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Frederick Thomas (Fred) Macartney (1887–1980)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published:

Frederick Thomas Bennett Macartney (1887-1980), by unknown photographer

Frederick Thomas Bennett Macartney (1887-1980), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia

Frederick Thomas Bennett (Fred) Macartney (1887-1980), poet and critic, was born on 27 September 1887 in Port Melbourne, third child of Thomas Macartney, a bus driver from Northern Ireland, and his Melbourne-born wife Elizabeth Emma, née Jacob. His father died in 1892. Aided by her family and taking occasional sewing commissions, the widow raised her three children at North Fitzroy. Fred attended Alfred Crescent State School until he was 12. He held various jobs, usually as a shop-assistant, before working as a bookkeeper on a Riverina station in 1910-12.

His upbringing had been strictly Methodist; his boyhood recreations were based on the local church. By late youth he no longer wanted to be 'saved', but, 'having the gift of the gab and an orderly mind' (his words), he sharpened his self-education by joining his church's Young Men's Literary and Debating Society. He soon became its president. Reading extensively in the Public (State) Library, he took an elocution course at the Working Men's College, succeeded in impromptu-speech competitions, and learned shorthand. In 1907-10 he won nineteen prizes 'of a guinea or two' for poems, stories and essays in Australia-wide competitions for non-professional writers, and had verse published in the Australasian.

Macartney returned to Melbourne in 1912. Encouraged by Bernard O'Dowd, he developed his poetry. By then he was a rationalist, a Fabian member of the Victorian Socialist Party and later an anti-conscriptionist. He formed friendships with Frank Wilmot, Henry Tate, Guido Baracchi, Vance and Nettie Palmer and others of the radical intelligentsia, and was a founder (1916) of the Melbourne Literary Club whose journal, Birth, he edited in 1919-21. Macartney also helped to reissue Joseph Furphy's Such Is Life. He was a founding member of the Y Club in 1918 and, from late in World War I, had been secretary of the State Wool Committee.

In 1921 Macartney went to Darwin as an assistant to the administrator of the Northern Territory, F. C. Urquhart, and to the government secretary. Appointed public trustee in 1922, by 1924 he was the 'legal Pooh-Bah' of the Territory: sheriff, clerk of courts and judge's associate, registrar of companies, bankruptcy, and births, deaths and marriages, and returning officer. R. I. D. Mallam, judge from 1928, became a close friend and eventually left him his modest estate. Macartney continued to contribute to the Bulletin and refreshed his literary associations on leave in Melbourne, where he settled again when he resigned in 1933.

For more than twenty years Macartney remained a leading literary figure, freelancing as poet, critic, lecturer, editor, biographer and autobiographer. He gave university extension lectures and radio broadcasts in 1933-34. The monthly, All About Books, published his cogent reviews of some 270 Australian books between 1935 and 1938; he had few peers as a reviewer, but the journal's circulation was small. In 1940-41 and later he lectured at universities on Australian literature for the Commonwealth Literary Fund, from which he received small grants for his own work. During World War II and its immediate aftermath he was a senior officer (1942-47) of the public trustee. For several years from the late 1940s he laboured on revising and updating E. Morris Miller's annotated bibliography, Australian Literature from its Beginnings to 1935 (1940); 'Miller and Macartney' was published in 1956. Other important books were Furnley Maurice (Frank Wilmot) (1955) and his autobiography, Proof Against Failure (Sydney, 1967).

Macartney valued his poetry far above his other literary endeavours. He was a craftsman, ranging diversely from philosophy to light satire, with wit and irony; friendly critics admired his 'vigorous imagery' and 'intellectual subtlety'. Preferences (Sydney, 1941) and Selected Poems (Sydney, 1961) were largely choices from numerous earlier publications. Macartney denounced Hopkins, Eliot and Auden for abandoning traditional usages, especially metrical form. From the 1950s critics and historians largely ignored him.

Prominent in the Australian Literature Society and the International P.E.N. Club, Macartney was president of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (Victoria) for four years in the 1940s until he resigned because of the activity of left-wing writers. He was cantankerous in literary affairs: 'I'm the barking dog of literature in Melbourne', he proudly claimed. Highly sensitive to criticism, he replied offensively. He despised Miller's work and was infuriated by critics who did not fully recognize the worth of his revision. In the 1950s he denounced Meanjin's political content. His later years were marked by a lack of appreciation of post-1950s Australian writing, and vitriolic comment on trends in the arts in general. Yet he was a learned man, with admirable literary standards, though rigid and dated.

Macartney's great love was music, on which he occasionally wrote. He produced linocuts, practised bookbinding, and was an able handyman. Swimming and tennis were his main pastimes. He had married Veronica Clarice Hannan (d.1936) on 14 August 1917 at the registry office, Collins Street, Melbourne, but they soon separated. On 5 February 1947 at the manse of the Unitarian Church, East Melbourne, he married Mavis Murray Walker (d.1979), a 43-year-old art teacher. Macartney died, childless, on 2 September 1980 at South Blackburn and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Strahan, Just City and the Mirrors (Melb, 1984)
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 1969, no 4
  • Age (Melbourne), 30 Sept 1978, 4 Sept 1980
  • Macartney papers (State Library of Victoria and National Library of Australia)
  • personal knowledge.

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Macartney, Frederick Thomas (Fred) (1887–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Frederick Thomas Bennett Macartney (1887-1980), by unknown photographer

Frederick Thomas Bennett Macartney (1887-1980), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia

Life Summary [details]


27 September, 1887
Port Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


2 September, 1980 (aged 92)
Blackburn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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