Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sir William Macarthur (1800–1882)

by Ruth Teale

This article was published:

Sir William Macarthur (1800-1882), landowner, was born in December 1800 at Parramatta, youngest son of John Macarthur and his wife Elizabeth. At 9 he was 'a fine daring fellow' with 'the activity of a monkey' and a puckish sense of humour. He was educated by Huon de Kerilleau and from 1809 with his brother James in England. He returned to Sydney in September 1817 and for thirty years made the farm improvements his father had envisaged. An outstanding sheep breeder he was the first to perfect the washing of sheep for ensuring good presentation of the clip in London.

In 1822 William and James took up grants of 1150 acres (465 ha) each at Camden; they each added 2500 acres (1012 ha) at Taralga in 1824 and soon afterwards an adjoining 4000 acres (1619 ha). In 1828 their father made over to them jointly half the livestock on the family estates. In 1834 William and James became partners with their brother Edward and in 1838 borrowed £10,000 in London to acquire the Belmont estate at Camden, where they built an inn, an Anglican Church and twenty cottages for selected immigrants from Kent and Dorsetshire. Most of the Macarthur sheep grazed on Richlands, Edward's 20,000 acres (8094 ha) near Taralga. The brothers also bought land on the Abercrombie River and took up leases on the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee Rivers, including Nangus, 7500 acres (3035 ha) near Wagga Wagga, where they ran cattle. Their sheep did not flourish and in 1849 were sold with the run. In June 1849 William and James held 28,000 acres (11,331 ha) at Camden, of which 3600 (1457 ha) were tenanted, stock worth £47,500 and over 50,000 acres (20,234 ha) in Argyle and Georgiana Counties. In the early 1860s William was restrained by James from acquiring squatting runs in the west; they sold their Taralga estates and concentrated on the Camden properties.

William fostered horse-breeding, introduced the camellia, grew many fruit trees, vegetables and flowers and from 1843 published an annual catalogue of their plants. Later he built a hothouse and imported valuable orchids. He encouraged winemaking and brought out several families of German vignerons. By 1849 the twenty-five-acre (10 ha) vineyard at Camden was producing over 16,000 gallons (72,737 liters) of red and white table wines and brandies; 28,000 more gallons (127,291 litres) were stored in the cellars and improvements were valued at £2500. As 'Maro' he published Letters on the Culture of the Vine, Fermentation, and the Management of Wine in the Cellar (Sydney, 1844) and Some account of the Vineyards at Camden (London, 1849). Generous with advice and cuttings to vignerons in the Hunter Valley, Victoria and South Australia, he was president of the New South Wales Vineyard Association. In 1855 he was New South Wales commissioner at the International Exhibition in Paris, where his collection of Australian woods attracted attention. In October he toured the vineyards of the Pyrénées and Loire and next year those of Burgundy, the Rhine, northern Italy and Switzerland.

Macarthur disliked politics. In 1823 he had declined a magistracy but in February 1825 was appointed to the Camden bench. In July 1840 he helped to organize the association for promoting assisted immigration; he opposed change in the land regulations and the separation of Port Phillip. In July 1848 he was defeated by George Oakes for the Parramatta seat in the Legislative Council, but was elected in February 1849 for Port Phillip and in September 1851 for the Lachlan and Lower Darling. He vacated his seat in 1855. After a second visit to England as a commissioner at the London International Exhibition of 1862 he was appointed to the Legislative Council in October 1864 on the recommendation of James Martin. In August 1882 his seat was vacated by absence. In June 1836 Macarthur had joined the committee of the Australian Museum and from 1853 was a trustee; in November 1860 he became the first vice-president of the Acclimatisation Society of New South Wales and in 1870 a trustee of the Free Public Library. Vice-president of the Australian Club for many years, he was president in 1879, and president then senior vice-president of the Agricultural Society of New South Wales. In 1860-80 he was a member of the Senate of the University of Sydney. In his last years he suffered deafness and paralysis in the legs and from 1856 was troubled by a disagreement over his management of Edward's properties. 'Mild and unassuming' in manner, 'his countenance betokened good nature rather than depth of thought' and he was only 'anxious to pursue the even tenor of his way in peace'. He was much loved by younger members of his family. He was knighted in 1856, awarded the Légion d'honneur and in February 1861 was made an honorary member of the Société Impériale Zoologique d'Acclimatation. Macarthur died unmarried on 29 October 1882 and was interred in the family vault at Camden. His estate, valued at £38,000, was left to his niece Elizabeth, wife of A. A. W. Onslow.

Select Bibliography

  • S. M. Onslow, Some Early Records of the Macarthurs of Camden (Syd, 1914)
  • M. H. Ellis, John Macarthur (Syd, 1955)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 Oct 1882
  • Town and Country Journal, 4 Nov 1882
  • Astley papers, Macarthur papers and Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Colonial Secretary's, In-letters 1819, and land papers (State Records New South Wales)
  • newspaper indexes under James and William Macarthur (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Ruth Teale, 'Macarthur, Sir William (1800–1882)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


December, 1800
Parramatta, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


29 October, 1882 (aged 81)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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