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Wallis, James (1785–1858)

by T. W. Blunden

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

James Wallis (1785?-1858), soldier, was the second son of James Wallis, of Cork, Ireland, and his wife Lucinda, née Hewson. He was appointed ensign in the 46th Regiment in December 1803 and lieutenant in April 1804, distinguishing himself in action against the French in Dominica. Appointed captain on 19 December 1811, he arrived in Sydney with his regiment on 7 February 1814 in the transport General Hewitt, in which a 'fellow-passenger' was the painter, Joseph Lycett. In April 1816 he commanded a company of grenadiers of the 46th Regiment against hostile Aboriginals near Airds and Appin, and received the thanks of Governor Lachlan Macquarie for 'zealous exertions and strict attention to the fulfilling of the instructions'. On 1 June 1816 he was appointed to relieve Lieutenant Thompson as commandant at Newcastle at a salary of £136, and on 8 June embarked in the brig Lady Nelson with a detachment of his regiment.

He at once introduced new regulations and with severe discipline put an end to the laxity that prevailed. He also began to improve the settlement by constructing new public and government buildings. Assisted by Lycett, whom Wallis persuaded to amend the original plans, he proceeded with the building of Christ Church, the third brick and stone church in Australia. Its foundation stone he laid on 1 January 1817 and it was completed within a year. Wallis read services there for the remainder of his stay, since no clergyman was appointed until 1821, but unfortunately the church's 'elegant Spire' revealed the architectural short-comings of its designers; badly shaken by wind it soon had to be removed. His other buildings included a stone convict hospital, a two-storey brick and stone gaol, a brick subalterns' barracks, a brick barracks for the assistant surgeon, a barracks for convicts, a guard house, a watch house, a boat house, a lumber yard and workshop. A school was set up in 1816. The wreck of the small Nautilus on 24 November 1816 at the southern entrance to the harbour prompted Wallis's conception of a breakwater from the mainland to Coal (Nobby) Island. Next year he compiled a comprehensive list of signals to be flown from the flagstaff at Newcastle, and then planned the protection of the harbour and the deepening of its entrance.

When Macquarie visited Newcastle in 1818 he was impressed by Wallis's building activity. On 5 May he laid the foundation stone and first stone of the causeway or pier to be constructed across from the mainland to the island, though it was not completed until 1846. On 31 July he named Wallis Plains, the area now comprising Maitland, and it seems likely that the northern lake in the Myall Lakes was also named after Wallis. In December Wallis was relieved by Captain James Morisset of the 48th Regiment. He reached Sydney on 9 January 1819 and on 3 March sailed in the transport Tottenham to join his regiment in India. He proceeded to England and in 1820 at Cork married Anne Mann. On 1 March 1821 he was promoted major and served in India until he retired from the army in 1826. In December 1836 at Clifton, Gloucestershire, England, he married Mary Ann Breach, of Hendon, Middlesex. There seem to have been no children. He lived for a time after his retirement at Douglas, Isle of Man, and thereafter at Prestbury, Gloucestershire, where he died on 12 July 1858.

In his career and in the opinion of his superiors, Wallis appears as a brave, efficient, religious and humane officer whose influence was of profound importance on the developing settlement at Newcastle. Macquarie's high opinion of his 'zeal, ability and judgment' is reflected in the general orders of 24 December 1818, and also in a letter of 15 February 1819 to Bathurst in which Wallis was recommended for 'favour and protection as an officer of high merit, and whose Conduct, as late Commandant of the Settlement of Newcastle … has deservedly met with my unqualified approbation and Commendation'. When in England he supervised the publication of An Historical Account of The Colony of New South Wales and its Dependent Settlements; in Illustration of Twelve Views, Engraved By W. Preston, a Convict, from Drawings Taken on the Spot (London, 1821). Ten of the engravings are in the Mitchell Library. One of the originals survives in the Dixson Library, an oil on wood of a corroboree, which has been described as 'a most exciting and remarkably mature work for an amateur painter'.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 9-10
  • R. and T. Rienits, Early Artists of Australia (Syd, 1963)
  • B. W. Champion, ‘Captain James Wallis of the 46th Regiment’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 19, part 6, 1933, pp 364-73
  • W. Dixson, Notes on James Wallis (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 323/130, WO 31/153, 337.

Citation details

T. W. Blunden, 'Wallis, James (1785–1858)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wallis-james-2770/text3937, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 28 June 2017.

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

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