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James Mudie (1779–1852)

by Bernard T. Dowd and Averil F. Fink

This article was published:

James Mudie (1779-1852), officer of marines, landowner and author, was the son of John and Margaret Mudie of Forfarshire (Angus), Scotland. In May 1799 he was appointed second lieutenant in the 69th company of marines at Portsmouth and in 1800-02 served on St Marcouf Island in the English Channel, and in H.M.S. Leda in 1803-04. In 1805 he was promoted first lieutenant and ordered on recruiting service to Scotland, where he soon found himself in trouble over his accounts and was placed on half-pay. He returned to active service in July 1808 and joined the Inflexible, bound for Halifax, North America. By permission he exchanged with an officer in the Samson, which after some months returned to England. During his service he suffered periods of ill health which may have prevented further promotion. In 1809 he was ordered by the Admiralty to answer charges made against him in an anonymous letter to that office from Scotland. At first he denied the charges but finally had to admit they were true, and despite his many appeals was dismissed from the marines in August 1810.

Unemployed and short of money Mudie induced a bookselling firm to join him in a venture making commemorative medals of events and heroes in the Napoleonic wars; his engravings were included in An Historical and Critical Account of a Grand Series of National Medals (London, 1820). Through lack of support from the promised subscribers some £10,000 was lost in these ambitious schemes, and Mudie and the bookselling firm were forced into insolvency. Through the benevolence of Sir Charles Forbes and the Colonial Office Mudie, his three daughters and a step-daughter were given free passages to New South Wales. They arrived at Sydney in July 1822. Mudie had an order for a land grant and was given 2150 acres (870 ha) on the Hunter River, which he named Castle Forbes after his patron. He also began a ladies' school at Parramatta; when it failed to win support he moved with his family to Castle Forbes.

Mudie acquired 2000 adjoining acres (809 ha) in 1825 and, with the assistance of many assigned convicts and his overseer, John Larnach, who became his son-in-law and partner, Castle Forbes was turned into one of the finest agricultural establishments in the colony, producing substantial quantities of wool, meat and wheat. Mudie also boasted that his homestead was a fortress guarded by Newfoundland dogs and that his servants were severely disciplined under exacting rules. About 1830 he was appointed a justice of the peace by Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling and served on the bench at Maitland, where he became greatly feared by convicts because of his excessive use of flogging for even minor offences. Mudie later claimed that he introduced this harsh policy to counter the lenient policy of Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke, who after his arrival in December 1831 took steps to reduce the magistrates' powers to inflict summary punishments. According to the Sydney Herald, Bourke's 'soothing system for convicts' was responsible for a great increase in crime. Mudie and a few other magistrates on the Hunter River shared this belief and secretly began to collect signatures for what their opponents later called the 'Hole and Corner Petition', copies of which, according to Bourke in September 1834, were sent to England 'for circulation in quarters where it is hoped an impression unfavourable to my Government may be produced'. Later that year the gross misstatements and inhuman attitudes of the petitioners were denounced in a pamphlet by 'An Unpaid Magistrate', thought to be Roger Therry.

Meanwhile in November 1833 six convict servants at Castle Forbes had mutinied in Mudie's absence, robbed the stores and taken to the bush. An attempt to shoot Larnach failed and he escaped. The mutineers were arrested and remanded to Sydney, where they were found guilty; three were executed in Sydney and two at Castle Forbes; one was sent to Norfolk Island. Bourke appointed John Hubert Plunkett and Frederick Hely to investigate charges made at the trial against Mudie and Larnach for degrading treatment of their assigned servants. At the inquiry Mudie and Larnach were exonerated of ill treatment but criticized for the quality and quantity of the rations they supplied to convicts. Angered by the report the two men prepared a joint protest and asked Bourke to send it to London. The governor refused because of its improper form, so in September 1834 with help from Edward Smith Hall, of the Monitor, they printed Vindication of James Mudie and John Larnach, from Certain Reflections … Relative to the Treatment by Them of Their Convict Servants. This pamphlet they sent direct to the Colonial Office. At the same time William Watt, a ticket-of-leave convict employed as a sub-editor in the Sydney Gazette, attacked Mudie for his cruelty to convicts in a pamphlet Party Politics Exposed, signed by 'Humanitas'. Mudie in turn charged Watt with serious misdemeanours, and also attacked Roger Therry for defending the mutineers at their trial and Bourke for showing favouritism to convicts. Ineffectual in these tactics Mudie found revenge by inducing the colonial treasurer, Campbell Riddell, to stand against the governor's nominee, Therry, for election to the chairmanship of the Quarter Sessions. Riddell's victory by one vote, later shown to be irregular, was upheld by the Colonial Office. Bourke regarded this ruling as a personal affront and decided to confirm the resignation he had already submitted.

In 1836 Mudie was not reappointed to the Commission of the Peace; disgusted with colonial affairs, he sold Castle Forbes for £7000 and in March sailed for England determined on vengeance. In London in 1837 he published The Felonry of New South Wales, an attack on all whom he fancied had opposed him in the colony. He also appeared before the select committee on transportation; though much of his evidence was removed from the report, enough remains to reveal his distorted mind.

In 1840 Mudie returned to Sydney, where he found himself no longer welcome, for his vindictive comments had lost him old friends. John Kinchela, son of the judge who had been maligned in the book, publicly horsewhipped Mudie in Sydney, and, when Mudie sued him, the £50 damages imposed on Kinchela were promptly paid by a subscription in the court. In 1842 Mudie returned to London, where he lived until his death on 21 May 1852 at Tottenham.

His book, edited by Walter Stone, was republished in Melbourne in 1964.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 11, 16-18, 20-21
  • P. Cunningham, Two Years in New South Wales (Lond, 1828)
  • J. West, The History of Tasmania, vols 1-2 (Launceston, 1852)
  • R. J. Flanagan, The History of New South Wales, vol 1 (Lond, 1862)
  • R. Therry, Reminiscences of Thirty Years' Residence in New South Wales and Victoria (Lond, 1863)
  • Sydney Gazette, 9, 10 Dec 1833
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 May 1875
  • Australian, index under James Mudie (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue under James Mudie (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Colonial Secretary's in letters (State Records New South Wales)
  • CO 201/113.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Bernard T. Dowd and Averil F. Fink, 'Mudie, James (1779–1852)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 24 June 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]




21 May, 1852 (aged ~ 73)
Tottenham, London, England

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