Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Mackaness (1770–1838)

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John Mackaness (1770?-1838), barrister and public servant, early became addicted to attending radical political meetings in and around London. He was called to the Bar of the Middle Temple in July 1794 and soon appointed recorder of Wallingford. In January 1824 through the influence of Baron Tenterden he was appointed sheriff of New South Wales at a salary of £1000, for which he was also to serve as coroner and provost-marshal. Soon after his arrival in the Alfred at Sydney in July 1824 Mackaness leased land at Hyde Park and bought 700 acres (283 ha) near Liverpool, where he later claimed to have spent £3000 on improvements and the cultivation of vines. In May 1825 Brisbane ordered that he be granted 2000 acres (809 ha), but six months later this land had not been selected or surveyed.

In January 1826 Mackaness was petitioned to convene a public meeting of 'the Gentry, Magistrates, Merchants, Landholders, Farmers, Traders and other free Inhabitants' which approved an address to the newly-arrived Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling advocating a part-elected legislative council and trial by jury. Darling was disgusted because Mackaness had chaired this radical meeting, but he sent the address to the Colonial Office, and the conservative Archdeacon Thomas Scott was so incensed that he hoped he would never see Mackaness again. At the same time the Sydney Grand Jury entertained Mackaness at a dinner and asked him to allow his portrait to be painted by Augustus Earle and hung in some public hall. On 26 January 1827 Mackaness convened another public meeting of 'Free Inhabitants', and was chosen to present their petition to Darling with Sir John Jamison and Gregory Blaxland. That evening Mackaness was the only invited guest at an Anniversary Day dinner organized by 125 colonists who, Darling reported, were 'Emancipists and their immediate Connexions and Friends'. In March Darling noted that Mackaness was 'not well affected to the Government', and was 'generally the leading Character at all the Popular Meetings' and 'just the sort of Man to give a tone to such Associations'. Darling also complained that Mackaness had drawn on the public purse for travel expenses and a salary of £91 5s. as provost-marshal, and that although Mackaness disclaimed any obligation to visit the gaol, certain irregularities there would have been prevented if he had attended to his duties. In due course the Colonial Office approved Mackaness's travel expenses but disallowed his pay as provost-marshal.

Meanwhile the Colonial Office had another complaint about Mackaness. In 1823 an aged and infirm lady had surrendered the right to £1200 which Mackaness held as a trustee on condition that he paid her an annuity of £120, but by 1827 he had sent her only £90. Darling was asked to see that the arrears were promptly paid and future payments made half-yearly through the colonial treasurer. In November the governor told Mackaness that his services were no longer required because of his association with 'factious Individuals' and his failure to obey promptly a government order. In the same month Mackaness attended a dinner of the Turf Club, where the band played 'Over the hills and far away' when the toast of the governor was given. When Darling heard of this he promptly resigned as the club's patron, and in December a club meeting agreed to impertinent resolutions on Mackaness's casting vote as chairman and these were sent to the governor and the newspapers.

Mackaness claimed further grievances when his application to locate on the Goulburn plains the 2000 acres (809 ha) promised by Sir Thomas Brisbane was referred to the Colonial Office. Mackaness appealed to the secretary of state, but in his covering dispatch Darling declared that he had 'as little pretension to the Character of a Gentleman of which he boasts, as he has to that of an honest Man', and had withheld the fees of his office instead of paying them into the Treasury.

In December 1827 Mackaness was admitted to practise in the Supreme Court as a barrister and attorney. Next February Chief Justice (Sir) Francis Forbes and Judge John Stephen testified to Mackaness's good conduct as sheriff, but within two weeks he was on trial in the Supreme Court for an allegedly drunken assault on the solicitor-general, was found guilty and fined £5. Although in October 1831 Mackaness was granted land in the parish of St Lawrence on the eve of Darling's departure, he continued to support the emancipists and talked of going to London to carry on the feud, but soon ceased to be a conspicuous leader. He died on 4 April 1838 and was buried in the Devonshire Street cemetery. The Australian described him as 'a warm and uncompromising advocate of the rights and liberty of the subject', but even his friends admitted that he was easily excited and often misguided in his judgments.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 11-15, (4), 1
  • A. Halloran, ‘Some Early Legal Celebrities’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 12, part 6, 1927, pp 317-52
  • Australian, 10 Apr 1838
  • manuscript catalogue under John Mackaness (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

'Mackaness, John (1770–1838)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




4 April, 1838 (aged ~ 68)
New South Wales, Australia

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