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McCrae, George Gordon (1833–1927)

by Norman Cowper

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

George Gordon McCrae (1833-1927), by unknown photographer

George Gordon McCrae (1833-1927), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H30533

George Gordon McCrae (1833-1927), poet and man of letters, was born on 29 May 1833 in Leith, Scotland, eldest son of Andrew Murison McCrae, writer to the signet, and his wife Georgiana Huntly McCrae. Georgiana with her four sons landed on 1 March 1841 at Port Phillip, where her husband had migrated in 1839. After a short stay in Bourke Street, the family built Mayfield at Abbotsford on the River Yarra. In 1843 Andrew took up the Arthur's Seat cattle run, near Dromana, and on the north-western side of it overlooking the bay built a homestead now owned by the National Trust where the family lived in 1845-51.

George had attended a preparatory school in London, in 1841 he and his brothers were given lessons by their accomplished mother; and from 1842 they had the services as tutor of John McLure, a master of arts from the University of Aberdeen, from whom they received 'a regular and systematic course of instruction' and who proved a capable teacher and an ideal companion.

George became closely acquainted with the birds, animals, reptiles, trees and flowers with which the bush at Mayfield and Arthur's Seat then abounded, gained an understanding of and affection for the Aboriginals and learned fishing, shooting, riding and other arts of bushmanship. His fascination for the sea and ships and all things to do with them had begun at Leith, developed on the voyage to Australia, increased while he wandered round the wharves of Melbourne, and grew as he sailed and fished and watched the movement of ships from the shores of Dromana.

At 17 as a probationer with a surveying party in the Macedon district, McCrae escaped death on Black Thursday, 6 February 1851, when he and his companions straddled a log over a creek while the flames raged past them. Surveying did not attract him, and after a year with a Flinders Street merchant and a shorter time in the Melbourne Savings Bank, he joined the Victorian government service in 1854 and remained in it until as deputy-registrar-general he reached the retiring age in 1893. On leave in 1864 he travelled in England, Scotland and France, and in 1887 and 1894 made long visits to Mauritius and the Seychelles, for which he developed an abiding affection.

McCrae had a lively, interested, observant and romantic mind, and was impelled to commit to paper, in words or pictures, what he saw and what happened to him. Though he is not regarded as an artist, his paintings of ships were praised by Sir Oswald Brierly. Tom Roberts in a letter to Hugh McCrae mentioned 'a pen and ink of 2 vessels beautifully done', and the manuscript accounts of his travels and experiences are interleaved with sketches vividly illustrating the scenes and events he describes. However, he gave to writing most of his leisure before he retired and his whole time in the next thirty-four years.

His first published work was Two Old Men's Tales of Love and War (London, 1865). It was followed in 1867 by The Story of Balladeädro and Mämba, 'the Bright-eyed', both based on Aboriginal legends. A long poem in blank verse, The Man in the Iron Mask, appeared in 1873. He contributed many short poems to the Australasian and other journals, and the Melbourne Review published as a serial, 'A Rosebud from the Garden of the Taj', in 1883. A novel, John Rous, a story of the reign of Queen Anne, was published in 1918 though written earlier. Extracts from a long poem, Don Cesar, were printed in the Sydney Bulletin. A small selection of his poems, The Fleet and Convoy and Other Verses was published in 1915. His unpublished manuscripts include several volumes to which he gave the title 'Reminiscences—Experiences not Exploits'. Written after he retired, they contained remarkably detailed descriptions of the sights, sounds and incidents of his boyhood and early manhood. Though prolix, they are never dull and present a captivating picture of the countryside and people of early Melbourne.

McCrae, who has been called 'the Father of Victorian Poetry', had great facility in writing musical verse, which at times achieved the quality of poetry, but some critics found it too profuse and unpruned, and the modern ear is sometimes irritated by its 'poetical' wording and phrasing.

McCrae was an early member of the Yorick Club, which included R. H. Horne, Henry Kendall, Adam Lindsay Gordon, Marcus Clarke, Dr Patrick Moloney, and John Shillinglaw. They met and talked together, encouraged and helped one another, and formed the only significant centre of literary interest and achievement in Victoria in the late 1860s and 1870s. They have been amusingly described by Hugh McCrae in My Father and My Father's Friends.

McCrae was tall and handsome, had an artistic temperament, a fine courtesy and 'a princely gift for friendship'. He was a gentle and kind man. He died at Hawthorn, Melbourne, on 15 August 1927, his mind alert to the end. Predeceased by his wife Augusta Helen, daughter of James Crago Brown, whom he had married in 1871, he was survived by four of their six children, including Hugh Raymond, a distinguished poet, and Dorothy Frances Perry, author of several books of verse.

Select Bibliography

  • R. G. Howarth, Literary Particles (Syd, 1946)
  • H. E. Chaplin, A McCrae Miscellany (Syd, 1967)
  • W. Dixson, ‘Notes on Australian artists’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 9 (1923)
  • Spinner, July 1925
  • Argus (Melbourne), 11 July 1890, 16 Aug 1927
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Norman Cowper, 'McCrae, George Gordon (1833–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mccrae-george-gordon-4071/text6495, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 26 September 2016.

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

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