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Donaldson, Sir Stuart Alexander (1812–1867)

by Sandra Draper

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Stuart Alexander Donaldson (1812-1867), by unknown photographer

Stuart Alexander Donaldson (1812-1867), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

Sir Stuart Alexander Donaldson (1812-1867), premier, merchant and pastoralist, was born on 16 December 1812, the third son of Stuart Alexander Donaldson and his wife, Betsy, née Cundall, of Snab Green, Lancashire, England. His father's London firm, Donaldson, Wilkinson & Co. (in 1838 Donaldson, Lambert & Co.) had colonial interests; in 1828 Donaldson senior wrote Observations on the Cultivation of Tobacco in the Australian Colonies and in that year and 1837 helped petitioners from Sydney.

At 15, after private tuition, Donaldson junior entered his father's firm. He progressed rapidly and was encouraged to travel. His notes of a trip from Hamburg to Berlin in 1830 show a bright turn of humour and acute observation. His qualities were soon recognized by his father's Sydney associates, Alexander Riley and Richard Jones, who asked him to send Stuart to the colony to stimulate the business of the London firm. Instead Donaldson went in 1831 to Mexico and later described his experiences vividly in Mexico Thirty Years Ago, as Described in a Series of Private Letters, by a Youth (London, 1866). He returned to England in May 1834 and when Richard Jones renewed his offer Donaldson accepted, left England in the Emma Eugenia and arrived at Sydney on 5 May 1835.

Donaldson soon won a place in commercial life and the 'exclusive' circle at the Macarthurs' Vineyard and Camden estates. He did well at Richard Jones & Co., became a partner in 1837 and manager when Jones retired next year. In 1839 he was appointed agent for Lloyds of London. With success came his social coup when he took a leading part in founding the Australian Club in 1838; he served as treasurer, trustee, committeeman and in 1857-67 vice-president. In 1856 he was a founding member of the Union Club. Donaldson senior reflected these triumphs when he wrote 'I am not surprised at the gratification you appear to feel by the confidence reposed in you by the elite of your society'.

Donaldson also exploited the new outlets of pastoral expansion. In 1839 he sent James Graham as his agent to Melbourne, bought town and suburban land there and became a trustee of the Port Phillip Association. Early in 1840 he went to the New England district and took up the runs of Tenterfield and Clifton. With some 250,000 acres (101,174 ha) and 34,000 sheep, he saw himself as a 'sheep and cattle proprietor on a scale Suffolk people don't accustom themselves to think'. In 1841 he formed a business partnership with William Dawes and went to England. Donaldson was severely affected by the depression of the early 1840s and on his return in 1844 he found his business had been mismanaged and Richard Jones insolvent. The adversities of the London firm in the colony and New Zealand made Donaldson's financial position more precarious, but by 1851 he could boast that he had liquidated his debts and realized more than £30,000; his new interests included a tweed factory near Newcastle, shareholdings in many colonial companies and a trusteeship of the New South Wales Savings Bank. The gold rush brought him great wealth. In February 1853 he went to England and on 21 February 1854 married Amelia, daughter of Frederick Cowper of Carleton Hall, Cumberland. Donaldson returned to Sydney and in 1855 became consul-general for Sardinia.

In 1838 Donaldson became a magistrate but claimed that 'a politician I mean never to be'. He declined to stand for Port Phillip in 1845 and said he preferred moderate leaders in public affairs. However, his links with the Australian Club, William Charles Wentworth and Robert Lowe and his improving finances drew him into politics. In February 1848 he won a by-election for Durham, and was returned by that electorate in July 1848, July 1849 and September 1851. He resigned in 1853 and was elected for Sydney Hamlets in February 1855. One contemporary described him as 'an animated and impetuous speaker', and others as 'bumptious' and full of 'self-esteem'; to close acquaintances he was a 'rattling, prattling, jovial companion' whose opinions always commanded attention. Charles Cowper thought him 'useless to the liberals'.

Donaldson soon won repute in the Legislative Council by his speeches on finance and the running of government departments. At the hustings in 1851 he had angered Sir Thomas Mitchell who demanded a public apology; it was published promptly in the press but Mitchell thought it insolent and challenged Donaldson to a duel. Both men were poor marksmen and after the affray remained unreconciled. With good humour Governor Sir Charles FitzRoy overlooked the offence, and Donaldson continued to advocate economy in the government. In December 1851 he moved that the council refrain from voting money in excess of the schedules prescribed by the Australian Colonies' Government Act of 1850, until their items were submitted for scrutiny. Triumphant, he then moved that the council reject the estimates and petition for the abolition of the schedules. Although supported by most elected members, his motion was narrowly defeated. He supported Wentworth's opposition to Earl Grey's Constitution proposals in 1848 and 1850. He was a member of both Grievances Committees and supported the 1851 Electoral Act. Donaldson was in England when Wentworth's Constitution bill was debated, but unlike Wentworth he adhered to an Upper House elected on a restricted franchise. He favoured a reduced price for crown land, and local control of land revenue. Among other legislative interests he had voted in 1848 in favour of the introduction of 'exiles' but, because Grey failed to send free immigrants as promised, he became an opponent of transportation and in 1850 denounced it as 'incompatible with the introduction of free institutions'. He also advocated steam communication with Britain, the introduction of cotton and tobacco growing and free trade. To encourage Caroline Chisholm, he successfully moved the allocation of £10,000 for her Family Colonization Loan Society in 1852.

In the first elections under responsible government Donaldson was returned for Sydney Hamlets to the Legislative Assembly. The formation of the first ministry proved difficult. (Sir) Edward Deas Thomson failed, and James Macarthur, doubting his own ability to win support in the assembly, recommended Donaldson to the governor. Hitherto he had worked with so many factions that one Sydney paper was at a loss to discover his political principles. Donaldson preferred to call himself a liberal conservative who believed that 'a spicy opposition is always of service in a Colony, both to Governors and Governed'. On 22 January 1856 Governor Sir William Denison called on Donaldson to form a ministry. He wrote to his brother John that he hoped 'to reconcile the contending interests, to repress the selfishness of faction, to amalgamate the views of widely differing men and then to originate and carry out a colonial policy which will bear the test of examination … and all this in a colony perpetually changing in its social state and advancement politically'. Attempting to unite all the most talented politicians in the most acceptable combinations, he chose Thomas Holt, (Sir) William Manning, (Sir) John Darvall and George Nichols; the ministry was sworn in on 6 June. Only Manning had administrative experience, but James Macarthur attended cabinet meetings, nominally as a minister without portfolio. However, the arrangements proved untenable. Donaldson's relations were strained with Deas Thomson whose centralized administration, Donaldson believed, hampered the running of his department. He was also disheartened by the opposition of (Sir) James Martin, (Sir) Terence Murray, (Sir) Henry Parkes and Cowper: 'we found the Assembly so intractable and we could not go on from night to night with majorities of two and three'. In July he learnt that his brother James had died, a tragedy that 'left a blank in me that never can be filled'. After defeat on a vote impugning the propriety of appointing judges to the Upper House, the ministry resigned on 25 August.

The measures proposed by the ministry were well suited to the colony's need and the resignation, particularly over a minor question, was condemned as hasty and imprudent. The only fundamental ministerial difference had been on the question of the Upper House, where Donaldson and Darvall favoured the elective principle. The ministry had agreed on the general questions of electoral representation, land, commercial and fiscal policy and law reform. Donaldson's reply to critics was, 'my colleagues and myself are all too independent of office to cling to it'.

The Cowper ministry that followed held office for five weeks. At the October elections Donaldson was defeated in the Sydney Hamlets but elected unopposed for the South Riding of Cumberland. As treasurer in the Parker ministry until 7 September 1857, Donaldson played a part in rearranging government administration into four main departments each represented in parliament by a minister, and in making the office of auditor-general a permanent and non-political office. In 1857 he was appointed a commissioner for railways and was elected for Cumberland in January 1858. In 1851-61 he was a member of the Senate of the University of Sydney. He had supported its foundation and his brother John helped to select the academic staff. Donaldson returned to England in June 1859, leaving his two brothers-in-law to manage his pastoral holdings.

With Sir Charles Nicholson, Sir William Burton, Sir George Macleay and Wentworth, Donaldson was active in the General Association for the Australian Colonies, formed in London in 1855. He was its chairman in 1860 and, when accused in 1863 of planning a penal settlement at Port Essington, he vigorously denied the charge in his Copies of Letters to Sir Daniel Cooper. He was knighted in 1860 and visited the colony on private business in 1861 and 1864. In April 1860 he unsuccessfully contested the seats of Dartmouth and later of Barnstaple in the House of Commons. Plagued by ill health he withdrew from public affairs and on 11 January 1867 died at Carleton Hall, Cumberland, survived by his wife. Their eldest son, Stuart, was master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1904-15 and vice-chancellor in 1912-13; the second, Sir Hay Frederick, was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, won repute as an engineer and in 1916 was drowned with Kitchener in the Hampshire; the third, St Clair George, became bishop of Brisbane and later of Salisbury; the youngest, Seton John Laing, was accidentally drowned while at Eton. The only daughter, Mary Ethel, married Rev. Algernon Lawley in 1896.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 21, 23, 24, 26
  • C. T. Dimont and F. de Witt Batty, St. Clair Donaldson (Lond, 1939
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1848-56
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1856-59
  • Empire (Sydney), 7 Mar 1856
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Mar 1867
  • John and Stuart Alexander Donaldson papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Macarthur papers, vol 27-28, 34 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Riley papers (State Library of New South Wales).

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Citation details

Sandra Draper, 'Donaldson, Sir Stuart Alexander (1812–1867)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/donaldson-sir-stuart-alexander-3425/text5209, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 17 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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