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Sir John Hay (1816–1892)

by A. W. Martin

This article was published:

John Hay (1816-1892), by unknown photographer

John Hay (1816-1892), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

Sir John Hay (1816-1892), pastoralist and politician, was born on 22 June 1816 at Little Ythsie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, son of John Hay, farmer, and his wife Jean, née Mair. Educated at King's College, University of Aberdeen (M.A., 1834), he studied law in Edinburgh but abandoned it. In 1838 he married Mary, née Chalmers. They arrived in Sydney on 1 July in the Amelia Thompson, and soon settled at Welaregang on the Upper Murray. In partnership with his brother-in-law, James Chalmers, he was a very successful squatter. In 1840 Philip Gidley King arranged for Strzelecki to visit Welaregang and wrote to Hay: 'I fancy your zeal for such excursions will induce you to accompany him'.

Active in local affairs, Hay strongly opposed border duties on goods crossing the Murray River. In 1856 he was elected as 'a conservative and squatting representative' for the Murrumbidgee to the first Legislative Assembly. He carried a motion of no confidence against Charles Cowper's first ministry and attacked the legality of appointing James Martin attorney-general. Hay declined to form a ministry himself and recommended (Sir) Henry Parker, whom he joined as secretary of lands and works in 1856-57. His squatter-oriented land bill was stillborn but in 1857-59 he retained his seat and in 1859 won the Murray. In 1860 he strongly opposed (Sir) John Robertson's land bills and carried his amendment to ensure survey before selection. At the ensuing general election he was one of Robertson's few opponents to be re-elected.

David Buchanan deplored Hay's 'artificial and affected' manner, but admitted that 'as an Opposition leader, Mr. Hay conducts his opposition in a manly, dignified, and honourable way … If he attacks the Government, it is on some great and constitutional question—not on the appointment of two or three policemen'. When Hay was elected Speaker on 14 October 1862 Governor Sir Henry Young reported that he was of the 'very first standing in the Colony in point of fortune, manners, education and character'. Hay won the respect of all parties for impartial discharge of his duties. In 1864 his opposition to Riverina separation led him to give up his Murray seat and he won Central Cumberland. He resigned as Speaker in 1865 and from the assembly in 1867 when appointed to the Legislative Council.

Although Hay had lived in Sydney since 1856 he maintained his Murrumbidgee runs. He was chairman of the Mercantile Bank of Sydney and a director of the Australian Mutual Provident Society and the European Assurance Society. In 1872 he refused to join (Sir) Henry Parkes's ministry but next year became president of the Legislative Council on Parkes's recommendation. Worried by the frequent lack of a quorum, in 1874 he had the size of the council increased. In 1879 he told Sir Edward Deas Thomson of 'unpleasant relations with the Assembly, partly from a little injudicious management of details by those who have taken the lead amongst us, but chiefly I fear from a spirit of hostility to the Council on the part of leading men in the House'. Believing that the duty of the council was to assist the government unless some important principle was involved, Hay was unremitting in his efforts to get 'laws passed in the best form possible'. Ever jealous of the council's dignity, he complained to the governor of 'sacrilege' after (Sir) Alexander Stuart's government had put seventy-five beds in the council chamber during an all-night debate on the land bill in 1884.

Hay had many honorary duties: besides speaking at innumerable banquets he was vice-president of the New South Wales commissions for exhibitions at Philadelphia, Paris, Sydney and Amsterdam. He was president of the Highland Society of New South Wales and vice-president of the Agricultural Society of New South Wales and the Australian Club and a founder of the Union Club. He was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1878 and in 1879 members of the Legislative Council commissioned Achille Simonetti to sculpture his bust. Parkes wrote of Hay that 'Among Conservatives he would be held to be a Liberal; among extreme Democrats he would be regarded as a Conservative'. In the Freeman's Journal, 16 September 1882, 'Cassius' discerned his 'pragmatical shrewdness apt at a moment's notice to degenerate into meanness, a vision very narrow, but very sharp, a reverence for No. 1 exceedingly profound'. Hay died without issue at Rose Bay on 20 January 1892 and was buried by an Anglican clergyman in the Presbyterian section of Waverley cemetery. His wife died ten days later. Most of his estate of almost £59,000 was left to the children of his brother James. A Riverina town is named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • The Australian Portrait Gallery (Syd, 1885)
  • H. Parkes, Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History (Lond, 1892)
  • Town and Country Journal, 26 July 1873, 5 Oct 1889
  • Bulletin, 18 Jan 1881
  • S. A. Donaldson, ministry letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 201/523, 526, 557, 570, 577, 591, 595, 598, 600, 602.

Citation details

A. W. Martin, 'Hay, Sir John (1816–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 23 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

John Hay (1816-1892), by unknown photographer

John Hay (1816-1892), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

Life Summary [details]


22 June, 1816
Little Ythsie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland


20 January, 1892 (aged 75)
Rose Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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