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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mackie, William Henry (1799–1860)

by J. H. M. Honniball

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

William Henry Mackie (1799-1860), advocate-general and senior magistrate, was born on 17 November 1799 at Cochin, India, the son of William Frederick Mackie, a surgeon in the East India Co., and his wife Elennora, née Hamilton. Sent to relatives in Londonderry, he attended a school conducted by R. B. Macklin and later another at Twickenham, Middlesex. At 15 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1821), and was admitted to the Inner Temple in November 1822. He was not, however, called to the English Bar.

He arrived in Western Australia in the Caroline in October 1829 as a private settler, though possibly with hopes or even a recommendation for a legal position. In deciding to migrate he was probably influenced by his cousin, Captain Frederick Irwin, with whom he was further connected by the marriage of his sister and Irwin's brother. The property Mackie and Irwin brought entitled them to a large land grant; they jointly took up 3240 acres (1311 ha) at Henley Park on the Upper Swan, and another 7000 acres (2833 ha) on the Avon between Beverley and York.

On 9 December 1829 Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) James Stirling appointed Mackie and seven other colonists justices of the peace, and formed a constabulary to preserve law and order. Although Stirling's instructions did not authorize criminal punishments, he thus provided for some continuity of the legal control to which migrants had been accustomed in England. These first measures, six months after the colony's foundation, had become necessary because of the increase of petty crime and drunkenness. Courts of Petty and Quarter Sessions were introduced, and Mackie was appointed their chairman as well as counsel to the local government. After their duties in the criminal courts, the next most important function of the magistrates was on the licensing bench of which Mackie became a member when it first met on 1 January 1830. In April that year the magistrates drafted jury rules and in July the first Quarter Sessions were held at Fremantle. Respect for the law was well established in the colony's first year.

In October 1831 Stirling received a commission from the Crown under which he established Legislative and Executive Councils, of which Mackie became a foundation member. Mackie was also appointed advocate-general. In February 1832 the first ordinance passed by the Legislative Council provided for a civil court under a commissioner with jurisdiction nearly equivalent to that of the superior civil courts in England. Until then Stirling had decided civil disputes himself, usually with advice from Mackie or another magistrate. George Moore became first commissioner of the Civil Court, but in June 1834 he exchanged posts with the advocate-general, so that Mackie thereafter presided in both the civil and the criminal jurisdictions.

In Perth the courts sat in the rush-thatched church which served also as a schoolroom until replaced in 1837 by a new court-house that served the same three purposes for another few years; as Perth's oldest building, it was still in use in 1966. Although the law administered in the young colony was based on English law as it stood in 1829, Mackie appreciated the need for adapting it to local conditions and for simplification. With his support many legal reforms were made. Small debts and libel caused much litigation until 1836 when the Civil Court Ordinance and Rules were amended to limit the right of court practice to qualified persons. The justices of the peace were given jurisdiction in claims for small debts in 1836, and their duties were later increased by numerous statutes. The Small Debts Courts were especially useful in outlying settlements, and in Perth a similar Court of Requests was set up in 1842. Because labour was scarce in the colony's first two decades, the relationship between master and servant caused much concern. As early as March 1830 the magistrates met under Mackie's Chairmanship to frame recommendations for the settlement of such disputes. An Act of 1842 provided further remedies, but the introduction of convicts in 1850 required more legislation, with heavy sentences for offences against property. Imprisonment in the stocks was stopped in 1851, the Grand Jury was abolished in 1855, and debtors were no longer imprisoned. In 1855 the first provision was made for the admission by examination of locally trained lawyers as practitioners in the Civil Court. Mackie interpreted the jurisdiction of the Civil Court very widely, although his successors, Alfred McFarland and Archibald Burt, were to doubt the court's competency in matters of equity and insolvency.

In his judgments Mackie quoted few authorities, for he worked with a meagre official library. His decision in 1836 to extradite a fugitive Tasmanian ex-official was probably wrong, and in 1853 he disagreed with a jury's decision in a case involving resumption of city land. Nevertheless he was universally respected for his conscientious administration based on common sense and tolerance. A friendly patriarch, he was ideally suited to the conditions of the time. The position of advocate-general of South Australia was offered him by Governor (Sir) George Grey in 1841, but declined. In August 1842 Mackie became an unofficial nominee in the Legislative Council, although not without some criticism, which proved unjustified, that the nomination was designed to strengthen the government. When through illness he retired from his official positions in 1857, the Legislative and Executive Councils petitioned the Queen to honour him with 'some signal mark of royal favour'. The councillors spoke of his zeal, unimpeachable integrity and high intelligence. He enjoyed a generous pension until his death at Henley Park on 24 November 1860.

Mackie was also highly regarded in private life. At Whitehall, his town house in William Street near the river jetty, he had a much admired garden, and the Henley Park estate flourished largely through the work of his employee, Richard Edwards. He was on the committee of the Vineyard Society, which in the 1840s began the development of the botanical gardens in Perth now known as the Stirling Gardens. Well read, Mackie was secretary of the Western Australian Book Society in the 1830s. He played a leading part in the Western Australian Missionary Society which made an abortive attempt to found an Aboriginal mission at Upper Swan in 1836. He was a benefactor of All Saints' Church of England, which was built on land donated from the Henley Park estate, and in whose graveyard he was buried. Opened in 1839, the church was the oldest in the State still in use in 1966. A bachelor, he was survived by a cousin, John Coningham Mackie, who arrived soon after him in Western Australia to take up farming at York.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 3, vol 6
  • F. C. Irwin, The State and Position of Western Australia (Lond, 1835)
  • G. F. Moore, Diary of Ten Years Eventful Life of an Early Settler in Western Australia (Lond, 1884)
  • Civil Service Journal (Perth), 20 July 1929
  • E. M. Russell, ‘Early Lawyers of Western Australia’, Journal and Proceedings (Western Australian Historical Society), vol 4, part 3, 1951, pp 32-53
  • West Australian, 6 Mar 1937
  • W. S. Ferguson, Notes on Early Life of W. H. Mackie (State Library of Western Australia)
  • E. M. Russell, History of Development of the Legal System in Western Australia (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

J. H. M. Honniball, 'Mackie, William Henry (1799–1860)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 29 October 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 2

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