Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Larra (1749–1839)

by G. F. J. Bergman

This article was published:

James Larra (1749-1839), Jewish emancipist and merchant, whose correct name was Lara, was a descendant of an illustrious Spanish-Jewish family. On 12 December 1787, aged 38, he was sentenced to death at the Old Bailey for having stolen a tankard worth £5. The sentence was commuted to transportation, and he arrived with the Second Fleet in June 1790 in the Scarborough. He was well regarded by the authorities, and the same year succeeded Constable John Harris as principal of the night-watch. In September 1794 he received a conditional pardon, and on 10 November married Susannah, née Wilkinson, the widow of a convict, John Langford. There was no issue of this marriage.

In May 1797 he received his first grant of fifty acres (20 ha) in the Field of Mars and devoted himself to farming, but next year decided to venture into the lucrative liquor trade. He became one of the agents of John Macarthur, and on 19 September received one of the first liquor licences in the colony. On 4 June 1800 he was granted a free pardon, and about this time built his inn, the Freemasons' Arms, in Parramatta where in 1802 members of a French scientific expedition stayed for three months. François Péron, in his account of this journey, was full of praise for Larra. He soon extended his activities to commercial enterprises, selling wheat and animal food to the government, and opening a well-stocked store on his premises. When the Sydney Gazette was deposited there in 1803 he became the first newspaper agent in Australia. He had enrolled in the Loyal Parramatta Association when it was founded in 1801, and in 1804 was promoted sergeant-major. In April 1804 he received a grant of 1000 acres (405 ha) in the Bankstown district, which he called Harris Farm; to this grant was added in 1809 a further 200 acres (81 ha) to be held in trust for his nieces Elizabeth and Hannah, the daughters of John Harris who had left the colony.

After the Rum Rebellion, Lieutenant-Governor William Paterson granted Larra 600 acres (243 ha) at the Upper Nepean, and on 14 January 1809 appointed him 'vendue master for the District of Parramatta'. After his wife's death in June 1811, he married in September 1813 Phoebe, the rich widow of John Waldron, proprietor of the Duke of York inn at Sydney. Larra was then at the height of his career and so much estimated that some have called him 'the commercial nabob of Parramatta'; however, 1814 marked the beginning of his decline. After his wife died on 1 August rumour had him causing her death by 'improper sexual practices'. Tried on 5 September he was acquitted but his reputation had suffered so much that he was removed from office as auctioneer. He tried unsuccessfully to sell out and leave the country. He kept his liquor licence and tendered meat for government stores, but ran into financial difficulties and mortgaged his farms and the inn to Samuel Terry.

On 18 March 1817 he married for the third time. His bride was a convict, Mary Ann Clarke, an English actress, and her exigencies led to his final ruin. In May 1821 Larra sent his wife to England to collect funds, but in June Terry had him declared bankrupt. Larra's wife returned in July 1822, but the pair soon separated because she not only used the money for herself but made debts in his name for which Larra was thrown in the debtors' prison. Elizabeth Harris, whose second husband was Joseph Underwood, rescued him and took him into her house. In 1828 he was still living with her at Ashfield but by 1837 he had moved to Parramatta. He died, aged 90, on 11 February 1839 and was buried in the Jewish section of the Devonshire Street cemetery in Sydney, unnoticed in the press.

James Larra was certainly the most prominent Jew in the earliest years of the colony, and one of the most colourful personalities and successful emancipists of his time. His downfall was not entirely undeserved, but he merited the epithet bestowed by Joseph Holt 'James Larra, an honest Jew'. His name is preserved in the district where he had lived, by Larra Place at Telopea (Dundas) and Larra Street at Yennora (Guildford).

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 3-8
  • G. F. J. Bergman, ‘James Larra, the Commercial Nabob of Parramatta’, Australian Jewish Historical Society, vol 5, part 3, 1960, pp 97-130.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

G. F. J. Bergman, 'Larra, James (1749–1839)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Lara, James



11 February, 1839 (aged ~ 90)
New South Wales, Australia

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Passenger Ship
Key Events
Convict Record

Crime: theft
Sentence: life