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Macdermott, Henry (1798–1848)

by L. J. Hume

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

Henry Macdermott (1798-1848), merchant and politician, was an Irishman. By his own account his family belonged to the Protestant gentry of County Roscommon, his father was an officer in the British army, and he himself, 'when very young', was an inspector of free schools in Ireland. He enlisted in 1820, came to Australia as a sergeant in the 39th Regiment in 1827, resigned as a sergeant-major in 1831 and settled in Sydney, where he became a wine and spirit merchant and invested in squatting, money-lending and land speculation. In 1837 he married Catherine Sarah, the eldest daughter of Lieutenant Francis Small, who later became superintendent of the Hyde Park Barracks. There were at least five sons of the marriage.

Macdermott's career as a politician began effectively in 1839, and by 1841 he had established himself as a spokesman for the political movement of the skilled workmen. In 1841 and 1842 he played an important part in the process which replaced the old conflict of emancipist versus exclusive with new divisions drawn on class and economic lines. By criticizing the proposals of William Charles Wentworth and his allies at public meetings called to demand or oppose the establishment of representative and municipal institutions in the colony, Macdermott brought out the conservative intentions of the leaders of the movement for colonial self-government and the conservative basis of the new alliance between Wentworth and James Macarthur.

Macdermott's campaign won him popular support, but it alienated most of those who were endowed with political rights in the new Constitution and, as he soon saw, made it impossible for him to win a seat in the elective Legislative Council. He turned instead to municipal politics, and was elected councillor in 1842, alderman in 1843, and mayor in 1845. His term as mayor was undistinguished. By this time the Sydney City Council was already deep in the financial difficulties that led to its ultimate downfall. Macdermott seems to have been conscientious in attending to his mayoral duties, but he did nothing to solve the fundamental problems.

In the slump of the early 1840s Macdermott continued to speak at meetings organized by the operatives and, after August 1843, by the Mutual Protection Association. He supported in the City Council employment-creating policies, and gave anti-squatter evidence before both John Dunmore Lang's select committee on the extension of the franchise (1844) and the select committee on the Masters' and Servants' Act (1845). In 1844 he managed to draw political advantage from a much-publicized quarrel with Robert Lowe. But already in 1844 his association with the operatives was growing less close, and he soon surrendered the leadership of the movement. Unlike some of his colleagues on the City Council he seems not to have taken a close interest in the internal affairs of the Mutual Protection Association. His relations with the operatives may have been affected by the controversy on education, for he strongly favoured the Irish National system, while many of the Catholics who had provided an important segment of his support were in 1844 demanding, under the leadership of the clergy, a fully denominational system. He remained an alderman until his membership of the council was cut short abruptly by his bankruptcy in September 1847. Treated generously by his creditors, he re-established himself in business, but his health had been poor for some time, and he died on 1 February 1848.

Macdermott was a man of fiery temperament, never hesitating to give or to take offence. In the eyes of some of his contemporaries he was 'a leveller, a chartist, a Robespierre, a rebel'. But although his radicalism was genuine, it was quite limited. He emphatically dissociated himself from talk about the Rights of Man, and he hesitated to advocate universal suffrage. He has attracted the attention of recent historians because of his association with the nascent labour movement, but it is equally appropriate to see him as a representative of the striving urban middle class, like Wilshire, Flood and others who served a political apprenticeship with him in the City Council.

Select Bibliography

  • A. P. Martin, Life and Letters of the Right Hon. Robert Lowe, Viscount Sherbrooke, vol 1 (Lond, 1893), 216-20
  • L. M. Thomas, The Development of the Labour Movement in the Sydney District of New South Wales from 1788-1848 (Canberra, 1962)
  • M. Roe, Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia 1835-1851 (Melb, 1965)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Feb 1848
  • W. A. Duncan, Autobiography, 1811-54 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

L. J. Hume, 'Macdermott, Henry (1798–1848)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/macdermott-henry-2394/text3159, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 18 November 2017.

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

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