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McLaren, David (1785–1850)

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

David McLaren (1785-1850), by unknown photographer

David McLaren (1785-1850), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 7333

David McLaren (1785-1850), company manager, was born at Perth, Scotland, the eldest son of David McLaren, a Glasgow manufacturer. He went to Glasgow College, where his parents wanted him to study for the Church of Scotland ministry. Instead he became an ardent Evangelical and seceded to the Congregationalists under Ralph Wardlaw (1779-1853). He married Mary Wingate, daughter of one of Wardlaw's deacons. In 1823 with his wife and other members he broke away on the question of infant baptism and formed a congregation of Scottish Baptists, for which he acted as elder. He was a powerful preacher and found regular Sabbath work a welcome relief from his many business anxieties.

After serving an apprenticeship with a Glasgow engineer McLaren had become an accountant and taken charge of many bankrupt estates. He also acted as an insurance and shipping agent, imported indigo and copperas, and struggled mightily for the souls of seamen in the Clyde ports. One of his clients was George Fife Angas; through fluctuations in the shipping trade they both suffered substantial loss, for which McLaren with over-sensitive conscience blamed himself. In 1832 he sought Angas's support in his application for the treasurership of the Glasgow Water Works at £300 a year. He was not successful, but in 1835 he accepted appointment by the South Australian Colonization Commission as emigration agent at Glasgow and Greenock, believing the post would bring 'publicity and honour'. Late that year he was also promised the Scottish agency for selling shares in the proposed South Australian Co. In July 1836 Angas's offer of the company's colonial managership caused McLaren much heart-searching. He did 'not need to leave Glasgow for a sense of usefulness' or for a livelihood, but his sense of debt to Angas made acceptance 'consistent with Duty'; in the same breath he complained that the salary was inadequate since his family must remain in Scotland.

With a salary of £600 and a seven year contract McLaren sailed in the South Australian and arrived at Kingscote, Kangaroo Island, in April 1837. Although the company's first colonial manager, Samuel Stephens, scandalized McLaren by his conviviality and lack of piety he was not suspended until November. Thereafter because he knew his own limitations McLaren continued to exploit Stephens's skill as a judge of land and livestock. By 1841, in spite of bad luck in the ballot for country sections, McLaren had secured for the company more than 36,000 acres (14,569 ha), assets that produced dividends for nearly a century. In other matters McLaren sedulously concentrated the company's investment. He gradually withdrew from whaling and shipping, regulated farm tenancies, and by hard dealing with overlanders stocked the company's land with cattle and sheep. By 1839 the Kingscote headquarters had been moved to Adelaide, where McLaren shrewdly began a road to the port and a wharf which bore his name for a hundred years.

McLaren's major contribution to the colony and the company was in banking. By cautious but well-placed loans he gained a commanding hold over many leading settlers and merchants and indirectly controlled much of Governor George Gawler's heavy public expenditure. In the boom which followed McLaren carefully kept the company's land and trading accounts apart from its banking business, and with the onset of depression in 1840 was able to separate the company and bank in a manner that saved both from serious loss.

Through his canny deals McLaren became intensely unpopular but he found solace in religious activity. He acted as lay pastor to a group of Baptists and often preached to other congregations. Although he made generous loans to Dissenting chapels and schools he was the first to inveigh publicly against pretensions that the Church of England was established by law in the colony, and he discouraged attempts to found a Roman Catholic Church. By his unrelenting opposition to sins of the flesh he drove many less resolute men to excesses of frivolity and intemperance, yet despite his Calvinism he bitterly opposed capital punishment and believed in the redemption of Aboriginals. By business and belief he did his best to make Adelaide a strictly Protestant Evangelical preserve.

McLaren was offered the London management of the company when it was separated from its bank. Farewelled by more than a hundred leading colonists at a lavish luncheon he left Adelaide in January 1841 in the John Pirie. In Sydney his arrival was greeted by sneers from the press that the utopian experiment in South Australia had lamentably failed. In astute replies McLaren declared his esteem for Gawler, blamed the Colonization Commission for the colony's bankruptcy, and predicted that all public debts would be paid when South Australia became a Crown colony. He did not reveal that the company's loans to government were covered by special agreements or that its private debts were more than adequately secured by mortgages. In March McLaren sailed from Sydney in the Louisa Campbell. In London he was joined by his family from Glasgow. Though he suffered from 'impaired breathing' he managed the company's business with competence and profit and did much valuable work for the colony. He gave convincing evidence on the peculiar needs of Australian shipping to the select committee whose report led to repeal of the Navigation Acts in 1849. He died in London on 22 June 1850 and his gravestone proclaimed him 'steadfast, unmovable'.

Of his six children, the youngest, Alexander (1826-1910), became an outstanding Baptist minister at Manchester.

Select Bibliography

  • E. T. McLaren, Dr McLaren of Manchester (Lond, 1911)
  • A. Grenfell Price, Founders & Pioneers of South Australia (Adel, 1929)
  • D. Pike, Paradise of Dissent (Melb, 1957)
  • Angas papers (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

'McLaren, David (1785–1850)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mclaren-david-2412/text3195, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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