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Moses Wilson Gray (1813–1875)

by Carole Woods

This article was published:

Moses Wilson Gray (1813-1875), politician and judge, was born in Claremorris, County Mayo, Ireland, son of John Gray and his wife Elizabeth, née Wilson. He was educated at Cork, at Hazelwood School, Edgbaston, and at Trinity College, Dublin (B.A., 1835). He entered the King's Inns in 1834 and was called to the Irish Bar in 1845 but seldom practised. In 1835 he was appointed an assistant commissioner to the poor law inquiry in Ireland. He then went to America where he studied at the University of Michigan, was admitted to the Bar and travelled in the mid-west and Canada to examine a plan for the colonization of impoverished Irish tenantry. He returned to Dublin in 1848 and published a pamphlet, Self-paying Colonization in North America. Believing that Ireland's main problems were constitutional he strongly sympathized with opponents of the 1800 Act of Union. He joined his brother in managing and editing the Freeman's Journal, and in 1852 with (Sir) Charles Gavan Duffy went to France to see John Dillon. In 1855 after hopes for settlement of the Irish land question collapsed Gray and Duffy sailed in the Ocean Chief and arrived in Melbourne in 1856.

Gray was admitted to the Victorian Bar, worked as a law reporter for the Age and later the Argus and became the dedicated leader of the popular 'unlock the lands' campaign. He was a committee member of the new Victoria Land League and in July 1857 was elected president of the Land Convention, his skill and inspiration winning the esteem of delegates. He denounced the 'bare-faced iniquity' of the Haines government's land bill and advocated an alternative measure based on free selection, abolition of sale by auction and open pasturage over crown lands. He joined a deputation to request the government to withdraw its land bill and his experience of the American land system greatly helped the convention's subcommittee on land. He was president of the council formed after the convention dissolved in August. Though inclined to trust the O'Shanassy government, he was shocked when it compromised with the Legislative Council on electoral reform in October 1858. Gray declared that the convention would have to fight its own battle on the hustings and led a deputation to the government to warn of 'national calamity' if land reform were delayed. At a ministerial by-election for Richmond in April 1859 he supported George Evans, misled by his specious advocacy of a semi-convention land policy. Because of this mistake Gray felt obliged to resign as president of the convention but remained a council member; he was also active in the United Australian Society and the Eight Hours Labor League.

The convention distrusted the new Nicholson ministry's land policy and decided to support Gray against the treasurer, (Sir) James McCulloch, in a by-election at East Melbourne on 8 November 1859. Gray lost by 350 votes but on 11 January 1860 was returned for Rodney. Sitting with the 'Corner' group in the assembly he plunged into the debate on the Service land bill but was soon 'half bewildered' when the government deferred the squatting question and failed to defy the Legislative Council. He renewed his hopes in July when Service threatened to invoke an 1850 Order in Council to open the lands on easy terms but was disgusted by the Nicholson government's resignation and weak resumption of office. On 28 August Gray urged the assembly to listen to the agitators outside parliament and fervently wished that every man had 'a vote, a rifle and a farm'.

Gray's passion for land reform did not exclude other pressing issues. As one of the poorest in the assembly he appreciated the need for payment of members. He also sought legislation for secular education, mining on private property, light duties on imports for revenue purposes and repeal of the Masters and Servants Act and the gold export duty. He introduced a barristers' admission bill and when returned for Rodney on 3 August 1861 advocated reform of the Legislative Council. He declined office in the tentative Duffy ministry of 1860 and in the Heales ministry of 1860-61. Though uncommitted to the Heales ministry, Gray defended the legality of John Brooke's occupation licences as a prelude to a real 'people's land bill'. He was bitterly disappointed in December 1861 when Duffy introduced a land bill which fell far short of convention aims and the 1861 Robertson Acts in New South Wales. Gray's efforts to secure easier purchase terms, stricter residence conditions and more liberal commonage were rebuffed and after parliament was prorogued in June 1862 he left for New Zealand, declining a banquet and pecuniary testimonial but attending a simple social at the Trades Hall.

Gray joined the Dunedin Bar and in 1864 became district judge of the Otago goldfields. He was competent and conscientious and many of his decisions were published in the New Zealand Jurist and Reports but his diffidence, constant self-doubt, and indifference to material advancement led him to reject more lucrative positions.

Gray maintained an avid, critical interest in the countries he had known and during the American civil war identified with the North as the upholder of human freedom. He had married in the United States and taken his wife to Ireland but she returned to America with their son Wilson who later fought in the Union army. After strenuous circuit travelling, overwork, failing health and distress at the prospect of retirement, Gray died aged 62 on 4 April 1875 at Lawrence, and was buried in Dunedin. Though he died with a sense of futility in his Victorian work, many of his opinions on land selection prevailed in later legislation. The Victorian Legislative Assembly paid him high tribute in 1877 and George Higinbotham, whom he had always admired, eulogized him at the opening of the Trades Hall Council Chamber in 1884 for his services to the democratic land movement and for his perfect example, his absolute self-abnegation and unyielding adherence to principle.

Busts were placed in the Trades Hall Council Chamber and Parliamentary Building, Melbourne, and a portrait by J. Irvine is in the Hocken Library, Dunedin.

Select Bibliography

  • C. G. Duffy, The League of North and South (Lond, 1886)
  • C. G. Duffy, My Life in Two Hemispheres, vol 2 (Lond, 1898)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • R. Stout, ‘Moses Wilson Gray’, Melbourne Review, 7 (1882)
  • Leader (Melbourne), 12 July 1862
  • Age (Melbourne), 17 Apr 1875, 8 Mar 1884
  • L. C. Duly, The Land Selection Acts in Victoria 1859-69 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1959).

Citation details

Carole Woods, 'Gray, Moses Wilson (1813–1875)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Claremorris, Mayo, Ireland


4 April, 1875 (aged ~ 62)
Lawrence, Otago, New Zealand

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