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Macdonald, Peter Fitzallan (1830–1919)

by D. B. Waterson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Peter Fitzallan MacDonald (1830-1919), pastoralist, entrepreneur and politician, was born on 4 September 1830 at Campbelltown, New South Wales, fourth son and one of twelve children of Alexander Macdonald, an Edinburgh-born emancipist farmer, and his wife Sarah, daughter of the prosperous ex-convict John Warby; A. C. Macdonald was an older brother. A younger brother John Graham Macdonald (1834-1918), also an early Queensland explorer and landholder, sometime partner of (Sir) John Robertson and Robert Towns, was later a police magistrate at Bowen and Townsville. Educated in 1840-42 at The King's School, Parramatta, Peter gained farming experience before achieving moderate success on the Victorian goldfields and later overseeing and managing Ingleby station, near Geelong.

Arriving at Rockhampton, Queensland, in 1857, MacDonald moved to the Canoona goldfields, but soon embarked on a series of pastoral explorations with squatters and Aboriginal guides along the Mackenzie, Isaacs, Connor and Nogoa rivers. One such expedition in 1858 almost cost him his life and led to chronic health problems. His aim was to take up as many leases as possible, retain and stock such properties as Marmadilla, near Springsure, Columbura, on the Mackenzie, Fernlees, near Tilpal, and Lake Larmouth and Yaamba, his headquarters, on the Fitzroy near Rockhampton, and sell the rest. One property, Cullinlaringo, which he sold to Horatio Wills in 1860, was the scene next year of a massacre by Aborigines. MacDonald was one of the party who avenged the slaughter, 'and it was generally recognised . . . that the work was well done'.

MacDonald returned to Geelong to marry with Church of Scotland forms Julia Ayrey on 1 January 1861; she was the orphaned daughter of a wealthy Western District pastoralist. There were seven children of the marriage. Elected to the Queensland Legislative Assembly for Blackall in November 1873, he was a progressive squatter, supporting (Sir) Samuel Griffith, secular education, liberal land legislation for viable selectors and a port at Broadsound. MacDonald made much of his contribution as a pioneer confronting 'a new treacherous enemy in the Aborigines, an unknown climate, and adverse seasons while burying himself in the bush for the best years of his life'. He maintained that 'he was so identified with the district that he could not promote its interests without promoting his own and he could not serve himself without serving the electors'.

In 1869 MacDonald had sued the Crown for damages resulting from its resumption of western leaseholds and river frontages that he had taken up. The Great Northern Run case dragged on until 1880 when it was settled for £22,700 in MacDonald's favour. He was hotly attacked for using parliament to further his own interests rather than those of his constituents. By August 1876 he acknowledged, 'I am sick of Parliamentary affairs and must resign at the end of the session'. He did not recontest the seat in November 1878 and failed to win North Rockhampton in 1888.

Taking a trenchant position against the rising tide of labour, in 1890 and 1891 MacDonald attempted to thwart the shearers' union by employing selectors' sons and Chinese, commenting, however, that 'the latter are easily scared and it might be very humiliating and financially disastrous if a body of Union men hunted my shearers out of the shed'. His mining ventures lost money, but his pastoral investments were supplemented by town properties including hotels throughout Queensland, as well as the Rockhampton Northern Argus daily newspaper and meat works at Lakes Creek. These enterprises saved him when 90 per cent of his stock died in the drought of 1899-1904.

In middle age MacDonald was 6 ft 2 ins (188 cm) tall, well built, weighing 15 stone (95 kg), with determined eyes, a long, narrow, Scots face fringed by a full white beard and no moustache. Early privations and hypochondria led to frequent illness, assuaged by draughts of strychnine and opium. Increasingly conservative in the last thirty years of his life, meticulous, stern and distrustful, 'P.F.' was a 'hard man' to his family and servants. Financing several central Queensland political campaigns for 'Liberty' and 'Progress' against 'Anarchy, lawlessness and confiscation', he spent much time reviving his pastoral holdings and successfully jousting with the authorities over his tax assessments.

MacDonald died on 19 June 1919 at Morningside, his Rockhampton residence, and was buried in Yaamba cemetery. His wife, two sons and two daughters survived him. Literate and productive but not insightful, patriarchal but not paternal, political but neither persuasive nor effective, MacDonald was essentially a loner. Yet he was a successful pastoral pioneer and an early and sustained contributor to the development of Rockhampton and its hinterland.

Select Bibliography

  • J. T. S. Bird, The Early History of Rockhampton (Rockhampton, Qld, 1964)
  • L. McDonald, Rockhampton: A History of the City (Brisb, 1981)
  • A. E. Hermann, Development of Rockhampton, vol 1 (Rockhampton, Qld, 2003)
  • M. Vale (compiler), Warby: My Excellent Guide (no date)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), vol 18, 30 June 1875, p 607
  • Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 11 Nov 1873, p 3, 18 Nov 1873, p 2, 20 Nov 1873, p 2, 12 May 1888, p 8, 11 May 1888, pp 4 & 5, 15 May 1888, p 5, 19 June 1919, p 1, 23 June 1919, p 7, 20 Mar 1920, p 6
  • Northern Argus (Rockhampton), 18 Nov 1873, p 1
  • Daily Record (Rockhampton), 19 June 1919, p 4
  • B. Cosgrove, Peter Fitzallan MacDonald: A Life Apart (M.A. thesis, University of Central Queensland, 1994)
  • P. F. MacDonald letterbooks and diaries (Rockhampton Municipal Library)
  • Yaamba pastoral records (University of Queensland Library).

Additional Resources

Citation details

D. B. Waterson, 'Macdonald, Peter Fitzallan (1830–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/macdonald-peter-fitzallan-13063/text23625, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 15 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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