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Baxter, Alexander Macduff (1798–1836)

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Alexander Macduff Baxter (1798-1836?), barrister, was born on 25 June 1798 at Monzievaird by Crieff, Perthshire, Scotland, the second son and youngest of seven children of Rev. Colin Baxter and his wife Jacobina, née McDuff. His father (d.1835) was minister at Monzievaird for fifty-four years. In 1819 Baxter was admitted to Lincoln's Inn, and seven years later had an office at Gray's Inn but was still dependent on his father, who appealed to Sir George Murray to help his son to a colonial post or to a travelling tutorship for which he was qualified by a general education and some fluency in French. In 1826 Baxter was nominated for the post of attorney-general in New South Wales at a salary of £1400. He married a Spanish heiress, Maria del Rosaria Anna Uthair, and sailed with her in the Marquis of Hastings, arriving in Sydney in July 1827.

He cut a great dash in colonial society, taking Apsley House, furnishing it lavishly, and achieving some prominence at public functions. Within two months, however, Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling reported to the Colonial Office that 'Dandy' Baxter had never before had a brief in his life, was totally inexperienced as a lawyer, incapable of addressing either court or jury, and helpless against Robert Wardell and William Charles Wentworth whose effrontery and talent kept the court and the Bar in subjection. Undismayed, Baxter claimed an increase of salary and permission to rent more land to augment the 2560 acres (1036 ha) on the Williams River, granted him on arrival.

Aware of his professional deficiencies, Baxter leaned heavily at first on the solicitor-general and even turned to Joseph Tice Gellibrand of Hobart Town for help. As his confidence increased, he acted by himself, but failed to win the governor's confidence. At times the chief justice and the colonial secretary were left to draft bills for the Legislative Council even after Baxter became a member in 1829. When his daily blunders and extravagances continued to be reported to the Colonial Office, he threatened to sue the governor for libel. But Darling persisted and compelled him to dismiss his convict clerk and reduced his daily allowance while on circuit. In spite of Darling's laments, Baxter was nominated in April 1830 for the post of second judge in Van Diemen's land. Confirmation reached the colony in December, and with great pleasure Baxter recorded his resignation as attorney-general. From fourteen of the thirty-four legal practitioners in Sydney he received a farewell address which reflected adversely on the professional standards of those like Wardell and Wentworth who signed it. In January 1831, after violent scenes in the Supreme Court where he charged senior officials with plotting his downfall, he took great pains to record his resignation eight days before taking refuge under the Insolvency Act. Unable to live within his income, Baxter quarrelled with his wife and sought alcoholic consolation. When she presented him with twin daughters, he beat her with a poker and she retaliated with a carving knife. When the girls were baptized into 'the detestable faith' by Father John Therry, Baxter took his young son and left her. He spent his last week in Sydney exchanging charges and counter-charges with his wife, whose hysterical complaints convinced Darling that her destitution and mental breakdown merited financial help in returning her to England; he accepted her draft for £200 on her relation, Sir James Gordon of Chatham dockyard, who repudiated it, and the Colonial Office rebuked Darling for his charity.

Baxter sailed for Van Diemen's Land in March 1831. On arrival, (Sir) George Arthur 'found him in a high state of neurotic excitement and such an habitual sot that it would have been a violation of all public decency to have suffered him to take his seat on the Bench'. By postponing his installation, however, Arthur virtually left the colony without a Supreme Court until the awkward constitutional impediment was removed in August. When Baxter returned from a trip to Sydney in October, he presented his credentials, accompanying them with a request for leave and an advance of salary to recoup his health and to rebut charges made in London against him by Darling. Arthur welcomed the chance to be rid of him and, to prevent any dishonour to his government if Baxter were to leave with charges against him unsettled, advanced him £400. However, Arthur took the precaution of entrusting this money to Daniel Cooper a Sydney merchant, who sailed from Hobart with Baxter in the Duckenfield.

In May 1832 Baxter's death on the voyage was reported in Hobart papers, but he was then in London claiming that ill health had prevented him from taking office, and seeking appointment in some other colony. From July 1832 to August 1833 he was in Marshalsea prison for debt, where he protested that 'upon the death of a very old and infirm lady in Spain, I am by marriage entitled to property worth £14,000'. From Whitby, Yorkshire, his wife was also persistent in appealing to the Colonial Office for the restoration of her jewels and furniture which had been seized in Sydney for her husband's debts; but even her last appeal, as a widow in 1836, had no success.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 12-16
  • A. Halloran, ‘Some Early Legal Celebrities’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 12, part 6, 1927, pp 317-52
  • Governors' Dispatches 20/1831
  • miscellaneous letters, A 2146 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

'Baxter, Alexander Macduff (1798–1836)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/baxter-alexander-macduff-1756/text1955, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 25 August 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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