Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Lamb, John (1790–1862)

by G. P. Walsh

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

John Lamb (1790-1862), naval officer, politician and merchant, was born at Penrith, England, the son of Captain Lamb of the East India Co.'s service. In recognition of distinguished conduct in saving his ship from a French privateer in 1798 Captain Lamb was given preferments for three of his sons in the navy. At 11 John became a first-class volunteer in the Port Mahon sloop commanded by his uncle, William Buchanan, on the Mediterranean Station, and within a year was a midshipman in the Northumberland, the youngest in the fleet at the capture of the fort of Alexandria in 1801. In 1803 he served in several ships patrolling the Channel and the Irish coast; in the Warrior he won the favour of Captain William Bligh who requested Sir Joseph Banks in April 1805 to transfer him to the ship bringing Bligh to New South Wales as governor. Promoted lieutenant in June 1808, he shared next November in the Amethyst's capture of the French frigate La Thétis off Lorient after a furious contest of more than three hours. His last naval service was in the Union with the Toulon Fleet. He returned to England in August 1814 on half-pay and became associated with Buckles, Bagster & Buchanan. He sailed for them in September 1815 and June 1819 as master of the transport Baring with convicts to Sydney and in 1825-28 as master of the merchant ship Palmira on the Indian service.

A gratuity from the Patriotic Fund during his naval services provided him with a small capital, and with his cousin Walter Buchanan he formed the house of Lamb, Buchanan & Co. As its resident partner he arrived in Sydney with his wife and five children in the Resource in May 1829, expecting to remain at least ten years. Proving a capital of £2200 and claiming that he could triple it, he received in May 1830 a primary grant of 2560 acres (1036 ha) which he selected in the County of St Vincent, and in 1838 he applied for a secondary grant.

Lamb soon became involved in public affairs. He was appointed justice of the peace in 1830 but rarely appeared on the bench. In 1836 Governor Sir Richard Bourke omitted his name and those of three other magistrates from the new Commission of the Peace, claiming that all four had acted on the bench in concert and 'used their power as Ministers of Justice to forward a political Intrigue'. Their strong protests were futile, for Glenelg approved Bourke's action. In 1844, however, Lamb was reappointed by Governor Sir George Gipps, a former acquaintance, and in September he was nominated to the Legislative Council. After it was reformed in 1851 he rejoined it until February 1853 as an elected member for the city of Sydney. In the legislature he was actively associated with at least ten select committees dealing generally with trade and economic matters and with communications. At the great protest meeting at Circular Quay in June 1849 when the convict transport Hashemy arrived he urged his fellow colonists to protect their adopted land 'from being again degraded and polluted by the name of penal settlement'; after moving the first of the anti-transportation resolutions he was appointed to the deputation that took the resolutions to the governor.

Lamb's greatest activity was in the commercial world. When his partnership with Buchanan was dissolved in 1834 he carried on business as Lamb & Co., woollen brokers and shipping agents. In 1837 he took Frederick Parbury as his partner. Lamb's commercial experience and business acumen were much in demand and he became a director of many large public companies, including the Sydney Alliance Assurance Co., the Australian Fire and Life Assurance Co. and the Sydney Railroad Co. He was a director and several times chairman of the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney in 1834-50. In 1851-52 he was a founder and first chairman of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce and of the Sydney Exchange Co.

His house, Spencer Lodge, was in the fashionable mercantile locale at Miller's Point, close to his wharf and stores in Darling Harbour. In 1855 he retired with a large fortune, returned to England leaving part of his grown up family behind, and built a house at Clapham Park, near London. After about two years he returned to Sydney and was again active in public affairs. In July 1857 he re-entered the Legislative Council as one of the quinquennial appointments but resigned in 1861. As senior warden of the Light, Pilot and Navigation Board he conducted the inquiry into the loss of the Catherine Adamson and reported on Sydney's pilot service after the two great shipping disasters in 1857. He had accepted the rank of retired naval commander in May 1846.

In March 1823 at Islington, London, Lamb had married Emma Trant, daughter of John Robinson of Holloway, a London merchant and deputy-chairman of Lloyds. Of their eight sons and six daughters, a son and a daughter died in infancy. The eldest son Walter (1825-1906) became a director of the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney and a legislative councillor in 1889-93; the second son Edward William (1828-1910) was secretary for lands in Queensland in 1867-68; the youngest son Alfred (1845-1890) represented West Sydney in the Legislative Assembly in 1889-90. John Lamb died at Larbert Lodge, Darlinghurst, on 17 January 1862 and his wife, aged 77, on 27 August 1880; both were buried in St Jude's churchyard, Randwick.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 9-10, 14, 16, 18-20, 23-24, 26
  • W. R. O'Byrne, A Naval Biographical Dictionary (Lond, 1849)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 June 1849
  • Sunday Times (Sydney), 8 Sept 1907
  • J. Lamb letter book, 1826-34 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Land, 2/2093 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Lamb, John (1790–1862)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lamb-john-2321/text3017, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 23 July 2017.

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

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