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MacKenzie, Seaforth Simpson (1883–1955)

by Ronald McNicoll

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

Seaforth Simpson MacKenzie (1883-1955), public servant, was born on 9 August 1883 at Timaru, New Zealand, son of Scottish parents Eneas Simpson Mackenzie, clerk, and his wife Jennie Hogg, née Purves. He was educated at Timaru High School and Victoria University College, Wellington (LL.B., 1905), winning the Macmillan-Brown prize for original literary work. He joined the legal department of the Public Trust Office. On 28 February 1905 he was admitted as a solicitor and on 29 July 1907 as a barrister. At the end of 1909 he moved to Melbourne and for two years was editor of the monthly Southern Sphere; his poems appeared there as well as in anthologies such as New Zealand Verse (London, 1906). On 4 May 1912 he married Joyce Delbridge at the Presbyterian manse, Warrnambool. In February 1914 he joined the Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department as a clerk in the professional division.

On 16 March 1915 Mackenzie, who had a knowledge of German, was commissioned with the rank of major in the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force to relieve the assistant judge advocate general in German New Guinea. On 3 April he took up duty at Rabaul as deputy judge advocate general and legal adviser to the administrator, Colonel S. A. Pethebridge. Mackenzie lost no time in translating into English the German ordinances, which continued in force. As civil judge he was also registrar-general, registrar of land titles and registrar of births, deaths and marriages. He had no trained counsel in court. Moreover the district officers, who functioned as magistrates, were without legal training. Mackenzie had no legal assistance until a crown law officer was appointed at the end of 1915 and took over the Department of Justice.

He took the terms of capitulation to their logical conclusion when he recommended the granting of freehold land titles to which the German administration had been committed. Pethebridge would not agree. Mackenzie also drew up a scheme to grant freehold land to Australian settlers as a means of establishing British interests before the end of the war. Pethebridge again dissented, contending that this was beyond the rights of the occupying power. Mackenzie was promoted brevet lieutenant-colonel on 1 July 1916; his rank was made substantive on 1 January 1918. He had made a success of his appointment; German businessmen had no hesitation in taking their litigation to the Central Court.

When the ailing Pethebridge left Rabaul, he named the judge as his successor and in January 1918 Mackenzie was appointed acting administrator. He instituted a Department of Agriculture and appointed its first director. To encourage the villagers to make copra, he tried to prevent purchase of their coconuts. Trading regulations to the Gazelle Peninsula and the Duke of York Islands were reapplied. In a submission to Melbourne he made another unsuccessful attempt to provide for Australian settlers on small freehold plantations. Otherwise he conformed to Pethebridge's established policies. When the new administrator Brigadier General G. J. Johnston arrived at Rabaul on 21 April 1918, Mackenzie resumed his duties as legal adviser and was appointed judge of appeal.

In January 1921 he returned to the Attorney-General's Department, Melbourne, as legal assistant and in June 1922 was appointed principal registrar of the High Court of Australia. From 1921 he worked also on volume X of the official war history, The Australians at Rabaul (1927). Charles Bean had difficulty in extracting his drafts, but the eventual volume was a substantial study.

In 1926 Mackenzie had purchased three over-valued, expropriated coconut plantations in the Mandated Territory, borrowing heavily for the deposit. By 1932, with eight court judgments for debt against him, he owed £19,000 to the Commonwealth for the plantations and another £7000 for money lent and accumulated losses. On 28 August 1936 he appeared in court in Melbourne on charges of forging and uttering seals of the High Court in his custody. At his trial he averred that his interests tended towards literature and that he had never been a businessman. He was convicted and sentenced to four and a half years imprisonment; his appeal was dismissed. He was released in February 1940. Divorced by his wife in 1937, he married Mary Elizabeth Hanna on 27 October 1944. Survived by his wife and three sons and two daughters of his first marriage, Mackenzie died in Melbourne on 20 October 1955 and was cremated.

In his prime Mackenzie was described as suave with an engaging manner; others found him flamboyant. He evidently had a good deal of charm. His performance as judge in New Guinea, considering his almost entire lack of experience, had been creditable, and he was an adequate acting administrator.

Select Bibliography

  • M. P. Hansen and D. McLachlan, An Austral Garden (Melb, 1912)
  • Report by the Minister of State for Defence on the Military Occupation of the German New Guinea Possessions (Melb, 1921)
  • C. D. Rowley, The Australians in German New Guinea, 1914-1921 (Melb, 1958)
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 11 June 1932
  • Age (Melbourne), 4, 5, 9, 26, 29, 30 Sept, 1 Oct 1936.

Citation details

Ronald McNicoll, 'MacKenzie, Seaforth Simpson (1883–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mackenzie-seaforth-simpson-7390/text12849, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 25 November 2017.

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

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