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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Searcy, Alfred (1854–1925)

by C. C. Macknight

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Alfred Searcy (1854-1925), by unknown photographer, 1924

Alfred Searcy (1854-1925), by unknown photographer, 1924

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 38858

Alfred Searcy (1854-1925), customs officer, parliamentary official and author, was born on 4 January 1854 at Mount Barker, South Australia, son of William Searcy, clerk and policeman, and his wife Charlotte Edwin, née Roffe. William later became the colony's chief inspector of police. After beginning at Dumas' school, Mount Barker, Searcy attended Pulteney Street School, Adelaide, until 1869 when he was indentured as a journalist with the Advertiser. Four years later he joined the customs department where he won steady promotion. He received the certificate of the Royal Humane Society, London, for saving a woman from drowning and became a captain in the Port Adelaide Rifle Company. On 10 February 1876 he married Jane Annette Rainsford; they had three daughters and four sons.

In 1882 Searcy went to the Northern Territory as sub-collector, to direct new customs arrangements. A large man, well able to look after himself outdoors, he was vigorous and determined. Photographs show him equipped for the bush with whip and pistol or else relaxing in sarong and slippers. The work at Palmerston (Darwin) involved dealing with Chinese and he also established a system of collecting duties and licence fees from Macassan trepangers on the Arnhem Land coast. On several voyages with Paul Foelsche and Edward Robinson, he had extensive contact with the Macassans, to say nothing of Queensland smugglers and a variety of other villains. In recognition of his varied and excellent work, he was promoted in 1888 and also became a justice of the peace. Within the tiny white community, he was one of a handful of public servants striving to establish orderly administration over a vast area. In the 1880s especially, there seemed to be a rosy future for many developmental schemes and Searcy was always an enthusiastic optimist.

In 1890 his wife and family returned to Adelaide for health reasons, but Searcy was unable to find a suitable position until 1896 when he succeeded his brother Arthur (1852-1935) as clerk assistant and sergeant-at-arms in the South Australian House of Assembly. In 1918 he became clerk of the House and in 1920 clerk of the parliaments. These posts suited his talent for administration and friendly dealing.

Searcy's first book, In Northern Seas (Adelaide, 1905), is a collection of newspaper articles about his period in the Northern Territory. When this was well received, he reworked and extended the material as In Australian Tropics (London, 1907); the original manuscript includes extracts from his newspaper articles and his customs reports bear the marks of his editing for inclusion. Despite these diverse origins, this is Searcy's best book; it is held together by his vigorous style and nostalgic enthusiasm for the north. He stressed the area's tropical nature and looked to its development by non-European labour, preferably Chinese. Two further editions appeared in 1909. By Flood and Field (Melbourne, 1911), which he was encouraged to write by Mrs Aeneas Gunn, is a less successful, fictional version of the same material. Despite his promotion of the Territory, which he saw as a form of government service, his vivid prose and narrative skill give the books literary and historical value.

Searcy died on 1 October 1925 in Adelaide and was buried in North Road cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • C. C. Macknight, The Voyage to Marege' (Melb, 1976)
  • Register (Adelaide), 27 Feb 1923, 2 Oct 1925
  • Searcy papers (State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

C. C. Macknight, 'Searcy, Alfred (1854–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 31 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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