Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Macartney, Sir William Grey (1852–1924)

by Michael Roe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

William Grey Ellison Macartney (1852-1924), by unknown photographer

William Grey Ellison Macartney (1852-1924), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H22630

Sir William Grey Ellison Macartney (1852-1924), governor, was born on 7 June 1852 in Dublin, eldest son of John William Ellison (from 1859 Ellison-Macartney, having inherited from a maternal uncle) and his wife Elizabeth Phoebe, née Porter. The father's chief estate was in Tyrone which he represented in parliament in 1874-85. His son attended Eton and Exeter College, Oxford, taking a first class in modern history (1875). Law and politics became his dominant interests. Already grand secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, he became Conservative member for South Antrim in 1885. Next January he convened a meeting which inaugurated the parliamentary Ulster Unionist Party, and duly served as whip. His speeches in the Commons concentrated on Irish matters in predictable style.

Macartney was a competent secretary to the Admiralty from 1895 until a ministerial reshuffle ousted him in 1900. A consolation was admission to the Privy Council. Resigning from parliament in 1903, he became deputy master of the Royal Mint where his work won official commendation. On 5 August 1897 at Holcombe, Somerset, England, he had married Ettie Myers Scott who bore him a son and two daughters. Her brother was Robert Falcon Scott whose career Macartney helped: 'you have been a brick', the explorer wrote, awaiting death in Antarctica.

In December 1912 Macartney was appointed K.C.M.G. and governor of Tasmania. Irish Nationalists protested that his Orange links would offend Tasmanians sympathetic to Home Rule. Secretary of State (Lord) Lewis Harcourt averred that the Tasmanian government had approved the choice, but there was some local criticism.

The Tasmanian sojourn was made eventful by a constitutional dispute. In April 1914, with Labor and Liberal parties near deadlock, Macartney agreed that John Earle form a Labor ministry, on condition inter alia that an election follow. Earle became premier but, under pressure from all sides, sought no dissolution. Macartney had to suffer the mortification of having his procedure repudiated by the secretary of state while his pertinent dispatches, argued with learning and vigour, were not published.

Macartney's comments on Tasmanian affairs were often acid. 'Any comprehensive criticism … appears to be beyond the capacity of either of the Legislative Houses', he wrote of budget debates in October 1915. Politicians he saw as concerned to hold their well-paid seats, profligate with public moneys and subject to narrow interest groups. His view of the State at large was more generous, and he discharged public duties with due form. Perhaps he was happiest as grand master of the Grand Lodge of Tasmania.

In April 1917 Macartney transferred to the governorship of Western Australia where, during his two years and nine months term, he witnessed three changes of political leadership. Government, however, remained in conservative hands. The governor avoided public skirmishes with his ministers but, as in Tasmania, he seems never to have regarded them highly. Toward the end of 1917 he secretly advised Whitehall that State administration was 'a monument of inefficiency, incompetence and waste'. He travelled extensively within his domain and in Perth continued to participate in Freemasonry, replacing Archbishop Riley as grand master in 1918.

On returning to the United Kingdom in 1920, Macartney gave his name and leadership to educational and philanthropic good works before dying at Chelsea, London, on 4 December 1924. He stands a cold and remote figure whose abilities were real but somewhat sterile.

Select Bibliography

  • A. B. Keith, Responsible Government in the Dominions, vol 1 (Oxford, 1928)
  • R. Huntford, Scott and Amundsen (Lond, 1979)
  • Irish Historical Studies, 12 (1960-61)
  • Bulletin, 11 Dec 1924
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 6 Dec 1924, p 15
  • governor's dispatches (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

Michael Roe, 'Macartney, Sir William Grey (1852–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/macartney-sir-william-grey-7292/text12647, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 15 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018

William Grey Ellison Macartney (1852-1924), by unknown photographer

William Grey Ellison Macartney (1852-1924), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H22630