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James Underwood (1771–1844)

by D. R. Hainsworth

This article was published:

James Underwood (1771-1844), shipbuilder, distiller and merchant, was born on 4 September 1771 at Bermondsey, London, son of Thomas Underwood and his wife Mary, née Forster. Although he is traditionally supposed to have come to New South Wales with the First Fleet, he was sentenced to seven years transportation at Maidstone in 1790 and arrived in Sydney in the Admiral Barrington in October 1791. He learned the trade of boatbuilder, probably briefly under Stephen Todd, formerly a carpenter in the Barwell, who was engaged to build a 34-ton sloop for the Hawkesbury River trade in 1797; he built the Diana in 1798-99 which later became the property of Underwood and his partner Henry Kable.

The obscurity veiling Underwood's early career lifts in 1800. In that year he was in partnership with Kable and a mariner, Samuel Rodman Chace, who was master of Kable & Underwood's sloop Diana engaged in Bass Strait sealing. The partnership with Kable lasted until 1809. During its course Underwood was primarily concerned with building and maintaining vessels of various sizes employed in sealing, whaling in the Derwent, bringing coal from the Hunter River and an occasional sandalwood venture. In 1805 Simeon Lord joined the partnership. Underwood's boatbuilding activities were the most remarkable of a number of diverse achievements. It is uncertain when he constructed his first, but in June 1801 an official surveying expedition at the mouth of the Hunter River discovered the sole survivor of a crew of three from an Underwood vessel which had been wrecked well to the north. He built a number of craft for others for 'burthen or pleasure', and for his own firm before 1805 he had constructed the sloops Contest and Diana, the schooner Endeavour, a 75-ton brig the Governor King, and finally the ship-rigged King George of near 200 tons, which played a substantial and varied part in Sydney entrepreneurial activity for many years. These vessels, all launched from his yard at the mouth of the Tank Stream, cost £11,400. From 1805 to 1809 Underwood's yard seems to have been principally engaged in a long succession of refits for the firm's vessels, including the Sydney Cove, Santa Anna and Commerce which they bought with varying degrees of legality, and others like the Aurora and Honduras Packet which they chartered. In a set of Underwood accounts the volume of work done during these years was valued at almost £26,000, an itemized but possibly inflated figure.

Underwood played a considerable part in the early New South Wales sealing industry. In the 1803-04 season the partners had more than sixty men employed in the trade and gathered not less than 30,000 skins. After 1805 the volume greatly increased as, through Lord, the partners had a secure market in London. Between 1806 and 1809 their London agents sold 127,040 skins, sent in four consignments, for more than £27,000; these were by no means all the skins they exported in this period and they sold a considerable quantity of oil as well. In 1807 Underwood owned a third of the Sydney Cove which the partners chartered to the government for a voyage to Sydney with convicts. Underwood sailed for England in her in October, buying out Lord's share on his arrival in London in May 1808. He returned in April 1809 on the ship's second voyage with a very valuable investment, and soon afterwards severed his connexion with Kable. Lawsuits between the partners were not settled until 1819.

Underwood's only connexion with sealing after his return to New South Wales appears to have been as agent for his brother Joseph. In June 1812 James opened the St George Coffee Lounge at which the principal beverages sold seem to have been spirituous, and he certainly held a spirit licence in 1813. In October of that year he took part in the formation of the Commercial Society of Sydney, a currency-issuing venture which the governor quickly dissolved. In June 1819 he ceased to be his brother's agent, as he was about to depart for England in the Surry, though it is not certain that he went. In 1821 he was described to Commissioner John Thomas Bigge as one of the few merchants engaged in importing from Europe and India. In the same year he was appointed a member of the Standing Committee of the Emancipated Colonists of New South Wales.

In 1823 he formed a partnership with Robert Cooper and F. E. Forbes to build and operate the Sydney distillery between Old South Head Road and Rushcutters Bay. He bought Forbes's share in 1824 for £6200 and soon afterwards bought out Cooper, with whom he had quarrelled, for a further £1600. These disputes held up operations, much to the farmers' displeasure, but by July 1824 the works, which included eight vats and a large granary, were ready for business; in October the governor was presented with a sample, and six bay horses drew a 300-gallon (1364 litres) cask triumphantly to Underwood's house for a celebratory party for his 'mechanics'. The house, built by 1804, was a distinctive two-storey, flat-roofed, brick and stone residence next to the Orphan School, and seems to have been for many years among the three or four finest in Sydney, and much more ambitious than the early Government House.

Underwood's remaining years in New South Wales appear to have been prosperous. Unlike his brother and Simeon Lord he does not appear to have invested widely in farm land and he possessed only 100 acres (40 ha) in 1828; his town property may have been substantial, however, and in April 1826 the Bank of Australia opened for business in part of his George Street premises. In March 1840 he retired to England where he died at his home, Paddington House, Tulse Hill, Brixton, Surrey, on 10 February 1844.

Between 1802 and 1807 he had three children, Charlotte, Thomas and James, by Phyllis Pounds, and a daughter Sarah by Letitia Reynolds in 1810. He married Mary Ann Powell in 1812 and by her had Joseph, Edward, Mary and Richard. Two other children born in 1822 and 1824 died in infancy and his wife died in February 1825. In November Underwood married Elizabeth Sherwell, who bore him a son William.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 3, 6
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 3-14
  • manuscript catalogue under James Underwood (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Supreme Court records (State Records New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

D. R. Hainsworth, 'Underwood, James (1771–1844)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 21 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]


4 September, 1771
Bermondsey, Surrey, England


19 February, 1844 (aged 72)
Brixton, Surrey, England

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Passenger Ship
Key Events
Convict Record

Crime: unknown
Sentence: 7 years
Court: Surrey
Trial Date: 29 March 1790


Left the colony: Yes