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David Buchanan (1823–1890)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

David Buchanan (1823?-1890), politician, barrister and critic, was born in Edinburgh, the fifth son of William Buchanan, barrister, and his wife Catherine, née Gregory. He was educated at the Edinburgh High School and another 'celebrated classical school'. He later claimed to have narrowly escaped imprisonment in Edinburgh for Chartist activities. He reached New South Wales probably in the Mary Catherine on 28 December 1852. His early colonial experience included washing sheep for 6s. a day and cooking for Nat Buchanan while droving to Bendigo and other diggings.

In 1860 Buchanan published The Sinfulness and Barbarism of State Churches, written after 'labouring hard all day'; in it he attacked state aid to religion and 'the bloody State Church of England', while eulogizing the Roman Catholic Church and Father John Joseph Therry. He was first elected to the Legislative Assembly for Morpeth in December 1860 as a working class representative. His supporters paid him £3 a week until they discovered that he was reputed to divide his time between the lock-up, public-house and parliament. His fierce language soon earned him repute as a demagogue with dangerous republican leanings. In the assembly he fought for the abolition of state aid, moved repeated resolutions demanding higher precedence for the Roman Catholic archbishop and managed to get three of his six bills enacted.

In December 1861 Buchanan wrote to The Times virulently attacking five members of the old Legislative Council for voting themselves life pensions. He was immediately answered by James Macarthur. In April 1862 the Sydney Morning Herald republished both letters with an editorial. Buchanan sued for libel and lost. Despite his earlier address on 'the intolerable evil of drunkenness', he created a disorderly scene in the House while intoxicated and was forcibly removed by the serjeant-at-arms. Unable to pay the costs from his libel case, he resigned from parliament and declared himself bankrupt. He became overseer of western roads before editing the short-lived Nation at Bathurst. He was returned for East Macquarie in October 1864.

In August 1867 Buchanan went to England to read for the Bar, with a possum-skin cloak as a present from Henry Parkes to Thomas Carlyle and a letter to Bright from William Bede Dalley. He wrote of his deep admiration for Carlyle and Bright but was unimpressed by other public figures. Buchanan returned as a barrister of Middle Temple in time to be elected for East Sydney in December 1869, in a poll fought against a background of bitter sectarianism. The early 1870s were his most active years in parliament. He was a consistent advocate of divorce reform, on which he introduced eighteen bills in 1866-84. He succeeded with his first divorce bill in 1873, but the Legislative Council amended it. In 1881, at his seventh attempt, he carried the Matrimonial Causes Amendment Act, giving women the right to divorce for simple adultery. He then tried to extend the grounds to cover desertion. His struggle was hampered by his reputation and his inability to refrain from baiting Catholics and Anglicans alike. In 1875 he also succeeded in legalizing in New South Wales marriage with a deceased wife's sister.

Over the years Buchanan introduced a total of seventy-seven bills, mostly concerned with radical law reforms based on Scottish precedent. Some of his bills, including abolition of imprisonment for debt, triennial parliaments and public education, were taken up by others and eventually became law. In addition he moved countless resolutions and motions of adjournment, as well as speaking on almost every subject raised. In the long session of 1871 he monopolized almost half the entire sitting time. He was vitally concerned with complete secular education and the final abolition of state aid to religion. In a speech for the abolition of denominational schools, published in 1873, he included a letter he had received from Garibaldi vilifying the whole priesthood. He accused Parkes of changing his mind, attacked Robertson's bill as a 'wretched half measure', introduced a bill of his own, wrote letters to the Herald on the Public School League, and culminated in a frenzied attack on Archbishop Roger Bede Vaughan who had criticized Parkes's public schools bill in 1879, in two pamphlets: Mitred Mountebanks and Four Pastoral Letters in Answer to Three Pastoral Letters of Archbishop Vaughan. Few members of the assembly lashed out against 'the Papists' as provocatively as Buchanan but since sectarian outbursts were a recognized part of the political game members usually ignored them. Sometimes Buchanan was quick to defend other Roman Catholics and accused Parkes of sectarianism towards Edward Butler. Buchanan for many years belonged to the Glassites, an obscure sect; he had simple religious beliefs and could outquote most clergymen.

Buchanan was frequently in trouble for indulging in 'exceedingly rash assertions' without checking his facts, and often had to apologize. Much of his 'furious philanthropy' was wasted in worthless causes and his abusive personal attacks led to disorderly scenes. He fancied himself as an orator, but his style was bombastic, with an excessive use of superlatives and expletives. In 1872 he lost East Macquarie, but after winning the Western Goldfields seat attended the House less regularly, blaming his absence on the 'continued discomfort of the Chamber'. For all his noise he voted in few divisions, possibly because he rarely sat after the tea adjournment.

In the 1870s Buchanan became a successful criminal pleader. According to the Bulletin, 10 December 1881, the Crown Law Office records showed that out of a hundred cases he had won seventy-eight acquittals by his impassioned appeals to the jury. In that year he could boast of making a fortune. He was involved in various contretemps with the judges in the District and Circuit Courts. At Mudgee in 1878 he was alleged to have used threatening language to a juror, and wrote to the Herald explaining his indiscretion.

Buchanan was addicted to public lecturing on divers subjects: Robert Burns, which he repeated on request to an audience that included 'local grandees'; the 'Wrongs of Ireland', the proceeds of which went to the destitute families of imprisoned Fenians; Christianity; and the aggressiveness of Disraeli. He published many of his speeches and letters as pamphlets, as well as two collections, Specimens of Australian Oratory (Sydney, 1881) and An Australian Orator (London, 1886). He bombarded the Herald with letters on such diverse subjects as the Sydney water supply, prostitution, suicide, the naturalization of aliens, the limitation of electioneering expenses, the working of the ballot and trial by jury, and the deplorable adulation of cricketers and rowers. In 1877 he turned to dramatic criticism. For the Echo he reviewed Creswick's season at the Victoria Theatre in 1878 and Miss Dargon's in 1879. His critiques showed a different Buchanan, perceptive, more restrained, wide in his reading and deep in his knowledge and love of Shakespeare. In one review he went into the question of Hamlet's madness at some length, and returned to the theme in 1889 in two letters to the Herald. He had a profound love of the theatre.

In March 1879 Buchanan was returned to parliament for Mudgee, unseating his opponent on petition by one vote. He was now converted to protection and devoted himself to promoting it as the panacea to cure all the ills of the city and provide work for all. In 1880 in the assembly he moved four protectionist resolutions which were all defeated. In 1881 he joined the Protection and Political Reform League, and next year toured the country for it. His public behaviour did not improve with advancing years. He continued to waste the assembly's time with subjects of minor importance and still gloried in creating scenes. In 1884 he called Robert Wisdom a liar. Wisdom followed him into the ante-room and punched him. Buchanan fell over a chair, landed on top of Wisdom's eighteen stone and then claimed to have ground him into the dust. In 1886 he visited England, where 'he took a prominent part in labour agitations'. On his return he was elected for Central Cumberland in 1888, but was defeated at the general election in 1889. He was appointed to the unreformed Legislative Council, against which he had so often railed in the past. He introduced one bill but attended irregularly; much of his old fire had gone.

Buchanan's career had not been an unqualified success, except as a divorce reformer. In November 1888 he wrote to Parkes: 'I have many things to regret bitterly in the course of my public life and almost wish I had never entered it rather than have said such things as I have sometimes said, injuring myself, in my own estimation, much more than any one else'. Had he been able to modify his language he might have won high office. He prided himself on his independence which meant that he was invariably in opposition. He considered consistency a fool's virtue. His gyrations were most clear in relation to Parkes, whom he supported until 1872, then violently opposed. Despite his sometimes vituperative tongue, 'the kindliness and outspoken honesty of his nature prevented him making enemies'.

Buchanan was much attached to his family and several times tried to secure promotion for his brother Louis in the public service. At 67 he died suddenly of heart failure at his home, Clareinnis, Strathfield, on 4 April 1890, and was buried in the Presbyterian section of Rookwood cemetery. He left his estate of £3300 to Agnes Embleton (Still), née Sproule, whom he claimed to have married at Sydney about 1867. On her death in 1900 it reverted to his brother Edward Gregory, of Leith, Scotland.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Buchanan, Packhorse and Waterhole (Syd, 1933)
  • Empire (Sydney), 29 Dec 1852
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 July 1867, 26 June 1878, 29 Jan 1880, 28, 30 Mar 1887, 5, 12 Feb 1889, 5 Apr 1890
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 10 Mar, 29 May 1875
  • Echo (Sydney), 28 Jan, 18 Feb, 11, 18, 25 Mar 1878, 29 Apr, 5, 8 May 1879
  • Bulletin, 5 Mar 1881, 2 June 1883
  • Sydney Mail, 12 Apr 1890
  • printed catalogue under Buchanan (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue under Buchanan (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Buchanan, David (1823–1890)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


4 April, 1890 (aged ~ 67)
Strathfield, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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