 August 1835 Laidley was taken suddenly ill, and died five days later. He was buried with full military honours. He left a widow and eight children, but no will; as his property reverted to a son who was not yet 10, colonial observers forecast a hard time for the family. His wife died on 25 July 1860. One daughter, Theresa, married Thomas Mort at the church of St Lawrence, Sydney, on 27 October 1841, and another, Maria, married Henry Mort.

James Laidley was a competent and honest administrator, an affectionate husband and father, and a prominent member of colonial society. His tenure of office in the depression of the late 1820s and the pastoral boom of the 1830s displayed little constructive thought, and although his department was efficient in these troublous years he had very little personal influence on the economic progress of the colony.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 13-18
  • Sydney Gazette, 8 Oct 1827, 14 Mar, 15 Sept 1828
  • Australian, 9 Sept 1829, 13 Apr 1832
  • WO 58/116
  • microfilm FM 1 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Piper papers, vol 2 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

George Parsons, 'Laidley, James (1786–1835)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/laidley-james-2317/text3009, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 20 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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