James Laing and Isabella McLean

James Laing was born in Stonehaven (a seaside town on Scotland’s north east coast) near Aberdeen, on Sunday 18 June 1815 (the day of the Battle of Waterloo according to an obituary which appeared in the newspaper). When convicted of housebreaking in 1835, he stated he was “bred of a cartwright and since 1829 has been going on voyages as a sailor between Scotland and Quebec” and that he moved to Edinburgh in May that year.

His convict records state that, by modern standards, he was a reasonably short man, (1.63m tall), though was probably average height for the times. His convict record states he had a dark sallow complexion (which means a dark, sickly complexion), and the he had brown almost black hair and brown eyes. He also had a small mole on the upper part of his right arm and a scar on the back of his right thumb.

On the 20th of August 1835, the court records state, he and fifteen year old Addison Mitchell conducted break and enters on two houses in Elm Row, Edinburgh. The first was at the house of James Thomson on Elm Row, Edinburgh where they stole the following items: a black cloth coat; a silver snuff-box; a pair of leather gloves; two or thereby silk handkerchiefs; and two or thereby pass keys. The second was at the house of David Brown, a tailor and clothier on Elm Row, where they stole the following items: a silver watch; a silk watch ribbon; a gold ring; a gold seal; a gold key; and, belonging to David Brown’s daughter Helen, “a worsted shawl”.

The “Caledonian Mercury” of Monday 24 August, 1835 reported the case…

Addison Mitchell, an Edinburgh thief, and James Lang, an Aberdonian, committed two daring acts of theft one day last week. The first was in a house in Elm Row, the servant of which had left the door open, where they stole a black coat, two silk handkerchiefs, a pair of gloves, and a valuable silver snuff-box. In the same street the thieves got into the house No. 17, by lifting the area window, and stole a silver hunting watch and a valuable shawl. In coming to the street, however, they were met and apprehended by McLevie and Mulholland, criminal officers, who had been on the scent for them, and who, on searching, found the whole of the second theft and the two handkerchiefs of the first upon them. They have both been remitted to the High Court of Justiciary for trial.

At conviction, the court records note that both young men had appeared before Magistrate John Fletcher on August 25 and before Magistrate James Donaldson on August 27 where some of the stolen items were presented as evidenced against them. On November 9, 1835, he was found guilty of housebreaking and was sentenced to seven years transportation. In sentencing them, the court records note that Addison Mitchell had previous convictions in Edinburgh on July 8, 1834 and June 16, 1835.

The Scotsman newspaper reported the case thus…

High Court of Justiciary. Addison Mitchell and James Laing were next brought up, charged with two acts of theft, one of them committed by means of housebreaking, aggravated in the case of Mitchell, by his being, habit and repute, and previously convicted of theft. The prisoners having pleaded guilty, Mitchell was sentenced to fourteen years, and Laing seven years transportation.

Addison Mitchell was later convicted in Bathurst for murder.

James came to Australia on board “The John”, leaving from Sheerness England on September 30, 1836 and arriving in Sydney on February 7, 1837. By the time the ship had arrived, five of the 260 male convicts on board had died.

Soon after arrival, James was assigned to Francis Flanagan, who had extensive landholdings around Moruya on the NSW South Coast. It was there in 1841 he met and married Isabella Mclean.

Isabella was born at Tiree, Scotland, the daughter of Allan McLean and Janet McFarlane. Before coming to Australia, the records indicate, she had been “in service” at Glasgow and could speak a little English. Aged twenty, she came to Australia with her parents and younger siblings, settled in the Broulee area (near Moruya), where her father worked as a boat-builder.

The birth records of the children of James and Isabella indicates they spent the early years of their marriage living and working on a number of properties in the Moruya district, including Duga (1843), Glenduart (1844-1847) and Shannon View (owned by Flanagan) (1850).

…before moving to Braidwood (1852) at the peak of gold mining in the area. James is recorded on the Braidwood Electoral Roll in 1863, having Freehold Land at “Oak Hills”

The quote above is currently under further investigation – see comment below by Trish Moon.

By the 1860s, however, James and Isabella had moved to Towamba, near Eden. Until recently, the area had been under the control of the squatter, Ben Boyd, though it became available to selectors in about 1861. By the late 1880s, the Electoral Role states that James and Isabella had obtained freehold occupancy of land. Some of their children, including Donald and William also owned land at Towamba, whilst Allen owned land at nearby Bondi.

On July 29, 1890 (1890/4983), James Laing died from “a decay of nature”. He was buried on August 2, 1890 in an unmarked grave in the Towamba Cemetery. There is a reference on the State Records website to a deceased estate for a James Laing of Towamba who died 24/7/1980, and for the estate claimed 14/4/1891, so clearly there is some confusion about the dates here. I’m planning a visit to State Records at Kingsford to clarify details of the Deceased Estate for James Laing.

On March 10, 1891 (5798/1891) Isabella also died, and was buried soon after in an unmarked grave in the Towamba Cemetery.

Mr. James LAING another old resident recently deceased left three sons and three daughters, who have all large families. The deceased was born on the day the Battle of Waterloo was fought, and although thousands of miles from his birthplace, strange to say he died while a rifle match was being shot off. ‘Bega Standard’ – 12 August, 1890

This quote about him being born on the day of the Battle of Waterloo needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The battle was on June 18, 1835, making James 20 (not 22 as stated on the records) when convicted. Of course the date may be correct, and the year may be correct, or both may be correct, but it shouldn’t be taken as gospel given the propensity for death records to be incorrect.


* William Laing was born March 4 1843 (V18434720 47/1843) at Dooga, Moruya. In 1908, The Pambula Voice noted

‘Pambula Voice’ May 15, 1908
Mr. Wm. Laing of Towamba is very ill, his trouble being epilepsy. He is a very old resident of our village.

He died August 21, 1914 at Towamba. According to Kate Clery’s oral history book about Towamba, the evidence suggests he was probably the artist responsible for the Towamba Cricket Massacre painting held at the Eden Killer Whale Museum.

On September 4, 1914, ‘The Pambula Voice’ reported…

A terrible burning fatality happened here last Thursday Aug 20th, Mr. W. LAING being the victim. The old man had been subject to taking fits for some time. He was sitting by the fire and evidently had taken a fit and fallen in, and before his brother got to his assistance, his clothing was all in flames, and he was frightfully burnt about the head and body. Assistance was soon to hand, and all that could be to ease the poor sufferer was done. Dr. Fitzhardinge was sent for and arrived shortly afterwards, but could do nothing. The unfortunate man passed away at half past six on Friday morning. The deceased was 74 years of age. Mr. Coronor Martin held an enquiry on Saturday, when a verdict of accidental death by burning was returned. The remains were interred in the Presbyterian portion of the cemetery. Mr. Forbes conducted the burial service, and Mr .Summerill had charge of the funeral arrangements.

* Ann Laing was born April 1844 (V18445145 47/1844) at Glenduart, Moruya

* Jane Laing was born September 8, 1845 (V1845593 48/1845) at Glenduart, near Moruya, NSW, She married Thomas Rixon on February 14, 1867 at Towamba. Jane died in 1919. (23510/1919)

* Allan Laing was born October 24 1847 at Glenduart, near Moruya, NSW. He married Ruth Atkins on April 25, 1882 at Bombala, NSW. He died July 22, 1929 at Towamba. According to Monaroo Pioneers, their children were Isabella (b 1883, d August 16, 1974), William Allan (b 1884), Hector (b November 8, 1886 in Delegate) James (b September 23, 1889 in Bombala), Thomas (b 1890 in Delegate), Alice (b 1890), Charles Henry (b 1894), Ada (b 1896), Ruth (b 1899) and Sarah (b 1901).

‘Magnet’ August 3, 1929

The death occurred at the home of Mr. Hector Laing, Towamba, on the night of July 22, of Mr. Allan Laing, one of the oldest and best known identities of the Towamba district in which he had resided for some 40 years. For some years he resided at Rockton before moving to Towamba. He was a brother of Mr. Donald Laing, probably the oldest mail man in the state who for years conveyed the Eden-Pericoe mail by horse coach and who has since been running the Pambula-Nethercote mail by horse and sulky and for the last several years on horseback. Other brothers are Jim (deceased) and Will. Mr. Laing who leaves a large family, all married, was a native of Moruya and was 81 years of age. Internment took place at the Presbyterian portion of Towamba cemetery. The Reverend J. Allison officiating at the graveside.

* Janet Laing was born February 2, 1850 at Shannon View, Moruya, NSW.

* Donald Laing/Lang was born January 25, 1852 at Braidwood, NSW. In 1872, he married Sarah Higgins (1872/2071). He died at Towamba in November 1932.

* Mary Ann Laing was born 1854. She married Robert Higgins in 1874. She died in 1915 at Drummoyne, Sydney, NSW.

* James Laing was born 1857 (V1857362 139/1857)

* Isabella Laing was born 1861 (7202/1861).


* Thanks to Kerrie Beers for tracking down the information about James Laing’s trial and birthplace.

* Thanks also to Ann Murray Burke for obtaining the trial records, as well as the newspaper clipping from The Sctosman. The trial records have helped fill in so much of the gap. Wonderful stuff.

* According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the property “Shannon View”, which James and Isabella lived on for a while still stands to the left off Larry’s Mountain Road. If you wish to see it head north out of Moruya along the Princes Highway and turn left at the sign for Mogendoura.”

* Mark McKenna’s “Looking for Blackfellas’ Point (An Australian History Of Place) (UNSW Press) notes the 1860s saw the largest influx of settlers into the broader Eden district (p. 162)

That decade saw the largest influx of settlers into the area, with the breakup of the large squatting runs in favour of the smaller holdings of free selectors.

Prior to this, I believe Ben Boyd had been the squatter who was in control of Towamba, as a further account in the book notes the following letter (p. 228) by J.G. Stephenson from Manly, dated October 18, 1958.

My mother was the first white child born at Towamba… on December 5, 1850… Our grandfather was in charge of Towamba for Ben Boyd, head stockmen. We believe it was the only house there then. The remains of their old cottage was across the river… old fruit trees there in our time at Towamba. Granny often told us of the wild blacks from the tablelands meeting the coastal tribes and holding corroborees on the flats where Bollman’s farm was in our time. Granny sat up all night and watched them while grandfather was away with cattle to Boydtown, all the company she had was a tame black gin.

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