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Strachan, James Ford (1810–1875)

by P. L. Brown

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

James Ford Strachan (1810-1875), merchant, woolbroker and politician, was born at Montrose, Scotland, the fifth son of John Strachan and his wife Isobel, née Smith. In 1832 he arrived in Van Diemen's Land with his widowed mother and two sisters. By 1835 he was in business in Argyle Street, Hobart Town. Later he partnered one John Johnson, until the latter withdrew in August 1840. By that time Strachan was concentrating on Port Phillip, which he first visited in March 1836. Before 1837, from 'one little wooden box' in what became Market Street, Melbourne, through his deputy, Francis Nodin, he worked as a squatters' provider.

Strachan bought two lots at the first local land sale, and in 1838 made one the site of Melbourne's first brick building, which still stands. That year he opened a store at Geelong. In October 1839 a schooner built to his order for the Port Phillip run was launched at Hobart, called the Lilias, after his bride, who was the eldest daughter of Hugh Murray.

Point Lilias, at the entrance to Corio Bay, was named after Strachan's schooner. Lilias Strachan was partly drawn to Geelong by the fortunes of her brother Hugh, who was one of the first settlers around Lake Colac, and had written to her four months before he penetrated as far, in May 1837: 'No spear wound or anything of the sort to recount to you, but live a quiet, peaceable, sober, monotonous, pleasant life, without bothering anybody or anybody bothering me. I can bake a damper, wash a shirt, put on a patch, grease a pair of boots, cook a dinner, with any man in Port Phillip … The sheep are thriving beautifully. The country is ideal for a sheep-run; beautiful scenery, lovely hills, softly gliding streams—you never saw such grass'.

Strachan believed that Geelong would suit him best. Early in 1840 he finished its first stone building, a house and store facing the bay on the corner still occupied by Strachan & Co. Ltd. February found him living there, but his wife did not move until 1843. She joined him during a period of great depression, which caused him to relinquish his business in Hobart and Melbourne but, with the return of prosperity, Strachan again advanced. In 1849, he commissioned Charles Laing, architect, to build a stone mansion on twenty-one acres (8.4 ha) of freehold fronting Corio Bay. Called Lunan, after the bay south of Montrose, this house is now controlled by the Victorian Education Department, and is classified 'A' by the National Trust. Here Strachan lived until his death on 14 April 1875.

Like many contemporaries of equal status, Strachan developed first-hand pastoral interests. He owned part of Mount Gellibrand station, now Mooleric. But probably his best course was the one he followed steadily: that of the mercantile middleman setting new standards of commercial usage.

Politically Strachan began as a worker for separation. In 1851 he represented Geelong in the first Victorian Legislative Council. In 1854, when his firm denounced a map purporting to show that Melbourne was closer than Geelong to Ballarat, Sir Charles Hotham appointed him to the goldfields commission. He joined the outspoken majority, and with responsible government was elected for the south-western province to the new Legislative Council. He was minister without portfolio in the second Haines ministry in 1857-58, but during the later battle on the tariff and Darling grant 'tacks' he resigned his seat to win the western province against James McCulloch's supporter, Henry Miller. He remained a member until 1874.

Strachan was concerned with the establishment of the Geelong Botanical Gardens, of the state-aided Geelong National Grammar School (now the Matthew Flinders School), and of St George's Presbyterian Church, Geelong. The eldest of his three sons was one of the first Australians to row for Cambridge (1870); the second published some useful reminiscences. All followed their father's lead in the sphere of pastoral production and primary mercantile business.

Select Bibliography

  • T. P. Bride (ed), Letters from Victorian Pioneers (Melb, 1898)
  • H. M. Strachan, Some Notes and Recollections (Melb, 1927)
  • A. Henderson, Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina (Melb, 1936)
  • P. L. Brown (ed), Clyde Company Papers, vols 2-5 (Lond, 1952-63)
  • W. R. Brownhill, The History of Geelong and Corio Bay (Melb, 1955)
  • L. J. Blake, ‘"Lunan's Sory"’, Educational Magazine, vol 14, no 11, Dec 1957, pp 484-91.

Citation details

P. L. Brown, 'Strachan, James Ford (1810–1875)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/strachan-james-ford-2708/text3803, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 1 November 2014.

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

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