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John Mackersey (1789–1871)

by Lex Finlay

This article was published:

John Mackersey (1789-1871), Presbyterian minister, was born at West Calder, Scotland, the son of Rev. Dr James Mackersey, Presbyterian minister of that parish. In November 1823 his elder brother, James, emigrated to Van Diemen's Land with property worth £1000 and received 1200 acres (486 ha) of land. Concerned that there was no clergyman resident near his son's property, Dr Mackersey suggested in 1824 that a young Scottish clergyman could be encouraged to emigrate if colonists guaranteed his salary. Two years later the Scottish settlers on the Macquarie River proposed to the Colonial Office that they were prepared to build a church and contribute £100 a year to a minister's salary if equal government assistance could be expected. This was agreed to and the head of the Scottish church was informed. In the colony the Macquarie settlers collected subscriptions for church, glebe and manse, acquired suitable land and began building.

John Mackersey, who had spent three years assisting his father as lay preacher in Scotland, was ordained with this colonial appointment in view, and duly sent out by the Edinburgh church authorities. He reached Hobart Town on 30 January 1829. The lieutenant-governor after their first meeting reported that Mackersey seemed well selected for his office, but regretted that the settlers were not prepared for his arrival. However, he had brought capital of £1220 and decided to rent Gaddesden at Campbell Town from April 1829, and to conduct a school there to supplement his clerical salary until the manse and church were ready. By putting much of his money into this venture, useful though it was, he reduced the capital available for improving land, and was therefore granted only 640 acres (259 ha). As he had regarded his brother's original grant of 1200 acres (486 ha) as a minimum to compensate him for the Scottish clergy's superannuation allowance forfeited by his emigration, he was, within six months, a disappointed man, with a reputation among the government officials in Hobart as an abusive correspondent.

His difficulties were real. In November 1829 the convict labour on loan to the church building committee was withdrawn as funds were exhausted, with only the shell of the twelve-roomed manse completed and the church not even begun. All his attempts failed to enlarge his congregation, and so to increase funds; in the early 1830s seven families left the district, and depressed conditions made settlers reluctant to subscribe. Some were doubtful of the success of the venture; others disliked services being held temporarily in Mackersey's drawing room, and doubts as to the committee's title increased the problem. With his own future at stake, Mackersey lent the committee a large part of the money required to complete the buildings, and allowed the parish-paid half of his salary to fall into arrears so that the manse and church could be completed, a step which seemed basic to rallying his congregation. Kirklands Church was finally dedicated in October 1836, but confusion over the deeds and variation from the usual form of application for government assistance under the Church Act of 1837 prevented his reimbursement for some years. Still resentful at his meagre land grant, he applied for land in lieu, but was refused. Provident by nature, however, he lost no chance to acquire the personal security which lay in land ownership, and in 1842 bought a property he called Speedwell, at East Arm, on the Tamar River. As adjoining tracts came up for sale, he gradually added to his holdings there.

For twenty-five years he was a dominant figure on the Macquarie River, soon overcoming the initial setbacks and gathering together the nucleus of a congregation. Although his health finally suffered, he extended his parish to include Lincoln in the west and Cleveland and Epping in the north, holding services in the houses of scattered settlers until churches were built in those districts. For some years after moving to Kirklands manse, he continued to take pupils, and the lasting classical interest of some of those known to have studied under him is evidence of his equal success in this field, although an attempt in 1841 at running a school for girls also at Kirklands in partnership with Miss Ann Sylke, formerly a teacher at Ellinthorp Hall, proved unsuccessful.

In 1854 he relinquished his charge to Rev. Adam Turnbull and retired on a pension of £120. He continued to take an interest in church affairs, however, and so was drawn into the bitter controversies of the 1860s. In 1861 he was appointed to serve on a committee which attempted to make a definitive statement on Presbyterian doctrine. On its dissolution he was made convenor of a second committee. During its sittings the disagreements over doctrine had become public, and the committee was forced to censure Rev. Dr Storie for publishing virulent statements against persons involved in the dispute. The resulting report failed to please all the groups and was rejected by the presbytery. Three years later Mackersey was again thrust into the conflict, and with the moderator, Rev. C. Simson, was required to prepare further charges against Storie, who was found guilty by the presbytery. In time the quarrel subsided, Storie was reinstated and Mackersey returned to retirement. He died at Speedwell on 26 June 1871. Before leaving Scotland he had married Catherine Wallace; they had two sons and two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Heyer, The Presbyterian Pioneers of Van Diemen's Land (Launceston, 1935)
  • correspondence file under Mackersey (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

Lex Finlay, 'Mackersey, John (1789–1871)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 22 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]


West Calder, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


26 June, 1871 (aged ~ 82)
East Arm, Tasmania, Australia

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