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Alexander Cameron Macdonald (1828–1917)

by Colin Macdonald

This article was published:

Alexander Cameron Macdonald, n.d. photographer unknown

Alexander Cameron Macdonald, n.d. photographer unknown

Australasian (Melbourne), 23 June 1917, p 29

Alexander Cameron Macdonald (1828-1917), accountant, surveyor and geographer, was born on 9 August 1828 at Campbelltown, New South Wales, third of the twelve children of Alexander Macdonald, grazier, and his wife Sarah, née Warby. At the local school he was awarded by Governor Gipps a set of mathematical instruments but soon left to help his father. In 1847-48 he made three trips to the Port Phillip District with livestock and then had charge of 600 horses on Peechelba station near Wangaratta. In 1849 he joined Edward Barnett's survey party near Glenrowan and quickly mastered the craft. At Geelong in 1850 he became assistant and then partner of the surveyor, Charles Rowand, mostly in laying out the town. In the gold rush Macdonald went to Ballarat and had some success at Fryer's Creek but soon returned to Geelong. In 1852 he married Margaret Rainy, third daughter of Gilbert Robertson.

Macdonald called himself an accountant but also practised as a surveyor, speculated in land and in his auction rooms sold many suburban subdivisions. In 1855 he helped to found the Geelong and Western District Agricultural and Horticultural Society and served for years as its honorary secretary and treasurer. He also helped to promote the Geelong Society of Architects, Surveyors and Civil Engineers, the Colonial Bank of Australasia in 1856 and the establishment of vineyards along the Barwon and Moorabool Rivers; later he became a trustee of the Geelong Vineyard Co. He was elected unopposed to the Geelong Town Council in 1857 and for a second term. He was involved in extending the railway to Colac and the Western District, and in 1870 became secretary of the local Railway League. He won wide repute for his energy and probity. His many agencies included the Provident Institute of Victoria, which was 'founded on a proprietary capital in shares'. In 1855 Macdonald discovered that no money had been subscribed and his correspondence with the managing director found its way into the press, with the result that the institute collapsed and at least one of its executives was convicted. In 1880 Macdonald drew public attention to two other bubble companies with similar effects. In 1871 and 1874 he had been persuaded to contest the seats of South Grant and Geelong East in the Victorian Legislative Assembly, but his free trade views were unpopular and he lost both elections.

In 1862 Macdonald had invested heavily in a company designed to search scientifically for gold in the Geelong district, and in 1860 became a director of the Fyansford Gold Mining Co. These and other speculations collapsed in the severe depression in the late 1860s. In 1876 he moved to Melbourne as a manager of companies, estate and financial agent and surveyor. Australian by birth, he wanted his country to know its origins and history. He was already recognized as an authority on Aboriginal place names and customs and had compiled a vocabulary of their words and meanings. He had also met such prominent Australian explorers as Sturt and Mitchell and enjoyed the friendship of Gregory, Landsborough, Giles, Tietkens and Forrest. However, Macdonald became best known for his knowledge of Australian geography.

In October 1851 Macdonald had made a sketch map of the Ballarat goldfield, a copy of which is in the local School of Mines. He also compiled a large Map of the Colony of New South Wales (Melbourne, 1883). His wide travels took him sometimes far into central Australia. In 1886-98 he was active in promoting committees for exploring Antarctica, though the plans were premature. In 1896 his report on the Australian milk and butter industry had been translated and published in Cape Town. Probably his most important accomplishment was with the Victorian branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia. Prompted by Sir Edward Strickland Macdonald helped to form the society in 1883 and served for twenty-three years as honorary secretary, treasurer and sometime editor and librarian. He played a part in instituting other branches of the society in New South Wales and South Australia, and organized interprovincial geographical conferences at Melbourne in 1884 and Adelaide in 1887. He read many papers on geographical science to the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science and was president of the geography section at the Adelaide congress in 1893 and vice-president twice later. He had been elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, London, in 1885, and later became a member of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and the society in Lisbon. As a member of the Victorian branch of the British Astronomical Society he contributed two papers, one on the great comet he had witnessed in 1843. His many other memberships included scientific and historical societies, the Victorian Institute of Accountants and the Australasian Institute of Bankers. He was also a magistrate for Queensland.

At 72 Macdonald was described as 'a fine, stalwart specimen of an Australian' with 'a mind as bright as ever and his energy undiminished'. He continued to write extensively on Australian subjects until he died at his home, Erewhon, Prahran, on 18 June 1917. His burial in St Kilda cemetery was conducted by Rev. Charles Strong of the Australian Church in which Macdonald had been very prominent from the beginning.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Humphreys (ed), Men of the Time in Australia: Victorian series, 1st ed (Melb, 1878)
  • R. A. Swan, Australia in the Antarctic (Melb, 1961)
  • Bankers Institute of Australasia, Journal, Dec 1900
  • Victorian Geographical Journal, 23-24 (1905-06), 33 (1917)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 19 June 1917.

Citation details

Colin Macdonald, 'Macdonald, Alexander Cameron (1828–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 23 June 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

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