Australian Dictionary of Biography

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MacLachlan, Byron Hugh (1900–1991)

by Dirk Van Dissel

This article was published online in 2014

Byron Hugh MacLachlan (1900-1991), pastoralist, was born on 7 August 1900 in Adelaide, second son of Hugh Patterson McLachlan, grazier, and his wife Euleena, née Sawers. Both parents came from families with extensive pastoral interests in South Australia. Educated at the Collegiate School of St Peter, MacLachlan enrolled in medicine at the University of Adelaide but left before the first-year examinations to go jackarooing on his family property, Paratoo station, north-east of Peterborough. He took over as manager six months later, aged nineteen. On 29 February 1928, at Toorak Presbyterian Church, Melbourne, he married Joan Glasgow, daughter of Major General Sir William Glasgow. They spent their early married life at Paratoo before moving to Strathcourt at Gilberton, and later to Springfield station, Williamstown, in South Australia.

In his early years MacLachlan established the practice that was to serve him well throughout his career; to invest in land at good prices in preference to shares. Beginning with Lake Everard station, purchased in 1931, MacLachlan built one of Australia’s largest pastoral empires. In 1937 he acquired a vast tract of undeveloped semi-desert land north-west of Tarcoola, subsequently transformed into Commonwealth Hill—‘the jewel in his crown’ (Saints 1991, 15). Confident that the outback, with its low annual rainfall, was prime sheep-growing country he successfully lobbied for the construction of an outer dog fence across the State as protection against dingoes. On 17 June 1947 the South Australian Dog Fence Act came into force and a five-foot (150 cm) barrier was erected from the Great Australian Bight to the New South Wales border. MacLachlan served on the South Australian Dog Fence Board almost continuously from 1947 to 1979. Some of the methods he proposed for protecting the fence from damage by local Aboriginal people and dingoes, in the interests of his sheep, later aroused severe criticism in the press and on television. He publicly complained about the destruction of fencing by Aboriginal people at his Mulgathing station in the 1940s, and in 1970 was criticised for poisoning spring water to eradicate feral goats and kangaroos at his Balcanoona station. By the mid-1980s his holdings encompassed seventeen stations throughout Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, and Western Australia, carrying more than 355,000 sheep and producing over eight thousand bales of wool each year.

As president (1950-51) of the South Australian Stockowners’ Association, MacLachlan contributed to the successful blocking of the Menzies government’s proposed wool reserve price plan in 1951. That year he and another driver were involved in a fatal car accident. Although the coroner found that there was no culpable negligence on the part of either driver, MacLachlan paid the victim’s widow over £3,000 in compensation.

On 2 February 1939 MacLachlan had enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces. Called up for full-time duty in October 1941, he was commissioned in December. He served as a captain in cavalry and artillery units in Australia before being placed on the Retired List in September 1942.

MacLachlan was widely regarded as a hard employer and a tough businessman, but some who were close to him saw a warmer side. Of less than average height, well built, and with a rosy complexion, he loved French wines and driving large cars. His recreations were billiards and shooting. He served on the building and fundraising committees and board of St Andrew’s Hospital, Adelaide and with his two brothers donated £1,000 to help establish it. A nominal Presbyterian but proud of his Scottish heritage, in the late 1940s he changed the spelling of his name from McLachlan to its original form of MacLachlan. Survived by his wife, a son, and twin daughters, he died on 4 August 1991 at Springfield station and was cremated. A bronze bust by John Dowie and a portrait by Sir Ivor Hele are held by the family.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Adamson, Peter. ‘Harassing Aborigines and Poisoning Waterholes. B. H. MacLachlan (1900-91). Some Examples of a South Australian Pastoralist’s Attitude to and Treatment of Aborigines from the 1940s to the 1970s.’ Unpublished typescript, 2007. Copy held on ADB file
  • Austin, Nigel. ‘How the Laird of Commonwealth Hill Built His Wool Empire.’ Bulletin (Sydney), 9 December 1986, 76-82
  • Cockburn, Stewart. ‘Pioneer Who Tackled the “Useless” Land.’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 10 August 1982, 4
  • Cockburn, Stewart. The Patriarchs. Adelaide: Ferguson Publications, 1983
  • MacLachlan, Hugh. Interview by the author, 12 and 26 April 2012
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, S9076
  • Saints (Magazine of St Peters’ College, Adelaide). ‘Byron Hugh MacLachlan (1917).’ 55 (September 1991): 15
  • Woodford, James. The Dog Fence: A Journey Across the Heart of Australia. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2003.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Dirk Van Dissel, 'MacLachlan, Byron Hugh (1900–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/maclachlan-byron-hugh-15651/text26846, published online 2014, accessed online 19 October 2019.

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