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Sir Robert Ramsay Mackenzie (1811–1873)

by R. B. Joyce

This article was published:

Sir Robert Ramsay Mackenzie (1811-1873), squatter and politician, was born on 21 July 1811 at Coul, Ross-shire, Scotland, the fourth son of Sir George Steuart Mackenzie, 7th baronet, and his wife Mary, fifth daughter of Donald Macleod of Geanies, Ross-shire. With £750 Mackenzie arrived in the Wave at Sydney in April 1832 and joined his brother James. He soon paid H. H. Macarthur £500 for sheep which he depastured at Riddlesdale, near Dungog, and the brothers began to speculate in land. In 1837 Mackenzie bought Salisbury station in the New England district and separated from his brother, promising him £3000. By 1839 he was heavily in debt and borrowed £8000 from his family in Scotland. He continued to buy stock and take up runs in New England; at different times he held Bolivia, Furracabad, Ballindean, Turracabal and Tenterfield stations, which were left in the charge of managers while he lived in Sydney. By December 1840 he was £19,000 in debt, but claimed that he 'could work it out'. He sold Salisbury to M. H. Marsh and Bolivia to S. A. Donaldson with whom he had a kind of partnership. In April 1841 under the Insolvency Act he took out a letter of licence and his affairs were put in the hands of Donaldson & Dawes as agents. His accounts failed to improve and in 1844 he became bankrupt with debts of over £27,000. An absentee squatter who allegedly lived extravagantly in Sydney, Mackenzie's financial methods were slipshod and he kept 'no book of accounts showing … receipts of the wool'. His speculations were deliberately obscure and his creditors suspected that people held sheep and properties for him. After the crash he managed Tenterfield for Donaldson. In 1846 Mackenzie got his certificate of discharge and married Louisa Alexandrina (d.1906), daughter of Richard Jones. In 1847 he was appointed a magistrate and lived at Clifton, New England.

In 1856 Mackenzie was part-lessee of fifty-two runs with a total area of 1536 sq. miles (3978 km²) in the Leichhardt and Burnett Districts, on the upper Dawson River, in the Carnarvon and Expedition Ranges and on Barambah Creek. His average tenure was about three years, but this time his transactions were profitable and he had disposed of all his interests by the depression of 1867. He was a trustee of the Trust and Agency Co. of Australasia and lived in New Farm, Brisbane.

On the separation of Queensland Mackenzie entered politics. He was chosen on 18 December 1859 by Governor Sir George Bowen, who described him as a pastoralist 'of high honour and integrity, of methodical habits of business', as colonial treasurer in Herbert's first ministry. From May 1860 to April 1869 he represented the Burnett in the Legislative Assembly. While treasurer he described G. E. Dalrymple's proposed expedition to the Burdekin as land speculation and influenced the government to countermand the proclamation opening the Kennedy district. From December 1859 he had served on the Board of National Education and as chairman of the Board of General Education set up under the 1860 Act, but resigned in 1861 after being rebuked in parliament for his opposition to subsidies for denominational schools and left the board in 1862.

Mackenzie resigned as treasurer when Arthur Macalister was preferred as acting head of the administration when Herbert went to England in 1862. Bitterly disappointed, Mackenzie published in the Guardian his correspondence with Herbert, interpreting it as a promise of succession. He put even more blame on Macalister and joined those who opposed him. However, the offer of the colonial secretaryship induced Mackenzie in February 1866 to serve under Macalister, who resigned on 18 July in the financial crisis. After Herbert's brief premiership, Macalister formed another ministry but without Mackenzie whom he alleged had made a written offer to join him. Mackenzie led the attacks on Macalister, partly on the extent of free selection envisaged in a land bill. He defended the alienation of land to squatters and asserted that 'a great deal of balderdash had been talked about squatters and “cormorants”.' Macalister resigned on 15 August 1867 and Mackenzie formed the next government as premier and colonial treasurer.

His ministry, dominated by squatting members including Arthur Palmer, passed land legislation guaranteeing graziers in the settled areas ten-year leases of half their existing runs with extensive rights of pre-emption, and in the outside areas twenty-one-year leases. Mackenzie's Crown Land Alienation Act seemed to encourage agriculture but led to much dummying and speculation by the squatters. His ministry passed forty-eight measures, including several innocuous legal bills, but his position as leader was never assured. Though defeated by two votes in August 1868 during the address-in-reply debate, his resignation was refused by Governor Blackall who granted him a dissolution. When parliament met in November he won the vote on the address-in-reply only by the casting vote of the Speaker and resigned.

On 21 December 1868 his brother William died and Mackenzie succeeded as 10th baronet. Despite his organizing ability he did not seek re-election in 1869. In 1871 he returned to Scotland where he died on 19 September 1873, survived his wife, a son and four daughters, two of whom married into the Archer family of Queensland.

Mackenzie was not an outstanding squatter or politician. As an absentee squatter he could justly be described as a cormorant who left no roots in the land. Although premier and leader of the Opposition in Queensland he had no firm support and was dominated by other politicians. Physically large, he was limited intellectually and as a leader.

Select Bibliography

  • C. A. Bernays, Queensland Politics During Sixty Years (Brisb, 1919)
  • J. F. Campbell, ‘Discovery and early pastoral settlement of New England’, JRAHS, 8 (1922)
  • Brisbane Courier, 28 July 1862
  • Times (London), 24 Sept 1873, p 5
  • P. D. Wilson, The Political Career of Hon. A. Macalister (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1969)
  • bankruptcy papers, 1250 (State Records New South Wales)
  • Land and Colonial Secretary's files (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

R. B. Joyce, 'Mackenzie, Sir Robert Ramsay (1811–1873)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 23 July 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

Life Summary [details]


21 July, 1811
Coul, Ross, Scotland


19 September, 1873 (aged 62)

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