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McCutcheon, Robert George (1841–1918)

by Geoff Browne

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Robert George McCutcheon (1841-1918), printer and politician, was born in 1841 at Omagh, Tyrone, Ireland, son of John McCutcheon, farmer, and his wife Margaret, née Bothwell. He arrived in Melbourne with his family in 1858 and next year travelled to India, working for twelve months as a printer in Calcutta. Returning to Victoria, he worked as a journalist and printer at Ballarat and at Port Fairy. On 13 December 1867, in Melbourne, he married Mary Ann Ebblewhite with Wesleyan forms.

In 1873 McCutcheon joined the Melbourne printing firm of Mason, Firth & McCutcheon Pty Ltd, succeeding his brother John in 1876 and becoming sole proprietor by 1878. The firm printed the catalogue for Melbourne's first international exhibition in 1880-81 and expanded to become one of the largest printing and lithography businesses in Australia. A former employee (Sir) John Mackey described him as 'a generous and fair employer'.

In October 1902 McCutcheon won the Legislative Assembly seat of St Kilda. He was an enthusiastic supporter of (Sir) William Irvine and of the 'economy in government' ideals of the Kyabram movement. Although McCutcheon usually supported the non-Labor governments of the day, breaking ranks only in 1908 to vote for the no confidence motion against Sir Thomas Bent, he remained an independently minded back-bencher who 'always said what he thought'. Only near the end of his political career did he attain office, serving as minister without portfolio in the Peacock government from November 1915 until November 1916.

Described as 'the most conservative member of the Assembly', McCutcheon believed that 'the functions of a Government were to look after the peace and well-being of the people, to see that the expenses of the State were obtained from legitimate sources, and apart from this, and from the defence of the people, to let the people alone as much as possible'. He gave practical effect to his concerns for economy by serving on the Public Accounts Committee in 1904-12 and by his departure from the Peacock ministry over its alleged failure to curb expenditure.

McCutcheon disapproved of free secondary education and opposed pensions on the grounds that it was an 'evil principle' for any government to 'dispense directly money to any class in the State'; he was deeply suspicious of public servants who, as dependants of the State, would be 'anxious for … as much socialistic legislation as possible'. Yet, like most Victorian conservatives, he was prepared to give qualified approval to some aspects of 'State Socialism'. He admired the work of Frank Tate as director of education, believed in the extension of technical education and supported teachers' claims for higher pay.

Dour in character, McCutcheon was an active Methodist; chess was his principal hobby and he was president of the Melbourne Chess Club in 1908-18. He retired from parliament in October 1917 and died at his St Kilda home on 20 October 1918. Survived by his wife, who was a prominent member of the Australian Women's National League, and by five sons and three daughters, he was buried in Melbourne general cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1918, p 1782
  • Cowans, June 1904
  • Age (Melbourne) 21 Oct 1918
  • Argus (Melbourne), 21 Oct 1918
  • K. Rollison, Groups and Attitudes in the Victorian Legislative Assembly, 1900-1909 (Ph.D. thesis, La Trobe University, 1972).

Citation details

Geoff Browne, 'McCutcheon, Robert George (1841–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mccutcheon-robert-george-7331/text12721, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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