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Macrossan, John Murtagh (1833–1891)

by Harrison Bryan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

John Murtagh Macrossan (1833-1891), politician, was born at Creeslough, Donegal, Ireland, son of Neil Macrossan, farmer, and his wife Agnes, née Murtagh. He was educated in private and Catholic schools in Ireland and Glasgow. He arrived at Melbourne in 1853 and was a miner in Victoria and probably in New South Wales and New Zealand before 1865 when he was certainly located on the North Queensland goldfields. By the early 1870s he had emerged as a leading figure among the North Queensland miners. In 1871 he organized the Ravenswood Miners' Protection Association which petitioned the minister for removal of the field warden. In that year Macrossan was convicted in the Townsville court of having assaulted the warden, T. R. Hackett, whom he had publicly horsewhipped. In November 1873 Macrossan was returned to the Queensland Legislative Assembly for one of the newly-constituted seats for the Kennedy electorate. After some years as an independent, he threw in his lot with Thomas McIlwraith. In the 1878 elections, which brought the Conservatives to office, Macrossan swung the northern electorates solidly behind McIlwraith, but was himself defeated by making a last-minute decision to contest a doubtful seat. However, he was given the portfolio of works and mines on 21 January 1879 and in March was elected for Townsville; he retained this seat until 1891.

Macrossan resigned from the ministry in March 1883 but returned to office in June 1888 under McIlwraith. In January 1890 he added the portfolio of colonial secretary to that of mines. As a minister Macrossan was able and hard-working. His first actions in 1879 had been to introduce economy and order into the railways, though the Opposition asserted that his wholesale dismissals from the Ipswich railway workshops could be shown to have a sectarian bias. He was responsible for two mining Acts which were well received and clearly represented many reforms. In particular the 1888 Act emphasized employer liability in cases of accident and included such radical measures as inspection by workers' representatives.

As a politician Macrossan was used, both in and out of office, as the major debating strength of the Conservative Party: good examples are the no confidence motion of 1876, the Ipswich dismissals of 1879, and especially in 1880 the steel rails scandal, the mail contract and the Douglas libel. They all show a lack of restraint which came out most strongly on other occasions affecting him personally: for example, the debate on (Sir) Samuel Griffith's education bill in 1875; the judgment of Sir Charles Lilley in the case of McSharry v. O'Rourke in 1886; and perhaps the bitterness surrounding the election of W. H. Groom as Speaker in 1883. Ironically enough, this fierce lack of restraint probably caused him to be passed over twice when the leadership fell vacant. In 1886 when McIlwraith first retired he was succeeded as leader of the Opposition, not by Macrossan his obvious lieutenant but by Albert Norton. Again, in November 1888 when McIlwraith resigned as premier, the party chose B. D. Morehead.

In February 1890 Macrossan and Sir Samuel Griffith attended the conference on Federation called by Sir Henry Parkes in Melbourne. Although the government resigned in August Macrossan was chosen to accompany Griffith to the Australasian National Convention at Sydney in 1891. Macrossan had been suffering from heart disease for some years but he had an attack of bronchitis and died during the convention on 30 March. He was buried in Nudgee, Queensland. He was survived by his wife Bridget, née Queely, whom he had married at St Joseph's Church, Townsville, on 1 October 1874, and by a daughter and five of their seven sons. Hugh Denis (1881-1940) and Neal (1889-1955) became chief justices of Queensland, and Vincent was one of Brisbane's leading solicitors. Not the least of the paradoxes associated with Macrossan is that he founded a Queensland legal tradition despite his oft-expressed contempt for those who lived on the law.

Some mystery surrounds the source of Macrossan's income, but he must have had some substance to remain an unpaid member of parliament for twelve years. He certainly controlled the Northern Advocate and Miners' Journal for some time and was rumoured to have other newspaper interests in the north. He also appears to have invested in lead mining and was involved in railway construction contracts in New South Wales and perhaps in Queensland.

Macrossan was physically small and slight, pale-complexioned and almost delicate in appearance. His deep-set eves and heavy beard, jet black in his earlier years, attracted attention and hinted at a depth of feeling and a strength of expression to which his contemporaries all attest. Solitary by nature, he was known to miners as 'Jack the Hatter' and he seems not to have made friends easily. This difficulty must have been enhanced by his intense vigour in party politics, the bitterness and passion of the speeches in and outside the House, the strength of his insistence on his Catholic religion and a clear determination not to conciliate or to suffer fools gladly.

Macrossan's early loyalty to the Conservative Party must have shocked his original electors, the northern miners, but the suggestion that he had betrayed his constituents as a price for future office seems ill-based. Whatever his changes of attitude, a consistency can be distinguished in his actions on issues he thought vital, but his vacillation on such matters as payment of members of parliament cannot be freed completely from the suggestion of opportunism. On some subjects, however, he stood firm, irrespective of party policy or personal advantage. Committed to the interests of working miners, he legislated for their safety and was much more consistent in opposing Chinese coolie immigration to the goldfields than he was on Kanakas or Indians in agriculture. A fervent advocate for North Queensland, he complained that its interests were ill-served by 'Queen Street Ministries'. While still in opposition in 1876, he secured the appointment of a Financial Separation Commission. In 1886 he came out openly for complete separation for the North and in the assembly made one of Australia's great statements for local self-government. Though supported only by the balance of his 'Northern Nine', he tried again in 1890 and came as close as 26 votes to 32 to carrying the House. On religious questions he was always consistent and arguably affected his personal prospects thereby. Contemporaries regarded him as the lay leader of Catholicism in Queensland. Rumour persists that he had been intended for the priesthood.

Finally, Macrossan emerged as one of the earliest and ablest of the apostles of Federation. Contemporaries have recorded his fervent, infectious enthusiasm and clear grasp of principles. In the convention debates he stands out for his knowledge and admiration of American precedent. Bernhard Wise and Alfred Deakin recorded that he was a quiet speaker but stress the detail and incisiveness of his argument. To Queensland journalists he was ever the fiery demagogue, and to his long-time enemy Thadeus O'Kane his oratory was 'raw and bloody bones'. Undoubtedly a Statesman Macrossan lay behind the Politician Macrossan.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Bryan, John Murtagh Macrossan: His Life and Career (Brisb, 1958)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1891, 1, 271, 296, 312
  • H. Bryan, ‘John Murtagh Macrossan and the genesis of the White Australia policy’, JRHSQ, 5 (1953-57)
  • Australasian, 15 May 1886
  • Brisbane Courier, 31 Mar 1891
  • Daily Mail (Brisbane), 28 Sept, 5 Oct 1907
  • H. Bryan, The Political Career of John Murtagh Macrossan (M.A. thesis, University of Queensland, 1954).

Citation details

Harrison Bryan, 'Macrossan, John Murtagh (1833–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/macrossan-john-murtagh-4138/text6627, published in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 29 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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