Remembered on family memorial in Bangor cemetery
After school he became a law clerk for the Glasgow corporation. Some time between 1911 and 1913 he emigrated to Australia where he met his wife Letitia Ford. They married in 1914 and their son James Ford Cairns was born later that year.
He enlisted with the Australian Imperial Force on 5th July 1915. Rising through the ranks he was transferred to the Officer Cadet School in England in April 1917 gaining the rank of Lieutenant by the end of that year.
His relatively respectable career started to go into decline when the war ended being arrested for drunkenness in Belfast in January 1919 and came to an abrupt end when he was cashiered latter that year for misappropriating funds.
He left France and turned up in Kenya where he died on 21st February 1926.
His son James Ford Cairns became a well-known Australian politician who was for a while Deputy Prime Minister.
Below is an extract from his biography which gives a more in-depth overview of his father's story.
Extract from "Keeper of the Faith: A biography of Jim Cairns"
Although Cairns was only four years of age when armistice was declared in November 1918, his life was irrevocably stamped by the events of World War I. His father, James Cairns, enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on 5 July 1915. He was described in his enlistment papers as having a fresh complexion, blue eyes and brown hair, physical features that his son inherited. After training with the 59th Depot Company at Seymour, James Cairns was deployed to the 29th Battalion, 8th Infantry Brigade. On 10 November 1915 he embarked for the Middle East aboard the Ascanieus. He never returned.
According to his AIF service record, James Cairns was stationed in Egypt for several months. In March 1916 he was promoted to corporal and transferred to the 5th Divisional headquarters at Tel el Kebir on clerical duties. In June he embarked for France, where the 5th Division was to be committed to the Somme campaign on the Western Front. The following March James Cairns was selected to attend a training course at the Officers' Cadet School at Cambridge in England. While there he received 'special mention' in Sir Douglas Haig's despatches of 9 April 1917. He returned to France in August and was appointed as adjutant to the 31st Battalion, stationed in the field on the Western Front. His star continued to rise, and he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in November 1917. When hostilities ended, James Cairns remained with the 31st Battalion in France. Soon after, the troubles began that were to ruin what up until that point had been a successful, if unspectacular, service record. In January 1919 on leave in Belfast, where he was visiting his sister, he was arrested by military authorities for drunkenness. He was released after several days, officially censured, and sent to rejoin his unit. This was a minor misdemeanour and hardly unusual in the context of the AIFs reputation for unruly behaviour away from the battle front. Nonetheless, for an officer it was probably regarded as an incident of considerable dishonour.
Worse was to come. In May 1919 James Cairns was reported absent without leave in France and declared an illegal absentee. On 5 August 1919 he surrendered himself to military authorities in London and was placed under close arrest. The next month he was tried by General Court Martial on four charges. The first three alleged that he had misapplied regimental money for 'his own use with intent to defraud' on three separate occasions between 20 March and 2 May 1919. The amounts involved totalled 5535 francs and 85 centimes, equivalent to almost two years' pay for an AIF private. The final charge related to his absence without leave between 9 May and 5 August. James Cairns pleaded guilty to all four charges, and was sentenced to be cashiered and his pay stopped until he had made good the money that he had defrauded. He was due to embark for Australia aboard the Aeneas on 22 November 1919. He failed to do so, and an entry in his service record bluntly states that 'no further action will be taken to arrange his passage to Australia'. On 15 March 1920, on the letterhead of the steamship Llanstephan Castle, he wrote to the AIF requesting an official statement of his service record and asking whether he was entitled to any medals in respect of his period of service. In a postscript he added that he was 'not quite sure of my final destination but a letter addressed to me c/o this steamer at Durban [South Africa] should find me sooner or later.'
From there the trail goes cold. As Paul Ormonde discovered when researching his biography of Cairns in the mid-1970s, there was great reticence within the family about James Cairns' fate. Until her death in 1964, Letitia Cairns appears to have maintained the pretence that her husband was killed in the war. Jim Cairns did not learn otherwise until he was middle-aged. He too has often seemed reluctant to acknowledge that his father abandoned both himself and his mother, and is remarkably vague about what happened to him after the war. The most reliable account is that James Cairns was killed in a car crash in Kenya in 1927, although Cairns claims to have heard dozens of other versions.
The reason James Cairns did not return to Australia in 1919 seems less mysterious. His decision to head for Africa was probably motivated by a desire to find a place to start life afresh, where he would not be haunted by the stigma of the events of the preceding twelve months. Yet this may be only part of the explanation. Born in Hillhead in Glasgow in Scotland, James Cairns had been in his early thirties when he arrived in Australia aboard the one-class ship, the Benalla, in May 1913. According to Jim Cairns, his father had been 'part of the establishment for the greater part of his life'. It is true that James Cairns sprang from a conservative and comfortable middle-class family. He was the eldest son of a Glasgow police inspector and had apparently received a public school education. After leaving school, he found secure employment in the Town Clerk's Office in the Glasgow Town Hall. He remained there for some eighteen years and had reached the grade of senior clerk when last listed as an employee of the City of Glasgow in 1912. What prompted him to come to Australia the following year is unclear. Possibly it was a sense of wanderlust and adventure, or perhaps he was escaping something.
The reason behind the Ford family's decision to emigrate to Australia is far more obvious. The Fords were 'poor farmers' from Lancashire. Letitia's father, John Thomas Ford, had started work at a cotton mill when he was nine years old. He and his wife, Elizabeth Ann, and other members of the family later worked as tenant farmers on a small dairy holding not far outside Blackpool. In 1912, weary of the family's continuing economic struggle, John Ford decided to begin a new life in Australia. After sailing from Britain, he spent a brief spell working in Western Australia, then arrived in Victoria, where he found a job as manager of a pig farm in Keilor, 20 kilometres north-west of Melbourne. He sent for his wife and daughters, Eleanor, Letitia (Letty) and Sara. It was on the voyage to Australia aboard the Benalla that 19-year-old Letty met James Cairns.
Despite their disparate social backgrounds and substantial age difference, romance blossomed between James and Letty. Shortly after their arrival in Melbourne the Fords moved into 22 Drummond Street, Carlton, while James Cairns found lodgings nearby in Victoria Parade, East Melbourne. James and Letty continued to see one another, and early in 1914 Letty fell pregnant. Although fundamentally tolerant and generous spirited, John and Elizabeth Ford conscientiously abided by a puritan Methodist ethic; they believed in the virtue of hard work and austerity, and shunned the sins of the flesh. The discovery that their middle daughter had become pregnant out of wedlock must have come as a shock and a source of anguish.
On 30 April 1914 James and Letty were married in a simple ceremony at the home of a Baptist minister in East Melbourne, with John Ford and Letty's elder sister Eleanor as witnesses. James Cairns moved into the Ford home in Carlton, but predictably it was not long before tensions surfaced between the Fords and their new son-in-law. In September James Cairns secured a position in the Melbourne Town Hall Clerk's Office with a handsome starting salary of £200 per annum. Because his duties included the organisation of social functions and official entertainments, as his son later explained, he 'was at dinners, banquets, parties and so forth a great deal'. In effect, James Cairns' job afforded him the opportunity to mix in Melbourne social circles and indulge his taste for the high life. His weakness for alcohol created special consternation at home. Referring to the reticence that had surrounded his father's memory,
Jim Cairns noted one reason was that 'at more than one stage of his life he drank too much. My mother and grandparents didn't drink at all. I think they were more than a little ashamed of it.'
It is conceivable, then, that another factor behind James Cairns' desertion of his family was that once the initial flush of romance between him and Letty faded, and their social differences became more apparent, he no longer saw the marriage as a compelling reason to return to Australia after the war. While there is no evidence that he had actually been coerced into the marriage after Letty became pregnant, it is feasible that the war offered him a way out of a domestic situation he had inadvertently stumbled into.
If this is speculation, the crucial impact of James Cairns' abandonment of his wife and son in determining the nature of Jim Cairns' upbringing is beyond question. The first consequence of his father's absence was that Cairns was not raised in a conventional nuclear family. Not long after James Cairns departed for the war, Letty's parents leased a property known as Victoria Farm on Macedon Road, Sunbury. For the next four years or so the farm was home to John and Elizabeth Ford, Letty Cairns and her baby son, Eleanor and Sara Ford, their cousin Mattie Smith and the Fords' domestic Lizzie Salthouse. Life in this extended family was to be a consistent pattern of Jim Cairns' childhood and adolescence, although he was too young to remember much about the years at Victoria Farm. His mother remained the centre of his universe and his principal recollection of this period was of being physically close with her.