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McArthur, Sir Gordon Stewart (1896–1965)

by R. Wright

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Sir Gordon Stewart McArthur (1896-1965), politician, grazier and barrister, was born on 7 April 1896 at South Yarra, Melbourne, third child of (Sir) William Gilbert Stewart McArthur, barrister, and his wife Margaret Rutherford, née Macpherson, both Victorian born. Peter McArthur, a pioneer Western District pastoralist, was his grandfather. Educated (from 1909) at Geelong College, Gordon left in 1915 to join the British Army. He was commissioned in the Royal Field Artillery on 27 August 1916. In the following year he lost his right leg in action on the Western Front. Following recuperation and demobilization in 1918, he attended Jesus College, Cambridge (B.A., 1921; M.A., 1941), from which he graduated in the mechanical science tripos.

In 1921 McArthur was recruited to Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd by Essington Lewis. He worked as an engineer at Newcastle, New South Wales, and at Whyalla, South Australia, until in 1926 a growing interest in the law persuaded him to resign and travel to England for further study. He was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1929 and, following his return to Melbourne, admitted to the Victorian Bar on 14 February 1930. Four years later McArthur left the law to manage Meningoort, his father's 5743-acre (2324 ha) property near Camperdown, which he inherited in 1935. He built a reputation for livestock and pasture improvement, and for breeding such thoroughbreds as the champion racehorse Chicquita. On 6 August 1936 at the Presbyterian Church, Toorak, he married Theodosia, daughter of Sir George Syme.

Elected to the Legislative Council for South-Western Province in June 1931, he was the third McArthur family member to enter the Victorian parliament: he was preceded by his uncles John Neil McArthur and Peter Campbell McArthur. Neither politically driven nor personally ambitious, Gordon McArthur found his conservative values comfortably accommodated by—successively—the United Australia Party, the Liberal Party and the Liberal-Country Party, while his affable 'country liberalism' was satisfied by his role as 'local member'. In the council he was dubbed the member who 'never missed a division' and appreciated for his thoughtful explanations of proposed legislation. A warm, easy mixer, fond of a smoke and a yarn, he knew everyone and everyone knew him. McArthur held his seat for thirty-four years.

In June 1955 McArthur's career took an unexpected turn. Premier (Sir) Henry Bolte, convinced that McArthur's abilities had been unrecognized, ignored his objections and named him minister without portfolio. On 10 April 1956 McArthur was appointed minister for forests, and of State development and decentralization. He proved a diligent administrator who refused to allow his disability to interrupt arduous forest inspections. When Bolte failed in his attempt in 1958 to win control of the Upper House by persuading the Country Party to provide the president, he again turned to McArthur. On 8 July he was sworn in as president of the Legislative Council. Tolerant, impartial, at times even mischievous, McArthur was an outstanding chairman who used charm to deflect rancour and experience to ensure procedural integrity. He was knighted in 1959. In 1960 his casting vote and, more unusually, his deliberative vote when the House was in committee, saved the government's controversial licensing (amendment) bill. But commitment to duty was not without cost and his health began to decline.

Tall, distinguished and genial, McArthur enjoyed sport. At Geelong College he had been a member of the football, cricket, athletic and rowing teams, and at Cambridge he had stroked the Jesus College Lent boat, winning fame as the 'rower with one leg'. He was later a good golfer and horseman. A clubbable man, and a witty after-dinner speaker, he was a member of the Melbourne (president 1958), Victoria Racing, Naval and Military, and Royal Melbourne Golf clubs; at Cambridge he belonged to the Leander, Pitt and Hawks clubs. He was also a member of the Geelong College council. Following a long illness and periods in hospital, Sir Gordon McArthur died of chronic pyelonephritis on 10 August 1965 in East Melbourne. He was accorded a state funeral and was buried in Camperdown cemetery; his wife, daughter and three sons survived him. His eldest son Fergus Stewart McArthur entered the House of Representatives in 1984; his nephew Peter Stewart McArthur was a member (1976-82) of the Victorian Legislative Assembly.

Select Bibliography

  • K. West, Power in the Liberal Party (Melb, 1965)
  • Pastoral Review, 17 Sept 1965, p 893
  • Australian Bar Gazette, May 1966, p 18
  • Age (Melbourne), 9 June 1960
  • private information.

Citation details

R. Wright, 'McArthur, Sir Gordon Stewart (1896–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcarthur-sir-gordon-stewart-10891/text19339, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 19 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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