Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McLachlan, Lachlan (1810–1885)

by Jean Gittins

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

Lachlan McLachlan (1810-1885), civil servant, was born in Argyllshire, Scotland, son of Kenneth McLachlan, laird of Killanohauah and captain in the 64th Regiment, and his wife Marion, née McDugald. After rudimentary education at home, he was sent to school at Fort William, went to High School in Edinburgh and entered the university to study law. Following family tradition he attended Sandhurst Military College before returning to Edinburgh to be articled to a writer to the signet.

In December 1840 McLachlan was appointed agent for a company which had taken up large tracts of land in New Zealand. He left Glasgow in the Brilliant and arrived at Melbourne in July 1841. He visited Hobart Town where he appears to have spent his time between visits to Governor Franklin and the penal settlements. The knowledge he gained of criminals was to serve him well in his later work as police magistrate. He went to New Zealand in September but the newly-formed government would not recognize his company's claims. He spent the next decade holding 'some office in the judicial department of that Colony', and visited Scotland early in 1852.

McLachlan returned to New Zealand as resident magistrate but soon went to Melbourne. He almost died from asphyxiation at a fire in the Shakespeare Hotel in January 1853 but on 9 February was appointed police magistrate at Castlemaine. The attorney-general, William Stawell, called on him and he was rushed under trooper escort to the neighbouring goldfields of Bendigo 'to restore order in a most turbulent area'. He was appointed stipendiary magistrate on 29 March at a salary of £500. Since forceful administration of the law was necessary and urgent, McLachlan carried out his duties with speed, rigour and conscientiousness. The police court at Bendigo was a canvas tent on a wooden frame lined with green baize. McLachlan's predecessor had sat on a ten-gallon (45 litres) whisky keg and his clerk of court on a smaller one. The prisoner stood in front of the bench between two policemen.

McLachlan was soon a local identity and many tales were told of 'Bendigo Mac' as he came to be known. His humour amused his court but business always proceeded with decorum. His chief detective officer, Simon O'Neil, visited the magistrate each evening and, over a glass of wine, would give him foreknowledge of the culprits to appear next morning. In court McLachlan would ask the prisoner his name, study him from every angle with monocle firmly fixed and then, feigning sudden recognition, exclaim: 'Now Sir, you can't deceive me Sir, you are so-and-so, alias so-and-so. You were at Norfolk Island in such-and-such a year. You were one of the Point Puer boys!' He administered justice with equity and criminals learned to shun the district. A gag might be ordered for an abusive prisoner but McLachlan was lenient with mild offenders, often expressing sympathy when forced to impose fines on diggers too poor to pay the heavy licensing fees. With drunks his 'Fined 40/-; take him away' became a byword as in one of Thatcher's contemporary ballads. With a detective's zest he had the sagacity to understand complicated cases but his determination to put down crime and rowdyism led to a rigid interpretation of his duties and brought censure from some quarters. McLachlan declined to support Governor Hotham's impolitic instructions to collect licensing fees at bayonet point and thereby won the support of the commissioner, J. A. Panton, who understood the temper of the diggers. Largely through the tact and forbearance of these two men, Bendigo was spared the riots which enforcement of similar laws in Ballarat provoked.

In 1855 McLachlan's transfer to Fiery Creek was rumoured and the news was received with 'sorrow and concern' by respectable members of the community. But the rumour was false and in 1856 his court was reported to be so quiet as to cause comment in the Melbourne press. In 1858 he gave evidence to a select committee inquiring into charges against the chief police commissioner, Captain C. MacMahon. McLachlan's description of conditions at the Bendigo lock-up, a structure 'with floor, roof, wall and all of sheet iron like a steam boiler', and the account of his impulsive discharge of its prisoners on a suffocating Sunday morning showed genuine concern for the people. Bendigonians saw him as a rectifier of their grievances.

McLachlan lived in a cottage on the hillside facing the Town Hall and Market Square, with a pleasant view of the camp. He did not associate much with the 'newly risen, vulgar rich of camp and town' but according to Panton 'he was a great favourite in our little circle'. In community life he was a director of the Sandhurst branch of the Bank of Victoria, laid the foundation stone of the first Presbyterian Church at Eaglehawk in 1859 and as a founding member of the Bendigo Caledonian Society was usually judge at annual gatherings because of his proficiency in bagpipe music. On 31 May 1871 he sat on the bench for the last time. The court was filled and many eulogies followed its proceedings. On 5 June the Executive Council granted him leave for a year. On the 14th a banquet in the Town Hall celebrated the first reunion of the Society of Old Bendigonians and honoured 'Bendigo Mac'. On 10 July he was presented with a purse of 700 sovereigns, a testimonial from the people of Bendigo. He moved to Melbourne but failing sight darkened his last years. Aged 76 he died on 6 August 1885, survived by his second wife Mary, née Bruce, late Smith, whom he had married on 12 March 1858 at St Kilda, and five daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Mackay, The History of Bendigo (Melb, 1891)
  • W. B. Kimberly, Bendigo and Vicinity (Melb, 1895)
  • G. Mackay, Annals of Bendigo, vols 1-2 (Bendigo, 1916, 1926)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1857-58, 1 (D27) 77
  • Argus (Melbourne), 16 Oct 1855, 17 Oct 1856, 7 Aug 1885
  • Bendigo Advertiser, 7 Aug 1885
  • Bendigo Independent, 7 Aug 1885
  • W. H. Manwaring diaries, 1857-70 (State Library of Victoria)
  • J. A. Panton memoirs (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Jean Gittins, 'McLachlan, Lachlan (1810–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mclachlan-lachlan-4118/text6587, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 20 April 2019.

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

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© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2019

Life Summary [details]

Birth

1810
Argyll, Scotland

Death

6 August 1885
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation