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Durack, Michael Patrick (1865–1950)

by G. C. Bolton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Michael Patrick Durack (1865-1950), pastoralist, was born on 22 July 1865, at Grabben Gullen near Goulburn, New South Wales, eldest of four sons and four daughters surviving infancy of Patrick Durack and his wife Mary, née Costello. After a childhood on Thylungra station, Queensland, he was sent with his brother John Wallace (1867-1936) to St Patrick's College, Goulburn, and then worked on Thylungra. After his family's 1882-83 overlanding expedition to the Kimberley in Western Australia, he was sent in 1886 to the head-station, Argyle Downs, arriving just in time for the Halls Creek goldrush. On his 21st birthday he made the first sale of Kimberley cattle to a Halls Creek butcher for £1200 in raw gold. After the field declined he and his relations found new markets by overlanding stock to Pine Creek, Northern Territory (1891) and Derby, Western Australia (1893).

New opportunities arose in 1894 when a shipping trade from Wyndham to Perth was started by Francis Connor (1857-1916) and Denis J. Doherty (1861-1935). The Duracks became the main suppliers for this market and, in 1897, overriding the misgivings of old Patrick Durack, they negotiated a merger with their shipping agents to form the firm of Connor, Doherty & Durack Ltd. Controlling properties totalling nearly 6000 sq. miles (15,540 km²) on the Western Australia-Northern Territory border, and largely dominating the Wyndham export trade, this firm would be a major influence in the Kimberley pastoral industry for the next half-century.

Troubles came immediately. Because of the spread of cattle-tick from the Northern Territory, quarantine restrictions were imposed on the export of East Kimberley cattle. Believing that the restrictions were imposed for the benefit of the rival West Kimberley firm of Forrest (Alexander), Emanuel & Co. Ltd, Connor, Doherty & Durack protested vigorously but unsuccessfully before searching for overseas markets. In 1902 Durack negotiated the shipment of 3612 cattle to Natal; this was long claimed as a record overseas consignment of live cattle. In 1905-06, with Doherty, Durack investigated North America and in 1909 he was appointed an honorary commissioner by the South Australian government to examine possible Asian markets for Northern Territory livestock.

In 1910 he visited the Philippines to explore a demand created by the decimation of local herds by rinderpest. After a successful trial shipment the firm was blocked by a ban imposed for the benefit of American exporters. Connor went to Manila in 1911 and successfully negotiated the lifting of the ban, but his extravagance alienated the Durack brothers. Doherty had retired to England some years since and, especially after Connor's death in 1916, the effective decision-making in the firm lay with Michael and John Durack.

By now Michael was a leader of his community as justice of the peace and local magnate, and in 1917 he entered State parliament as a Nationalist member of the Legislative Assembly for Kimberley. An honourable and conscientious backbencher, never really at home with parliamentary cut and thrust, he concentrated on promoting northern development. In 1920 with Edward Angelo he joined the Country Party from discontent at the (Sir) James Mitchell government's alleged neglect of northern interests; in 1922 he moved for a separate financial administration for the northern part of Western Australia, but the measure was narrowly defeated. In 1924 he retired from politics, but in 1928 chaired a royal commission on the State's meat industry. Few of its recommendations were adopted because of the onset of the Depression. During the 1920s Durack gave keen support to the search for minerals, especially oil prospecting, in the Kimberley; his investments were substantial but unsuccessful. He also took a lively interest in the development of aviation in the North-West.

The Depression, coming after a decade of poor beef-cattle prices, found the Connor, Doherty & Durack properties heavily in debt. Durack's old age was dominated by the struggle to win free of these burdens. In 1938-39 he was negotiating with Dr Isaac Steinberg for the sale of the firm's properties to form a settlement for Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Despite post-war prosperity and against the wish of his family, Durack effected the sale of almost all the family properties to Peel River Estates in 1950. He then, on his 85th birthday, erected a memorial at Argyle to his pioneering kinsmen and retired to Perth where he died on 3 September; he was buried in the Catholic section of Karrakatta cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £61,195.

An intellectual whose strong sense of family loyalty had bound him to a lifetime as a pastoral entrepreneur, Durack was a distinguished figure with a trim vandyke beard and the stamina to take part in prospecting expeditions on horseback even in his 82nd year. Under his guidance Argyle gained a reputation for benevolent paternalism towards its Aboriginal employees. On 22 September 1909 he had married Bessie Ida Muriel Johnstone (1883-1980) in Adelaide.

Of their four sons and two daughters, Kimberley Michael (1917-68) was a notable pioneer of agriculture in the Kimberley, while Dame Mary Durack Miller (b.1913) has gained distinction as an author, and Elizabeth Durack Clancy (b.1915) is a noted painter. M. P. Durack's uncle Jeremiah ('Galway Jerry') (1853-1901), had founded Rosewood and Dunham stations before being killed by Aboriginals while asleep on the verandah of his homestead; he was the father of J. P. Durack Q.C. (1888-1978), and grandfather of Peter Drew Durack, attorney-general in the Malcolm Fraser Federal government from 1977.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Durack, Kings in Grass Castles (Lond, 1959)
  • L. Hunt (ed), Westralian Portraits (Perth, 1979)
  • University Studies in History and Economics, 1954, p 7
  • Western Argus (Kalgoorlie), 5 Mar 1901
  • Durack diaries and correspondence, 1886-1950 (privately held).

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Durack, Michael Patrick (1865–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/durack-michael-patrick-6062/text10373, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 1 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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