Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Alexander Hay (1820–1898)

by Andrew Gosse Hay

This article was published:

Alexander Hay (1820-1898), merchant, pastoralist and politician, was born on 12 January 1820 in the parish of Dunfermline, Scotland, the son of Peter and Susan Hay. As a 'warfer and packer' he was given a free passage to South Australia, where he arrived in the Planter in May 1839. For two years he worked for the South Australian Co. and saved enough money to begin farming on virgin land at Gumeracha. On 16 December 1845 he married Agnes Kelly in Adelaide. Soon afterwards he opened a grocery and hardware store in Rundle Street to supply tools and equipment to the new copper mines and the booming building industry. He became a proprietor of the South Australian Register in 1853, and later a director of two insurance companies, two banks, a gas company and a wharf company. He also served as vice-president of the Zoological Gardens, governor of the Wyatt Benevolent Fund, trustee of the Savings Bank, president of the Young Men's Christian Association, a city councillor, and pioneer chief of the Caledonian Society. As well as supporting these industrial and philanthropic projects, he invested in city and suburban land, and in pastoral properties, first at Barabba Scrub, and later at the north-west bend of the River Murray; after 1870, in partnership with Field, Chisholm and Newland, he acquired runs on the Darling and Paroo Rivers.

Hay's political career began in 1857, when he was elected for Gumeracha to the first South Australian House of Assembly. In October 1861 he resigned his seat after serving for eighteen months as commissioner of public works in the Reynolds ministry. After a long visit to England, he was returned again for Gumeracha in 1866. In 1868 drought and land jobbing aroused the farmers and quickly wrecked two ministries. Hay, as the recognized leader of the liberal land reformers and the only man with a clear policy, was called by the governor in September to form a ministry but at first refused to do so. When asked again next month, he approached his supporters but without success. Nevertheless his policy of opening specific agricultural areas for sale to selectors on credit was embodied in important new land laws in 1869. Hay also distinguished himself as proposer and chairman of the select committee on education in 1868; his report envisaged the secular and compulsory system that became law seven years later. In April 1873 he was elected to the Legislative Council. He retired in 1890, his long service marked by practical commonsense, encouragement of industry, and enthusiasm to provide opportunity for young men of small capital; his last speech in the council was in vigorous support of free primary schools.

Hay was devout, responsible and an informed advocate of social reform. Although Presbyterian by upbringing, he came under the influence of the Congregational minister, Rev. Thomas Stow, in Adelaide. After his wife died in August 1870, leaving him with a son and three daughters, Hay became an Anglican. On 13 March 1872 he married Agnes Grant Gosse at Christ Church, North Adelaide. In 1886 he visited Britain and at a royal levee was presented to Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales. He continued to live at his suburban home, Linden, at Beaumont, but in 1879 he built Mount Breckan at Victor Harbor, where he died on 4 February 1898. His second wife and a daughter were drowned in the Waratah off Durban in 1909. Another child was the author, William Gosse Hay. Portraits of Alexander and Agnes Grant Hay are in the possession of A. Gosse Hay, Nangawooka, Victor Harbor.

Select Bibliography

  • A. G. Hay, Footprints: A Memoir of the Late Alexander Hay, one of the Fathers and Early Colonists of South Australia (Lond, 1899)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 12 Feb 1898.

Citation details

Andrew Gosse Hay, 'Hay, Alexander (1820–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


12 January, 1820
Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland


4 February, 1898 (aged 78)
Victor Harbor, South Australia, Australia

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