Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Icely, Thomas (1797–1874)

by K. J. Cable

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Thomas Icely (1797-1874), landowner and stockbreeder, was born in November 1797 at Plympton, Devonshire, England, eldest son of Thomas Icely, a merchant and shipowner (d.1836). Icely received a sound general and commercial education and in September 1818 was given an order for 600 acres (243 ha) in New South Wales. He reached Sydney in September 1820, disposed profitably of the merchandise he had brought, and returned to England where he added to his capital. This resulted in a 2000-acre (809 ha) grant that Icely, back in the colony in 1822, took up at Saltram, near Bathurst, in 1823. He was given permission to buy another 9600 acres (3885 ha) and received a further grant in 1825, although these additions were not taken up immediately. Two years later Icely bought Bungarribee with the help of the Macarthurs, from whom he had already bought sheep and cattle. Finally in 1831 Icely established the Coombing Park estate and by 1838 had disposed of Saltram and Bungarribee. Coombing, near the later town of Carcoar (Carcuan, Corcoran), comprised about 26,000 acres (10,522 ha) by 1839. Icely developed the resources of this and other properties. He built large stores, a cheese factory and a foundry, mined for copper and tried to exploit the gold first discovered on his land in 1842. A. G. Mann, bookkeeper at Coombing in 1850, reported: 'We have a Mine on the Estate where Mr Icely has found Gold and very soon intends working it'. Icely became famous as a breeder and importer of cattle, sheep and horses. His race-horses and cavalry remounts for India were of high quality, his merino experiments achieved success and he made type history in Australia in his selection of Shorthorn stock. Icely was not a large-scale squatter. Rather, he was a landowner with a belief in orderly and scientific development. It was a sign of his careful planning that he did not suffer from the depression of the early 1840s as much as many of his fellows.

Icely's mercantile career in New South Wales had been briefer. In 1824 he had entered into partnership with Matthew Hindson to carry on business as agents and merchants. He gained Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane's commendation for trying to set up a timber trade with England and sailed to England in the Midas in 1824 to encourage this trade. He retired from active partnership in 1827 and thenceforward his commercial activities were determined largely by his property interests. He was a shareholder in the Bank of Australia, a member of the committee of inquiry into the Savings Bank in 1843 and a trustee of that institution in 1844. These were incidental to his main concern at Coombing.

Icely was a nominee in the Legislative Council from 1843 to 1856. He was a consistent supporter of the governor but did not take a leading part in proceedings. In the stormy session of 1844 he sat on no committees and did not give personal or written evidence before the select committee on crown lands grievances. But in May, when Governor Sir George Gipps thought it best to make known his opinion 'on the subject of the occupation of Crown land, [he] … put into the hands of Mr Icely … a Paper, and intimated to Mr Icely that he was at liberty to make it public'. In December Gipps recommended Icely for a proposed colonial order of merit, not as a reward for subservience but in recognition of his position as a great landowner and a sensible conservative. Icely was 'one of the first gentlemen in the colony' and Colonel Godfrey Mundy wrote, after a visit to Coombing in 1846, that 'the great graziers and even the wealthiest landed proprietors of the Old Country may hide their diminished heads when compared with [Icely] in point of territory, stock, and numbers of persons employed'.

Icely's conformity in the council involved him in the one case of notoriety in his career. He voted against the motion for a select committee to investigate Earl Grey's strictures on John Dunmore Lang's immigration scheme. In 1851 Lang publicly accused Icely of sycophancy and more directly of having defrauded Joseph Underwood over the sale of the Midas in 1824. Lang, who admitted that the charge was inspired by Icely's attitude, apologized but was given a gaol sentence for criminal libel. While in prison he investigated a story that Icely had hired someone in 1824 to fire a shot into Underwood's house 'to shut his mouth about the Midas'. Brent Rodd, who had fired the shot unwittingly, denied that Icely had had anything to do with the affair. The court proceedings did not harm Lang's electoral popularity but they vindicated Icely's reputation for honest, though perhaps hard, dealing. His fellow-landowner, Edward Hamilton, told (Sir) Edward Deas Thomson that he 'always considered [Icely] as the best gentleman of the old settlers—facile princeps', and he was glad that, as a result of the libel case, his 'estimation of him as a friend, and a good citizen, is in the highest sense not misplaced'. Icely was appointed to the Legislative Council once more in June 1864 and retained his seat until his death.

Icely was a firm member of the Church of England. The first resident clergyman of Carcoar lived for a time on the Coombing property and Icely helped to build the parish church of St Paul. He remained a leader in church affairs in the district and acted as trustee, warden and Church Society representative. The synod movement found in Icely a strong supporter, but his attitude to problems of ecclesiastical government was often independent. His relations with Bishops William Grant Broughton and Frederic Barker were cordial but the squire-parson nexus was his ideal and this did not accord always with official policy.

In England in 1830 Icely married Charlotte, daughter of Nicholas Phillips Rothery, R.N., of Bittern, Hampshire. His wife's brothers accompanied him to New South Wales. Frederick (1804-1860) became a promoter of mining and iron companies of Sydney and William Montagu (1810-1900) a prosperous grazier and stockbreeder at Cliefden, near Carcoar. Icely had two sons and four daughters by his first wife, who died in 1843. In 1856 he married Louisa Bartlett, who bore him a son and daughter and survived him.

In 1862 Icely left Coombing for Greystones and, in 1869, Elizabeth Farm House, Parramatta. He died on 13 February 1874 and was buried at St Peter's, Cook's River.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 12
  • G. C. Mundy, Our Antipodes, vols 1-3 (Lond, 1852)
  • M. H. Ellis, The Beef Shorthorn in Australia (Syd, 1932)
  • W. A. Steel, ‘The History of Carcoar, 1815-1881’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 17, part 4, 1931, pp 239-88
  • Sydney Morning Herald, Feb, Apr 1851
  • mansucript catalogue under Thomas Icely (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

K. J. Cable, 'Icely, Thomas (1797–1874)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/icely-thomas-2258/text2885, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 28 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014