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Sir Richard Graves MacDonnell (1814–1881)

by C. C. Manhood

This article was published:

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Richard Graves MacDonnell (1814-1881), by unknown photographer, c1860

Richard Graves MacDonnell (1814-1881), by unknown photographer, c1860

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3655

Sir Richard Graves MacDonnell (1814-1881), governor, was born on 3 September 1814 in Dublin, the eldest son of Dr Richard MacDonnell (1787-1867), fellow and from 1852 provost of Trinity College, and his wife Jane, second daughter of the dean of Ardagh, Richard Graves (1763-1829). Privately tutored, in 1829 he entered Trinity College (B.A., 1835; M.A., 1836; LL.B., 1845; LL.D., 1862). Called to the Irish Bar in 1838 and to Lincoln's Inn in 1841, he practised in London until he was appointed chief justice of Gambia on 20 July 1843. Despite the climate he was a competent judge. In October 1847 he became governor of the British settlements on the Gambia, where he organized several expeditions into the interior and among his adventures survived an assassination attempt. In 1852 he was transferred to St Lucia and in 1853 to St Vincent as administrator.

MacDonnell's next appointment was governor of South Australia, a surprising choice for a colony about to gain responsible government. With a reputation for severity he arrived at Port Adelaide on 9 June 1855 and took over from B. T. Finniss, who had acted as governor since Sir Henry Fox Young had left in December 1854. MacDonnell was promptly active in the deliberations on the 1853 Constitution bill which the Colonial Office had returned to the Legislative Council for reconsideration. His eagerness to show colonials that he knew what was best for them brought him into heated conflict with some of South Australia's reformers.

MacDonnell showed little respect for the cherished ideals of many in the community when he maintained that the colony was not ready for a bicameral legislature. He favoured a single-chamber parliament of thirty-six elected and four nominated members with whom he could maintain a balance between rival groups without stripping himself of all power and influence. His distrust of 'pure democracy' won him the support of conservatives but united the liberal and radical opposition against him. Once convinced that the colonists would not accept a unicameral legislature, he urged them to adopt a constitution similar to that of Tasmania. However, the Legislative Council elections in November 1855 returned a majority determined to make their own decisions. After acrimonious debate a compromise gave South Australia a Constitution with a democratically elected house of assembly and a property franchise for a legislative council with more than usual powers of review and revision. As a result the governor was blamed by disillusioned democrats, disappointed moderates and discontented officials for failing to ensure that the Constitution met the needs of all South Australians.

MacDonnell had difficulty in working with some colonial officials, particularly Finniss, and his efforts to find men who were both loyal and competent stirred up yet more trouble in a colony already wracked by political and personal rivalries. The governor's lack of diplomacy prevented any close liaison between himself and the new administration in the critical months after the Constitution was ratified and resulted in several unfortunate changes of government before the questions of power between governor and legislature were settled.

Powerful and hospitable, MacDonnell was fond of both outdoor and intellectual activities. He was an enthusiastic member of local rifle and archery clubs and keenly interested in the volunteer defence movement. He also identified himself with most of the literary, artistic and philanthropic organizations. At times his bustling energy dismayed Adelaide society but the governor saw himself as a leader and innovator. As a patron of South Australian culture he encouraged students who could not travel abroad to continue their post-primary schooling, and with his customary dash personally examined candidates and donated prizes, but his plan collapsed after he left the colony.

One of MacDonnell's main interests was the advancement of exploration and settlement of outback areas. He travelled widely in the colony and in 1859 led a small party to investigate country around the northern lakes and claypans, riding 1800 miles (2897 km) in three months. Maintaining that Sturt and Eyre were overrated as explorers as they seemed 'generally to have a knack of getting into the most dismal places and finding barrenness from Dan to Beersheba', he urged the colonists to support J. M. Stuart's efforts to cross the continent. As a consequence Stuart, in 1860 the first European to reach the Arrernte district of Tjoritja in the Northern Territory, named it the MacDonnell Ranges. In the south-east district of South Australia, the fishing town of Port MacDonnell, south of Mount Gambier, was named for the governor in 1860. With little concern for the working class, MacDonnell claimed that charity fostered sloth and pauperism. He encouraged the agricultural and pastoral industries. Particularly impressed by the settlers from Germany, he predicted that the colony had a great future for producing wine. In his seven-year term the acreage under wheat doubled in South Australia and he argued that farmers with capital would succeed as long as their methods did not rob the soil.

MacDonnell left South Australia on 4 March 1862. He returned to Ireland for a holiday before becoming lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia. From October 1865 he served as governor in Hong Kong until he retired on a pension in 1872. In London he led a deputation of the Aborigines Protection Society to Lord Carnarvon in 1875. Predeceased by his wife Blanche Anne, daughter of Francis Skurray, whom he had married in 1847, he died in Hyères, France, on 5 February 1881 and was buried in London at Kensal Green cemetery. He had been appointed C.B. in 1852, K.B. in 1855 and K.C.M.G. in 1871.

Select Bibliography

  • Examiner (Melbourne), 3 Nov 1860, 27 Apr, 4 May 1861, 4 Jan, 22 Mar 1862
  • K. K. O'Donoghue, Constitutional and Administrative Development of South Australia from Responsible Government to Strangway's Act of 1868 (M.A. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1950)
  • Finniss papers (State Records of South Australia)
  • Governor's dispatches, 1855-62 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

C. C. Manhood, 'MacDonnell, Sir Richard Graves (1814–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 17 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Richard Graves MacDonnell (1814-1881), by unknown photographer, c1860

Richard Graves MacDonnell (1814-1881), by unknown photographer, c1860

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3655

Life Summary [details]


3 September, 1814
Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


5 February, 1881 (aged 66)
Hyères, France

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