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Sir John Emanuel Mackey (1863–1924)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published:

Sir John Emanuel Mackey (1863-1924), teacher, lawyer and politician, was born on 7 August 1863 at Sandhurst (Bendigo), Victoria, son of David Mackey, horse-dealer, and his wife Mary Anne, née Moore, both Irish born. Little is known of his boyhood, part of which was spent at Ararat. He is said to have hardly ever attended school, starting to earn a living when about 10 and teaching himself to read and write. He served an apprenticeship as a compositor at Stawell and by about 1882 was lodging with C. R. Long in East Melbourne with the parents of Frank Tate, who became a lifelong close friend; the three of them often 'planned to set the world to rights'. Rough in manners and appearance, Jack Mackey matriculated when almost 20 in June 1883 after at least one failure. He joined the South Yarra Presbyterian Literary Society.

After failing first-year arts his record at the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1887; M.A., 1889; LL.B., 1890) was extraordinary. Supporting himself by work at the Government Printing Office and by coaching, he entered Ormond College and concluded his arts course with first-class honours in history, political economy and jurisprudence, with the Wyselaskie prize in political economy, the Bowen prize for his essay on 'The limits of legislative interference with the liberty of the individual', and the Cobden Club medal. He then attempted medicine but lost interest and failed his examinations in October 1887. In the same month he was awarded the Wyselaskie scholarship for English constitutional history, and next February he was awarded first-class honours in the school of logic and mental and moral philosopy, with another scholarship. He was chairman of the Melbourne University Union in 1888.

After completing his law degree Mackey was admitted to the Bar; he subsequently lent his lecture notes to his friend (Sir) John Monash. From 1890 he was briefly an inspector of schools. Over the next few years he was lecturer in classics and history at the Working Men's College and occasional lecturer, tutor and examiner at the university; in 1895 he was acting professor of logic and mental and moral philosophy while Henry Laurie was on leave. His Bar practice developed little. In 1899-1900 he was a member of an inquiry into the operation of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works.

Mackey had set himself for a political career. He stood as a liberal free trader for Melbourne South in 1894 and for Ripon and Hampden in 1897. After attempting West Gippsland in 1900 he won the seat in 1902 and became so popular and respected that he was opposed only once in the following twenty-two years. On 18 December 1902 he married Zella Watson, daughter of the politician William Bates; they had two daughters and three sons.

Mackey became a key member of the Bent government of 1904-09. Initially he was only minister without portfolio, but from 17 August 1906 until October 1908 he was lands minister and, as well, solicitor-general from 28 February to 8 September 1908. From 31 October 1908 to 8 January 1909 he was chief secretary and minister of labour. He was a constructive, common-sense reformer, who concentrated on legal and social issues, 'one of those men who are essential in any government to give form, consistency and legal verbiage to the ideas of practical politicians'; he was adept at speedily drafting amendments at the table of the House. He had introduced and passed the 'Flos Greig enabling bill' in 1903; he carried legislation establishing children's courts (1906), indeterminate sentences (1907), and the Court of Criminal Appeal (1914). In 1905, against great opposition by David Gaunson and others, he was staunch in support of Tate in forcing through legislation enabling promotion of teachers by merit, as he did later with other education reforms. From 1905 he arranged for work on consolidation of the criminal law, then from 1908 for (Sir) Leo Cussen's massive consolidation of the statutes, published in 1915. He mastered the land problem, but his bold and systematic legislation for compulsory purchase in the Western District was lost in the Legislative Council. No one, perhaps, contributed more to establishing the Country Roads Board (1912), for which his constituents were enormously grateful. He was an able negotiator in conferences over conflicts between the Houses.

After loss of his ministerial positions, Mackey was chairman of the royal commission on railways and tramways in 1911, was a member of the public accounts committee (chairman, 1914) and sat on several select committees. He was often mentioned as a possible premier, but for no clearly discernible reason was not a member of the Murray, Watt and Peacock ministries in 1909-17. He was chairman of committees from 1914 and, though prominent in the 'National and Economy' group in 1917, was content to become Speaker when (Sir) John Bowser became premier. He was a strict, fair and courteous Speaker, ruling over an unusually orderly assembly. He was knighted in 1921. He seems to have lacked the ultimate drive to reach the top.

Mackey had been a staunch friend of his university. He was lecturer in Equity from 1900, after the accountant's defalcations took a leading part in the financial rescue by the Bent government in the amending Act of 1904, and joined the council in 1913. He was chairman of the trustees of the Melbourne Cricket Ground from 1907, a trustee of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria from 1912, and a member of the board of visitors to the Melbourne Observatory. He was also a member of the Wallaby Club.

A square-jawed, determined man, solid and serious, a hesitant rather than eloquent speaker, Mackey was highly regarded for his clarity of mind, sincerity, forbearance and good humour. He was popular and conciliatory, a friendly conversationalist with wide cultural interests. He lived at Brighton and was a member of the Presbyterian Church.

Mackey died suddenly at Nayook of angina pectoris on 6 April 1924 and after a state funeral conducted by Rev. Dr Sugden was buried in Brighton cemetery. His intestate estate was valued at £2037. To provide for her young family, Lady Mackey opened a florist's shop in Flinders Street which she conducted for some thirty years.

Select Bibliography

  • E. H. Sugden and F. W. Eggleston, George Swinburne (Syd, 1931)
  • H. Copland, The Path of Progress (Warragul, Vic, 1934)
  • E. L. French (ed), Melbourne Studies in Education 1963 (Melb, 1964)
  • R. J. W. Selleck, Frank Tate (Melb, 1982)
  • G. Serle, John Monash (Melb, 1982)
  • Punch (Melbourne), 8 June 1905, 13 Dec 1917, 23 Sept 1920
  • Argus (Melbourne), 7 Apr 1924.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Mackey, Sir John Emanuel (1863–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 18 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

Life Summary [details]


7 August, 1863
Bendigo, Victoria, Australia


6 April, 1924 (aged 60)
Nayook, Victoria, Australia

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