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Macleay, Sir George (1809–1891)

by David S. Macmillan

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

George Macleay (1809-1891), by unknown photographer

George Macleay (1809-1891), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 20783

Sir George Macleay (1809-1891), pastoralist and explorer, was born in London, the third son of Alexander McLeay. The McLeays, an old Caithness landed family, were connected by marriage with the Roses of Kilravock, and through this alliance with George Rose, Pitt's secretary of the treasury. George was educated at Westminster School, and came to Australia in the Eliza in 1827. The 1828 census recorded that he was a landowner with 3500 acres (1416 ha) near Camden, but this was probably the Brownlow Hill estate, owned by his father.

In November 1829 George Macleay accompanied Charles Sturt on his expedition to the Murrumbidgee and the Murray. He went 'as a companion, rather than as an assistant', taking the place of Hamilton Hume, and he shared in the hardships of that epic journey to the sea and in the credit that redounded to the discoverers of important waterways and valuable tracts of good country. Sturt had a high opinion of him, and wrote that 'amidst these distresses … [in April 1830] Macleay preserved his good humour and did his utmost to lighten the toil and to cheer the men'. Macleay and Sturt became close friends on this expedition, and thereafter kept up a regular correspondence.

From 1831 to 1859, except for a few months in Italy in 1843-44, Macleay lived on the Brownlow Hill estate, which he farmed with considerable ability. He had been granted 2560 acres (1036 ha) for his services with Sturt and in 1831-32 he established a station on the Fish River, between Goulburn and Yass. In 1837 he formed a station on the south side of the Murrumbidgee, known as Toganmain; by 1857 its 212,000 acres (85,794 ha) adjoined the group of stations centring on Kerarbury owned by his cousin, William John Macleay, who in partnership with the Clarke brothers probably looked after George Macleay's pastoral interests in the district. Like many other settlers Macleay was hard hit in the depression of the early 1840s, but he was clear of debt by 1850. By the 1860s occupation of his Murrumbidgee lands had made him very wealthy. Apart from his inheritance from his father, including Brownlow Hill, he was the principal beneficiary under the will of his brother William Sharp Macleay, from whom he inherited Elizabeth Bay House, built by his father about 1836, and the fifty acres (20 ha) of grounds and gardens around it that were such a notable showplace at the time.

In 1859 Macleay decided to live abroad. He was in England until about 1870, and thereafter in the south of France, whence he returned briefly to Sydney in 1873 to wind up his affairs. He travelled widely in Europe and lived in style, winning repute as a bon-vivant and owning a steam yacht in which he voyaged among the Greek islands, along the coasts of Turkey and Syria, and to the northern shores of the Black Sea. He was a prominent member of the Australian circle in London which included such men as Sir Charles Nicholson, William Charles Wentworth and Francis Merewether. In 1879 he set out on a trip to the Nile and Jerusalem, accompanied by two nieces, and Nicholson wrote to Sir Edward Deas Thomson in Sydney: 'Macleay's love for locomotion is, considering his time of life, remarkable'.

His interests were wide throughout his life, and they included politics, as befitted the son of Alexander McLeay. In October 1831 he had signed the farewell address to Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling, and in 1836 the petition to Governor Sir Richard Bourke on education. In 1842 he was a member of the association for obtaining permission to import coolies from India, and in 1846 he was appointed a magistrate. He was appointed a road trust commissioner for Narellan in December 1849, and in September 1851 was elected for the Murrumbidgee district to the Legislative Council, holding the seat until the dissolution of February 1856; after responsible government he represented the same constituency in the Legislative Assembly from April 1856 to the dissolution of April 1859. In 1857 he declined appointment in (Sir) Henry Parker's short-lived ministry. Like W. J. Macleay, he was identified with the opponents of Charles Cowper and Henry Parkes. A close personal friend of his neighbour at Camden, James Macarthur and of Macarthur's brother, Sir Edward, he shared their conservative outlook in politics and corresponded regularly with both. In 1855-60 he advocated the clearing of the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers as an aid to navigation.

Macleay shared the interest of his family in the sciences. From his father he inherited a keen enthusiasm for horticulture and he was a zoologist of more than amateur status. In 1836 he was appointed to the committee of the Australian Museum and Botanical Garden, and later became a trustee of the museum. He was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society of London, and a member of its council in 1864. He contributed specimens to the collections of his brother and his cousin, which are now housed in the Macleay Museum in the University of Sydney. In 1846 he presented fossils from the Murrumbidgee, collected by himself, to the Australian Museum, and he appears to have done other field work, both on the Murrumbidgee and on his European and near-East travels. In the early 1870s he assisted Sir Richard Owen with the compilation of his book on the fossil mammals of Australia, published in 1877. Keenly interested in the arts as well as the sciences, Macleay was responsible for recovering a fine fourth-century Greek statue of Hermes from a river bed in Asia Minor. This was presented by him to Nicholson, who sent it out to the museum he had founded in the University of Sydney. It is now known as 'the Nicholson Hermes'.

Macleay was appointed C.M.G. in 1869 and K.C.M.G. in 1875. He was a tall sturdy man with red hair; the Rufus River in south-western New South Wales was named by Sturt in his honour. He died at Mentone, France, on 24 June 1891.

Macleay was married twice, first to Barbara St Clair Innes in 1842 and, after her death in 1869, to Augusta Sams of Tasmania in 1890. His widow died in 1919. There were no children.

Select Bibliography

  • Hogan papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Sir William Macleay papers (University of Sydney Archives)
  • Riley papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

David S. Macmillan, 'Macleay, Sir George (1809–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/macleay-sir-george-2414/text3199, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 24 April 2014.

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

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