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Sir John Henry MacFarland (1851–1935)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published:

John Henry MacFarland (1851-1935), by unknown photographer, c1935

John Henry MacFarland (1851-1935), by unknown photographer, c1935

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/2652

Sir John Henry MacFarland (1851-1935), educationist and churchman, was born on 19 April 1851 at Omagh, Tyrone, Ireland, elder son of John MacFarland, draper, and his second wife Margaret Jane, daughter of Rev. William Henry, a famous Covenanting Church minister. Both parents were devout Presbyterians, well educated, with strong intellectual interests.

John attended the local National school until he was 13 when he moved to the Royal Academical Institution, Belfast. He proceeded to Queen's College, graduating B.A. with first-class honours in mathematical science in 1871 and M.A. by examination next year. On the way he had won junior and senior scholarships and every possible mathematical honour. He went on to St John's College, Cambridge, for three more years undergraduate study of mathematics and physics (B.A., 1876; M.A., 1879). He took his first class as 25th wrangler; he had been expected to do better, but was hindered by a skating accident. MacFarland passed the next four years pleasantly, teaching at Repton School, Derbyshire, where he started a physics laboratory, made a special study of the telephone, formed a natural history society and proved himself a gifted teacher.

The emissaries of the provisional council of Ormond College, University of Melbourne, were impressed. Francis Ormond himself reported: 'MacFarland is just the man we want. He is a first-class scholar, Maths, Science, etc, an English university man, of high personal character, and a staunch Presbyterian. [He is] fresh, healthy, strong, looks less than his age, a gentleman, a scholar, has good appearance and pleasing manners'. MacFarland negotiated a salary of £600 plus the profit from 'farming' the college. On 18 March 1881 the boyish-looking master passed the opening-day ordeal in the presence of 440 Presbyterian grandees, clergy and their ladies. Dr Alexander Morrison, headmaster of Scotch College, coached him in local Presbyterian and education politics, and his Belfast friend Rev. J. L. Rentoul also helped him to settle in.

MacFarland soon won a free hand from his council, appointed outstanding tutors, taught incisively himself in mathematics and physics, and developed bitter rivalry with Alexander Leeper of Trinity College. In 1892 he named his own terms to the college council; he gave up 'farming' but accepted £1000 a year plus capitation fees and free accommodation—higher payment than any professor's. His tutors included (Sir) Thomas Dunhill, (Sir) John Latham, Daniel McAlpine and (Professor) Darnley Naylor. MacFarland's mastership was already legendary: he was brusque and stern, but above all just; 'he thought of the students as boys and treated them as men'; he made few rules of conduct but insisted they be observed; he encouraged self-government by a students' club. His discipline did not offend: his 'Yes' and his 'No', with little if any explanation, were famous. He knew everything that was happening, though never inquisitorial, but perhaps became rather too awesome for troubled men to seek him out. Ormond graduates were proud of the frank and manly tone of the college. The students referred to MacFarland as 'Mac', later 'The Doctor', and eventually 'Snapper'.

In 1886 MacFarland began a 49-year stint on the university council and was quickly prominent, radical in supporting provision of state scholarships and the propriety of professorial representation on council. By 1900 he had moved to the centre of educational affairs. He was a member in 1899-1901 and often acting chairman of Theodore Fink's innovative royal commission into technical education, and formed a productive alliance with Frank Tate, later director of education. MacFarland took the lead when in August 1901 major defalcations by the university accountant were exposed. He was appointed to an emergency committee to reorganize management of the university offices and then became chairman of the finance committee, initiating stringent reforms. The financial situation was desperate but in 1904 MacFarland's negotiations with Premier Bent led to some relief. In 1910 he became vice-chancellor, in effect commencing a period of twenty-five years as unpaid chief university executive. In 1913 he chaired the council committee whose comprehensive proposals for reform eventually led to revision of the university Act ten years later.

MacFarland resigned the Ormond mastership in February 1913, but continued through 1914; he probably now saw his university duties as more satisfying. He had published nothing as mathematical scholar or educationist, but was a practised, pithy speaker at graduations and school speech-nights. He very likely considered his Church work to be of greatest importance. He was manager at Scots Church from 1892, elder from 1896 and 'ever the affectionate comrade of the ministers of this parish, and indeed of all his fellow-officers'. He was regularly elected to assemblies at which he rarely spoke and never on doctrinal matters; but according to well-founded legend he and his friend Dr W. S. Littlejohn, headmaster of Scotch College, used to settle much of the business beforehand. (After church on Sundays he dined regularly at the Littlejohns', taking Glenlivet and 'watter' with the meal and enjoying his pipe afterwards.) He became the Church's leading financial executive, probably the most important Presbyterian layman in Victoria. For some thirty years he sat on the councils of Scotch College and Presbyterian Ladies' College, as chairman from 1919 and 1920; he believed it the councils' duty to make financial policy and to trust their headmasters.

On Sir John Madden's death in 1918 MacFarland became chancellor of the university and was knighted in 1919. He presided over a period of considerable expansion, working closely with Sir John Monash, vice-chancellor from 1923, and Sir James Barrett. MacFarland was immensely and properly proud of his careful financial management, but the erstwhile reformers were hardly tender enough in balancing economy with humanity. The professors became increasingly restive about the limited responsibility for academic matters and allocation of resources council allowed them; MacFarland's close alliance with the innovative but authoritarian Barrett was widely seen as a basic problem. When in 1928 the issues came to a head, however, MacFarland's prestige was too much for the professoriate who, anyway, had great respect for his administrative capacity, humanity and reasonableness. Even in his eighties he would not retire as chancellor, probably wisely concluding that his likely successor Barrett would prove to be too divisive.

MacFarland's reputation as a business manager led to his directorship from about 1905 of the National Mutual Life Association (chairman from 1928) and of the Trustees Executors & Agency Co. Ltd. From 1913 he represented the Trustees Executors on the Felton Bequests Committee. He was also the popular chairman from its foundation in 1908 of the Alexandra Club Co.; the members of the leading female social club preferred men to control their finances.

Latham reckoned MacFarland the best committee-chairman Melbourne had known, with such capacity to go to the root of a matter he might have been a gifted judge. He habitually refused to make up his mind until he had heard all arguments; once sure of his ground, he acted swiftly. In public he spoke briefly, emphatically, unambiguously.

MacFarland was broadly liberal in politics, a close friend of H. B. Higgins. Although of course a staunch Imperialist, who spoke at a counter-demonstration against Archbishop Mannix in 1918, he also helped to tone down a Presbyterian General Assembly resolution condemning Catholics for disloyalty. His community standing was such that, as the Depression deepened, he was called on to chair the Melbourne Town Hall meeting of February 1931 which founded the Australian Citizens' League, though he took no part in the subsequent All for Australia League and United Australia Party.

In his younger days MacFarland was a vigorous cyclist and walker in the Australian Alps, Tasmania and New Zealand. By the age of 40 he was spending a month each summer trout-fishing in the South Island of New Zealand. He was also a regular golfer at Royal Melbourne and belonged to the Melbourne Club.

MacFarland died on 22 July 1935 and after a service at Scots Church was cremated. The university council minuted:

Few men in any community, and almost no man in this community, can have won such universal esteem. No evil was ever spoken of him, or could be thought of in connection with him; before him evil quailed. The greatest disciple of the greatest of the Greeks called his dead master 'our friend whom we may truly call the wisest, and the justest, and the best of all men we have ever known'. And many of us can sincerely say that of John Henry MacFarland.

The simplicity of his mode of life, his evident entire unselfishness, and the charm and courtesy so easily detected behind the gruff exterior made him widely loved.

During his life MacFarland had given away large sums of money; he had recently presented £8200 for scholarships at Ormond. Apart from pensions to relations and small bequests he left his estate, valued for probate at over £78,000, to the Presbyterian Church (89 per cent including 37 per cent to Ormond), the Lord Mayor's Fund (7 per cent) and the university (less than 4 per cent). He may best be judged as one who devoted his life primarily to his Church as a celibate lay priest.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Serle, ‘Sir John MacFarland’, in S. Macintyre (ed), Ormond College Centenary Essays (Melb, 1984)
  • Victorian Historical Magazine, 25, no 4, June 1954.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'MacFarland, Sir John Henry (1851–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Henry MacFarland (1851-1935), by unknown photographer, c1935

John Henry MacFarland (1851-1935), by unknown photographer, c1935

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/2652

Life Summary [details]


19 April, 1851
Omagh, Tyrone, Ireland


22 July, 1935 (aged 84)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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