Thomas Horton James and the Sydney Bank

Peter Symes

First published in the Australasian Coin and Banknote Magazine, February 2008.

During the 1820s New South Wales went through prosperous times but only one bank was reaping the benefits of the boom. While some companies had been issuing private notes for a number of years, such as the Waterloo Company, banking business was limited to the Bank of New South Wales. In January 1826 the Bank declared an impressive half-yearly dividend of £9/5/-[1] on shares worth £30/10/-, an announcement that led a group of the colony's pastoralists and government officials to establish a second bank. The result of their endeavours was the Bank of Australia[2], which opened for business on 3 July 1826.

      The public had become aware of the proposal to form the second bank as early as January 1826, just days after the Bank of New South Wales declared its attractive dividend. However, as the weeks went by it soon became apparent that the new institution was being launched through private subscription and shares in the new bank would not be made available to the citizens of the colony.

      Angered at the inability of the public to buy shares in the new institution, a meeting was called on 27 February 1826 to propose a third bank for Sydney. At the meeting it was agreed to establish the third bank with a capital of £100,000, of which only £20,000 would need to be subscribed. By the end of the week six hundred £50 shares were reserved.

      The men behind the third bank were predominantly merchants, of whom the leaders were Thomas Horton James[3], Gregory Blaxland, E. S. Hall [4], Dr. Redfern and John Black[5]. All were shareholders in the Bank of New South Wales, but their desire to reap a greater reward from the economic boom led them to launch their project in opposition to the pastoralists who were founding the Bank of Australia. On 1 March 1826 the Sydney Gazette announced the planned third bank to be the 'Sydney Banking Company', but within a week the name of the proposed bank was changed to the 'Sydney Commercial Bank'[6].

      Within days of the first meeting to found the third bank, reports circulated that the Bank of New South Wales was making overtures to the promoters of the new bank. Specifically, they were prepared to accommodate an expansion of shares within the old bank, on condition that the proposal for the third bank was abandoned.

      A meeting of the proprietors of the Bank of New South Wales on 18 March proposed a scheme, which was met with disdain by the promoters of the new bank. However, the Bank of New South Wales subsequently agreed to raise the number of their shares from 300 to 1000 and offer the new shares to the public. The promoters of the third bank were appeased and the plans for the Sydney Bank were abandoned.

      One of the surprising outcomes of this short episode is that a series of banknotes was prepared for the 'third bank'. Considering that the first meeting of the promoters of the Sydney Bank was held on 27 February and the meeting of the proprietors of the Bank of New South Wales, which ended thoughts of the new proposal, took place on 18 March, it can only be wondered when the order for the banknotes was placed.

      The notes of the Sydney Bank are known in denominations of 1-, 5-, 10- (see Figure 1) and 20-Spanish dollars[7] but other denominations may have been prepared.[8] The notes are produced by a peculiar method, known as compound plate engraving, which was a new technology at the time the bank notes were printed. Patented by Sir William Congreve in 1821, this technology was first used to print revenue stamps on the back of British banknotes. The first printer to commercially use this technology was Charles Whiting, using plates designed by his partner Robert Branston[9]. The method entails two engraved plates that were inked separately and brought together for printing, allowing for two-colour designs. Using bronze plates engraved by a 'rose engine' geometric lathe, the printing technique was specifically designed for security printing, as it was believed impossible to faithfully reproduce the complex designs by hand.

      The notes prepared for the Sydney Bank have the distinctive features of bank notes produced by the compound plate process, including the two colours and the white text – formed by the absence of ink. The notes are similar to those prepared for Robert Owen's National Equitable Labour Exchange. Not only is the style similar, but the chain links at the left on the notes of the Sydney Bank are very similar to the chain links in a similar panel on the notes of the National Equitable Labour Exchange. One of the advantages of compound plate engraving was claimed to be the ability to produce designs displaying depth and the use of chain links on both designs is an attempt to produce three-dimensional images.

      Vizetelly, Branston & Co., of Fleet Street, London, printed Robert Owen's notes in the 1830s, with Robert Branston junior being a partner in the firm. The son evidently inherited his father's equipment, which allowed the design of the chain engraving on the banknotes. Robert Branston[10] senior died in 1827, but it is almost certain he prepared the plates for the banknotes of the Sydney Bank and that Whiting and Branston[11] printed the notes.

      There are two interesting features to the notes of the Sydney Bank, the vignette and the coat of arms to the left. The vignette (see Figure 2) is of Sydney Cove and it is adapted from an aquatint drawing by Joseph Lycett[12]. The illustration appeared in Lycett's Views in Australia or New South Wales, & Van Dieman's Land delineated[13]. For a number of years Lycett produced illustrations of Sydney Cove from the same position on the north side of the Harbour. The vignette on the banknote has been drawn from one of Lycett's illustrations with slight changes to the original artwork. Fort Macquarie on Bennelong point can be seen at the far left, with Government House immediately to the right of the fort. The spire of St. James's Church can be seen next to a windmill, which must have been close to Macquarie Street, as it largely obscures the hospital and Hyde Park Barracks. Toward the right, near the shore, are the Commissariat Stores and behind it are buildings, which are probably the barracks at Barrack Square (immediately above) and St. Phillips Church (above and to the right). At the far right is the fourteen-gun battery on Dawes Point. The buildings in Lycett's illustration, from St. Phillips Church to Dawes Point, have been omitted from the vignette. The ships on the harbour are positioned in a similar manner to Lycett's illustration and the tops of the trees from the foreground of the illustration can be seen in the foreground of the vignette.

      The coat of arms (see Figure 3), in the centre of the left-hand panel of the banknotes, appears to belong to Thomas Horton James. The arms depict a black shield emblazoned with a dolphin between three 'crosses crosslets', above which is a crest of a 'demi-bull rampant'. Several English 'James' families from Somerset and Pembroke used similar shields and crests in their coats of arms[14]. It is not certain the arms on the banknotes are those of Horton James, or whether he took licence in using the arms. Why Horton James included a coat of arms, presumed to be his own, on a banknote that was to be issued by a bank owned by shareholders is a mystery.

      Horton James was a merchant and landowner who was sometimes known as a 'Tobacco Merchant' during his time in Sydney. He operated 'T.H. James and Company' from George Street in Sydney and he appears to have either owned a shipping business or been a partner in a shipping business[15]. Born around 1792, Horton James first comes to notice in Sydney with his involvement with the Sydney Bank and at this time he was about 34 years of age with substantial means. Although it is not known when Horton James arrived in Sydney, he was active in the mercantile community of Sydney for a number of years[16]. He bought land from W C. Wentworth and Joseph Grose in the North Rocks district, he bought and sold land in the area of Surry Hills during the late 1820s, and in 1832 he bought blocks of land south of Devonshire Street and subdivided it as the Strawberry Hills Estate.

      In 1832 the first of Horton James's literary pursuits came to fruition in London, with the publication of a pamphlet on the Sandwich and Bonin Islands[17]. He followed this with a pamphlet, published in Sydney, of his address to the passengers of the Barque Ann[18]. The pamphlet identifies him as the owner of the Ann and it later becomes apparent that the pamphlet was an early effort to promote immigration to the Australian colonies, a trade from which he hoped to profit. In 1837 Horton James quit Sydney. Travelling overland to Port Phillip, he went to Adelaide for just under four months before returning to England via Launceston[19]. On his return to London he wrote a book on his view of South Australia[20], one that was not altogether complimentary.

      From February 1839 Horton James was behind a scheme to create the British and Colonial Export Company[21] based in London. Promoting the company in The Times in February, March and April, the company commenced business on 1 May 1839. Apparently progressing satisfactorily for some time, the company soon declared a half-yearly dividend of 5 percent. In April 1840 efforts to increase the shareholding led to a scathing attack on the company's prospectus by the Sydney Gazette. The attack was reported in The Times[22] which led to a defence of the company by 'A. Shareholder', published on the following day[23].

      The attack by the Sydney Gazette was perhaps not unexpected. In June 1827 Horton James had brought an action for libel in the Supreme Court of New South Wales against Robert Howe, the editor of the Sydney newspaper[24]. The action concerned an anonymous piece written in the Australian which was claimed to be written by Horton James. Represented by Robert Wardell, a lawyer who was also editor and co-proprietor of the Australian, Horton James won damages of fifty pounds.[25]

      How well Horton James's British and Colonial Export Company ultimately fared is not known, but in 1845 he was travelling in the United States and Canada after which he published an account of his travels in North America[26]. From 1846 until his death in 1867, nothing is known of his activities.[27]

      Horton James had an interesting life, travelling to many parts of the world[28]. While his activities in Australia are largely unrecognised, he left behind several valuable accounts that record aspects of the world in which he lived. Some of the more interesting items he left to posterity are the banknotes prepared for the 'third' Sydney bank.

      It is interesting to observe that while the bold text on the banknotes says 'Sydney Bank', the text at the lower right says 'Sydney Banking Company'. This is the title suggested at the first meeting of the promoters of the third bank, but quickly changed to the 'Sydney Commercial Bank'. The request for the banknotes might have been made before the second name was proposed, but the short window during which this name was proposed questions this possibility[29]. Alternatively, Horton James might have entertained thoughts of establishing the bank as a private concern, once the initial scheme foundered and the notes of the Sydney Bank might have been prepared for a subsequent scheme.[30]

      What happened to the notes that were printed is unknown. However, in March 1830, July 1834, and May 1835 individual notes were reported by the Sydney press to have fraudulently passed into circulation. Today only a few of the notes of the Sydney Bank survive to record the abortive scheme for Sydney's third bank in 1826. The 10-dollar note illustrated here is in the possession of the Mitchell Library. The unissued 20-dollar note (valued at $105,000) and another 10-dollar printer's proof (valued at $85,000) are believed unique in private hands[31]. Their value indicates their singular place in Australian numismatic and Australian social history.



  • [1] The Sydney Gazette of 26 January 1826 reported ' ... a dividend of £9 5s. currency, or thirty-seven Spanish dollars, was declared on each share; and each share being in value £30 sterling, which is equal to about £34 10, or one hundred and thirty-eight dollars; it follows, from one of the most obvious rules in Cocker, that the profits at present making by the Bank, amount to the very moderate rate of about 53.5 per cent. per annum!!!' (This was a half yearly dividend.)
  • [2] The directors of the Bank were prominent pastoralists and government officials. The Sydney Gazette identifies the directors as Thomas Macvitie, Edward Wollstonecraft, John Macarthur, Richard Jones, Thomas Icely, John Oxley, George Brown, W.J. Browne, Hannibal Macarthur, James Norton, and A.B. Spark. (Butlin Foundations of the Australian Monetary System, note on page 196.)
  • [3] At the meeting to discuss the foundation of the third bank, Horton James was elected to chair the meeting, despite initially requesting that Blaxland, with his long colonial experience, take the chair. Horton James was later elected to chair the provisional committee for the Sydney Bank.
  • [4] Edward Smith Hall was the first secretary and cashier of the Bank of New South Wales, founded in 1817, and his signature appears on the early banknotes of that bank. He left the bank in 1818 after resenting the interference of the president of the Bank. He became owner and editor of the Monitor from 1826 to 1838 and then editor of the Australian until 1848.
  • [5] John Black was appointed provisional secretary for the new bank and years later became secretary of the Bank of New South Wales.
  • [6] The Sydney Gazette of 8 March 1826 reported that 'The above [Sydney Commercial Bank] is the new designation given to the third Bank, at the insistence of Mr. Wm. Parker.' Despite the change to the 'official' title, the bank continued to be referred to as the 'Sydney Bank'.
  • [7] For a number of years the Spanish Dollar was the principal unit of currency in New South Wales and the accounting unit of the government. In 1825 the Imperial Government prepared measures for introducing British silver into all colonies. In New South Wales the introduction of sterling currency took several years to accomplish and Spanish dollars remained in circulation for many years. (See Chalmers, pages 246 to 250.)
  • [8] Illustrated with this study is an unissued 10-dollar note. In the Sydney Gazette of 18 March 1830 it was reported that a 5-dollar note of the Sydney Bank was presented to Mr. Pearson, a shopkeeper in Sydney. The short report ends 'In an oval there is a view of the town and cove of Sydney from the north shore; the border is partially washed with blue; and the whole is neatly executed.' Unissued 5- and 10-dollar notes are held in the Mitchell Library, Sydney.
  • [9] Maureen Greenland, page 84.
  • [10] Allen Robert Branston (1178-1827) was a prominent wood engraver who worked initially at Bath and from 1799 in London. Operating from Beaufort House in the Strand, his partnership with Robert Whiting is recorded as lasting from 1822 to 1829 (ending two years after Branston's death).
  • [11] An advertisement in The Times of 8 September 1825 states: 'Whiting and Branston Engravers and Printers to his Majesty for the prevention of Forgery respectfully announce the completion of their establishment ... particularly for the engraving and printing banknotes and other Negotiable Securities ...' Charging £2/10/- for a thousand notes printed in one colour, they charged £3/-/- for the same quantity in two colours. It is probable that the promotion of their new technology in late 1825 came to the attention of Horton James or his agents when the requirements for the notes of the Sydney Bank were raised in early 1826.
  • [12] Joseph Lycett (c.1774-c.1825) was a convict artist, transported to New South Wales for forgery. Arriving in the colony in 1814, he was soon caught forging five-shilling bills. After receiving a pardon in 1821 he left Sydney in 1822, returning to England. A prolific artist, he left a large body of work, much of which survives in Australian libraries. (Sourced from the Australian Dictionary of Biography.)
  • [13] Published in London by J. Souter, 73 St. Pauls Church Yard. The work was published in parts; during 1824 and 1825.
  • [14] The arms on the banknote appear to be very similar to the arms of James of Michbarrow in county Somerset, whose shield is 'sable, a dolphin embowed between three crosses botonée or', with the crest 'A demi bull or, wreathed round the middle with a chaplet of laurel vert'. James of Pantaison in county Pembroke has the same shield but a crest of 'A demi bull rampant, sable langued gules armed and hoofed or'. The shield of the arms on the banknotes has three crosses crosslets rather than crosses botonée, and the shield of James of Barrow Court in county Somerset is more like this shield, being described as 'Sable, a dolphin naiant between three crosses crosslets or'. However, the crest for these arms is a dolphin, rather than a demi bull. (Sourced from The General Armory.)
  • [15] In March 1835 an advertisement was placed in the Sydney Gazette announcing the arrival of the Ann and Statesman and the availability of goods from the ships through George Salt Tucker at James' Buildings George Street. Horton James gave the owner's address to the cabin crew of the Ann several years earlier (see Endnote 18).
  • [16] For some years prior to the launch of the Sydney Bank, advertisements for his company did appear in the Sydney Gazette.
  • [17] The Sandwich and Bonin Islands. A Letter to a Noble Lord on the Importance of Settling the Sandwich and Bonin Islands, in the North Pacific Ocean, on the plan of a proprietary government; together with Hints on the probability in that case of introducing British Manufactures into the Great Empire of Japan by T. Horton James, London: W. Tew, 1832.
  • [18] An Address Delivered to the Cabin Passengers of the Barque Ann from London to Van Dieman's Land and New South Wales on the Conclusion of the Voyage by Horton James Esq., published in Sydney and printed by E.S. Hall, 81 George Street, 1833. (Hall was one of the promoters of the Sydney Bank and was owner and editor the Monitor. See Footnote 4.)
  • [19] According to John Stephens, who wrote a critical reply to Horton James work on South Australia, James arrived in Port Adelaide on the Siren on 19th January 1838 and left for England via Launceston on the True Love on 4th May (Stephens. page 1), a period of three and a half months. Stephens also claims that James was in Adelaide awaiting delivery of cattle that never arrived, but was taking payment for the same (Stephens, note on page 19).
  • [20] Six months in South Australia: with some account of Port Phillip and Portland Bay, in Australia Felix by T. Horton James, London: J Cross, 1838.
  • [21] The address for the company was 98 Leadenhall Street, which may also have been Horton James's residential address.
  • [22] The Times, Thursday 10 December 1840, page 5, 'Money-Market and City Intelligence'.
  • [23] The Times, Friday 11 December 1840, page 5, a letter to the Editor. The letter was almost certainly written by Horton James and is instructive in its contents. Giving a good account of his company’s success so far, the letter states: 'Mr. Horton James, is the same gentleman who was so favourably received at the Palace by the late King, who had expressly sent for him to detail to His Majesty his various travels amongst the South Sea Islands, Owhyhee [Hawaii], and the grave of Captain Cooke [sic]...’
  • [24] Robert Howe died in 1829 but his wife, Anne Howe, took control of the newspaper before selling it in 1839 to Robert Charles Howe, her husband's son from his first marriage. In 1840 when the criticism of Horton James's company took place, Robert Charles Howe was the owner of the newspaper.
  • [25] James was no stranger to the Courts of New South Wales, at one stage being charged with evading duty on the importation of tobacco. While the case was quashed, it is interesting to note that the Attorney General of New South Wales, Saxe Bannister, levied the charge. When Horton James launched his British and Colonial Export Company in 1839, an advertisement in The Times (8 April 1839) identified Saxe Bannister as 'Counsel' to the company.
  • [26] Rambles in the United States and Canada during the year 1845 with a short account of Oregon by T. Horton James, published by J. Oliver, in London 1846.
  • [27] A death notice in The Times on 15 August 1867, reports that Horton James died in Kentish Town, Middlesex on 10 August 1867. According to Valmai Hankel in the foreword to the facsimile edition of Six months in South Australia, he left an estate valued at £1,500.
  • [28] According to various advertisements in The Times promoting the British and Colonial Export Company, Horton James travelled to Europe, Asia, Africa and America (27 February 1839), Ceylon, Mauritius, Singapore, New South Wales, Van Dieman's Land, South Australia, New Zealand, most of the South Sea Islands, Brazil, Cape of Good Hope, et cetera (8 April 1839), and in a letter to the editor there is evidence he knew of ports in China (9 May 1840). Additionally, his publications indicate he travelled in Canada, the United States and the Pacific Islands (Hawaii and Bonin Islands).
  • [29] In the Australian of 2 February 1826 T. Horton James placed an advertisement requesting 'an adjustment of Accounts' due to him 'proceeding to London by an early opportunity. It is feasible that he departed for London a month later, between 1 March and 8 March 1826. If this was the case, he might not have known the revised name of the bank.
  • [30] At the meetings held to discuss the founding of the Sydney Bank, there appear to have been two interest groups, one led by Horton James and one led by Gregory Blaxland. Blaxland's agenda seemed to be to force the Bank of New South Wales into expanding their shares. Horton James extolled the virtue of the Scottish banks, indicating the level of banking possible in a small country and pointing out that a charter was not required, as the Commercial Bank of Scotland did not have one. Horton James and his supporters appeared more in favour of establishing the new bank, rather than forcing the Bank of New South Wales into bed with the promoters of third bank. It could be conjectured that, following the failure to launch the third bank, Horton James entertained launching the 'Sydney Banking Company’ himself.
  • [31] The Mitchell Library in Sydney records an unissued 5-dollar note and an unissued 1-dollar note is in private hands. Other notes probably exist, they simply are not known.

    This article was completed in February 2008
    © Peter Symes