Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

James Alexander Mackay (1859–1935)

by Peter Burness

This article was published:

James MacKay, n.d.

James MacKay, n.d.

James Alexander Kenneth Mackay (1859-1935), soldier, author and politician, was born on 5 June 1859 at Wallendbeen, New South Wales, son of Scottish-born parents Alexander Mackay, squatter, and his wife Annie, née Mackenzie; Donald George was his brother. He was educated at home and at Camden College and Sydney Grammar School. In his mid-twenties he extended his education by attending H. E. Southey's college at Mittagong. He was a good athlete and an outstanding horseman, well-known in country districts as an amateur jockey. He also rode at Randwick and Rosehill.

In 1885, while at Mittagong, Mackay raised a volunteer cavalry troop called the West Camden Light Horse and was appointed captain in command. Shortly afterwards he returned to the family property to assist his ageing father. He spent his quieter moments writing short stories and ballads. Several were published in newspapers and popular journals before his first book, Stirrup Jingles (1887). Similar publications in Sydney, A Bush Idyll (1888) and Songs of a Sunlit Land (1908), followed. He also wrote the novels, Out-back (London, 1893) and The Yellow Wave (1895), which imagined a Chinese invasion of Australia. On 13 March 1890 he married Mabel Kate White at the Presbyterian manse, North Melbourne.

Mackay was elected as a Protectionist to the Legislative Assembly for Boorowa in 1895; he held the seat for (Sir) Edmund Barton's National Federal Party in 1898. Vice-president of the Executive Council in (Sir) William Lyne's ministry from 15 September 1899, he was nominated to the Legislative Council in October to represent the government. He held the same position under (Sir) John See and Thomas Waddell in 1903-04 and remained in the council until its reconstitution in 1933.

In 1897 the unpaid volunteer component of the New South Wales Military Forces was being revived. Mackay raised the 1st Australian Horse, a regiment of cavalry recruited entirely from country districts, was appointed to command and in 1898 was promoted lieutenant-colonel. A composite squadron from the regiment was sent to the South African War but Mackay was too senior in rank to accompany it. Instead, resigning his portfolio, he was given command of the New South Wales Imperial Bushmen's Contingent which sailed from Sydney in April 1900. The Bushmen were sent to Rhodesia and placed under the command of Sir Frederick Carrington.

They moved to Mafeking in July and into the western Transvaal. In the next three months Mackay rode over 550 miles (885 km), lived in the open with his men and was several times under fire. It was an unhappy period in his life: he was frustrated by Carrington's poor command, he quarrelled with his brigadier, and he was deeply shocked by the death in action of his wife's young brother who was serving with him. Finally, outside Zeerust, he was injured when his horse fell. He was sent to Cape Town and in November 1900 was appointed chief staff officer for the various Australian contingents. While in South Africa he unsuccessfully stood for election to the first Australian Senate. He returned to Sydney in July 1901 and for his war service was appointed C.B., mentioned in dispatches and granted the honorary rank of colonel.

In 1906-07 Mackay was chairman of a royal commission covering the administration of Papua; its report was presented in 1907 and in 1909 his personal account Across Papua was published. He retained his interest in military matters and in 1912 was given command of the 1st Light Horse Brigade. As colonel he supervised its reorganization into the 3rd Light Horse Brigade. He commanded the military parade at Canberra in 1913 for the setting of the foundation stone and the naming of the capital.

Too old for active military service during World War I, he was appointed to raise an Australian Army Reserve from returned soldiers and was its first director-general from 1916. He was appointed O.B.E. in 1920. That year he retired from the Australian Military Forces with the honorary rank of major general.

Throughout his life Mackay had maintained a close interest in primary industry and the bush and its people. His own property, Wallendoon, was part of the land which his father had occupied since 1842. He was living there when admitted to Cootamundra District Hospital where he died on 16 November 1935; he was cremated. His wife and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • J. Stirling, The Colonials in South Africa, 1899-1902 (Edinb, 1907)
  • Australian Defence Department, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray ed (Melb, 1911)
  • P. V. Vernon (ed), The Royal New South Wales Lancers, 1885-1960 (Syd, 1961)
  • R. L. Wallace, The Australians at the Boer War (Canb, 1976)
  • L. M. Field, The Forgotten War (Melb, 1979)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Nov 1935
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Burness, 'Mackay, James Alexander (1859–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 22 May 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

James MacKay, n.d.

James MacKay, n.d.

Life Summary [details]


5 June, 1859
Wallendbeen, New South Wales, Australia


16 November, 1935 (aged 76)
Cootamundra, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.