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McEacharn, Sir Malcolm Donald (1852–1910)

by David Dunstan

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

Malcolm Donald McEacharn (1852-1910), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

Malcolm Donald McEacharn (1852-1910), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23491072

Sir Malcolm Donald McEacharn (1852-1910), businessman and politician, was born on 8 February 1852 in London, son of Malcolm McEacharn, master mariner, and his wife Ann, née Gay, both from the Isle of Islay, Scotland. His father died when his ship, Brahmin, was wrecked near King Island, Bass Strait, in 1854; his mother remarried in 1863. As the child of a dead Scottish sailor, Malcolm was cared for and educated at the Royal Caledonian Schools, Islington, from about 1859 until 1866 when he joined the London shipping office of Rucker, Offor & Co. At 21, having risen to a senior position, he began his own shipbroking business and was for a time a member of Lloyds.

In February 1875, with Andrew McIlwraith, McEacharn founded the shipping firm McIlwraith, McEacharn & Co. Within a year the partners had contracted to carry cargo and migrants to Queensland and had begun to build up a fleet of ten ships sailing under the name of the Scottish Line. Success encouraged them to develop a mercantile export and import department; visiting Australia themselves, they were quick to appreciate opportunities for further investment and for intercolonial shipping. Both men had relations in Australia; McIlwraith's brothers John and (Sir) Thomas were established in Victoria and Queensland respectively, John acting as the firm's Melbourne agent in 1875-78; McEacharn's uncle Neil McEacharn (d.1881) was an early Melbourne shipmaster and another uncle Archibald McEacharn (d.1905) had been in business in the Australian colonies since 1847.

On 10 January 1878 McEacharn married Anne Peirson, a landowner, in the parish church, Pickering, Yorkshire. After her death in December, he arrived in Queensland next year to launch the Australian trade in refrigerated meat. A new Glasgow steamer, Strathleven, had been chartered and equipped to carry the meat and butter which McEacharn selected personally and accompanied back to London from Sydney. The Strathleven's arrival, with its cargo sound, was a great coup for the partners even though they lost money on this and a subsequent voyage.

Unlike McIlwraith, McEacharn settled in Australia. In 1881 he purchased for the company the Rockhampton business of Walter Reid & Co. He also secured Queensland pastoral properties for himself and a share in a Mackay sugar-mill. On 4 July 1882 at Sandhurst (Bendigo), Victoria, with Presbyterian forms, he married Mary Ann Dalton, daughter of the mining millionaire J. B. Watson.

A decline in the migrant trade and, from 1881, competition from the British India Steam Navigation Co. saw McIlwraith, McEacharn progressively withdraw its sailing ships from the Queensland run. Two steamers were built to maintain the trade, but new affiliations were made (notably with (Sir) James Burns in the Queensland Steam Shipping Co.) and the company also extended itself south by shipping coal under contract to the Melbourne Metropolitan Gas Co. In 1887 McEacharn moved to Melbourne to set up the head office; by 1891, when the firm became a limited liability company, it was established as an intercolonial business distinct from its London parent. The maritime strike of 1890 had slowed progress but in 1893 McIlwraith, McEacharn latched on to another boom in the form of passenger and cargo trade to the Western Australian goldfields with voyages to Java, Singapore and India during the slack period. The identification with far-flung Australasia was seen in the nomenclature of the ships—Cloncurry, New Guinea, Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie. By World War I the company was one of the seven major Australian coastal shipping concerns.

In March 1893 McEacharn succeeded Matthew Lang as Melbourne city councillor for Lonsdale Ward and a member of the Melbourne Harbor Trust. He quickly made his mark in the council and after serving as mayor in 1897-1900 was knighted; in 1903 he served another term, as lord mayor. As chairman of the electric supply committee he consolidated corporation control of supply to the metropolis, his defence of the economic role of local government earning him a reputation as a 'municipal socialist'. He also supported the idea of a Greater Melbourne Council and helped to incorporate North Melbourne, Flemington and Kensington into the council in 1905. Although by no means a doctrinaire radical, he was probably more progressive and astute than most of his fellow councillors. But the real reason for his rapid rise is perhaps best explained by the Argus when, in 1903, it noted: 'It has become the rule to pick none but rich men … Wealth and the occupation of the Mayor's or Lord Mayor's chair have become the easiest of passports to knighthood'.

McEacharn was a director of the limited companies Burns, Philp, Walter Reid, National Trustees Executors & Agency, North Queensland Insurance, South Australian Brewing, Brisbane Tramways and Bellambi Coal. He helped to amalgamate the Tokyo tramway companies in 1902-03 and became consul-general for Japan in Melbourne. He was involved in the Queensland Chillagoe mines and the Brisbane Daily Mail, was a vice-president of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a member of the council of the (Royal) Zoological and Acclimatisation Society of Victoria. As president of the (Royal) Caledonian Society of Melbourne, he took special interest in the formation of the Victorian Scottish Regiment which he commanded with the rank of major until 1905.

A Federationist, McEacharn had ambitions beyond local government. In 1901 he stood for the House of Representatives seat of Melbourne, in support of the Barton ministry, his object being 'to get Home in some representative capacity'. Endorsed by the Age and, albeit grudgingly, by the free-trade Argus, he defeated William Maloney. McEacharn identified strongly with the interests of employers but retained an independent outlook. He favoured conciliation and arbitration and wanted the Federal government to take over the Victorian railways, but he did not enhance his popular appeal by opposing female suffrage and defending the use of Melanesian labour on the Queensland cane-fields. Tom Roberts considered he had 'the best business and mercantile head of all the members'. He was, in fact, one of the few to have much financial or mercantile experience, but he never quite came to grips with the new milieu. The Argus noted late in 1903 that 'as Mayor and councillor he is clear, direct, decided; in Parliament no one quite knows where he is to-day or will be to-morrow'.

In the elections of December 1903 McEacharn defeated Maloney only narrowly and the election was declared void on a technicality. The subsequent poll on 30 March 1904 attracted great attention; McEacharn's meetings were rowdy battles as the dapper plutocrat sought to win support from increasingly hostile, class-conscious, inner-city residents. He lost, and the seat became a Labor stronghold. McEacharn's decision to abandon politics after one defeat was widely regarded as a mistake, but, true to his stated intentions, he abandoned not only politics but Australia. He left Melbourne in 1905 and purchased the ancestral home of the earl of Galloway in Wigtownshire, Scotland.

He died suddenly, of heart failure brought on by pneumonia, at Cannes, France, on 10 March 1910. McIlwraith was with him at the time and he was survived by his wife, two daughters and a son. His estate was valued for probate at over £200,000.

McEacharn was a self-made man, a capitalist of almost archetypical qualities. In Melbourne he had lived in style in a mansion, Goathlands, surrounded by, among other things, art works he had brought back from Japan. He had ambition, ability, energy, dash and flair, and perhaps a deep-seated insecurity. Vain and obsessively neat, he slept with a pistol by his bed. McEacharn was always on the look-out for the main chance; but he was also a builder who contributed materially to the many enterprises in which he was involved.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • R. H. Croll, Tom Roberts (Melb, 1935)
  • G. Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance (Melb, 1966)
  • B. Pemberton, Australian Coastal Shipping (Melb, 1979)
  • Australasian Shipping Record, Nov 1975
  • Outpost (Melbourne), 25 May 1900
  • Argus (Melbourne), 22, 23, 28 Mar 1901, 10 Nov, 11, 14 Dec 1903, 31 Mar 1904, 12 Mar 1910
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 25 Apr 1901, 17 Mar 1910
  • Punch (Melbourne), 10 Sept 1903
  • Age (Melbourne), 12 Mar 1910, 4 Jan 1936
  • Herald (Melbourne), 21 Oct 1932
  • Palmer-McIlwraith papers (State Library of Queensland).

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Citation details

David Dunstan, 'McEacharn, Sir Malcolm Donald (1852–1910)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 21 October 2016.

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

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