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Lauchlan Mackinnon (1817–1888)

by Jacqueline Templeton

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Lauchlan Mackinnon (1817-1888), pastoralist and newspaper proprietor, was born on 26 February 1817 at Kilbride, Isle of Skye, Scotland, second son of John Mackinnon, Presbyterian minister of Strath, and his wife Ann, daughter of Lauchlan Mackinnon of Curry. Educated privately and at Broadford School, Skye, he worked with his uncle, Lauchlan Mackinnon, a writer to the signet in Glasgow. He migrated to Van Diemen's Land in 1838 and then to Sydney whence he overlanded stock to Adelaide for Campbell & Co. About 1840 he took stock from Sydney to Port Phillip where he decided to settle. He took up the Tarrangower run in 1839-41, Ovens River in 1841 and, with Webster & Co., Mount Fyans in the Western District in 1841-53 and Mount Battery in 1858-66.

Mackinnon contested a Port Phillip seat in the New South Wales Legislative Council in 1848, supported by many Western District squatters. Calling themselves the 'constitutional party' and accepting separation from New South Wales as imminent, they fought with determination against those who sought renewed transportation and were attempting to force immediate separation by boycotting the election. Successful in 'thrash[ing] old Curr and his party off the stage', Mackinnon struggled for justice for Port Phillip against exploitation by Sydney, demanding that all moneys raised in the district be spent there. He vacated his seat in June 1849 but won it again in July and held it until June 1850.

Mackinnon was member for Warrnambool and Belfast in the squatter-dominated Victorian Legislative Council from December 1852 till he resigned in May 1853. At a protest meeting in 1852 he had stood alone among squatters in opposing their more extreme claims. He recognized the importance of squatting and was prepared to meet what he called the pastoralists' 'just claims', but he opposed the long leases and pre-emptive rights of purchase which they demanded under the 1847 Order in Council, the spirit of which he denounced, declaring himself in favour of 'free trade in land'. In the bitter anti-transportation controversy he championed the colonists' right to refuse to take convicts. Inflammatory speeches, even threatening secession from Britain, at the monster protest meetings in 1849 and 1850, which petitioned the Queen and parliament and the vacillating council in Sydney against the renewal of transportation, earned him repute as a fiery and outspoken orator. His friend, William Westgarth, who went with him in 1852 to lead the Anti-Transportation League's delegation in support of the cause in Tasmania, describes the ingenious means by which Mackinnon was persuaded to temper his immoderate speech-making by friends who feared, in sensitive Launceston, the 'straightforward honesty' of the 'vigorous Highlander … who could never take a subject of deep interest to himself quietly'.

In that year Mackinnon became a partner in the Argus with Edward Wilson and took over the business side of the paper which, despite its enormous increase in circulation and influence under Wilson's management, was near financial collapse. Persuading Wilson that he was under-charging, Mackinnon insisted on increasing the price and adding 25 per cent to the charge for advertisements, thereby ensuring the journal's prosperity. Allan Spowers joined them as junior partner in 1857.

Mackinnon retired to England in 1868 and settled at Elfordleigh, Devonshire, to enjoy the pleasures of English country life. For a time he lived at Arundel, Sussex, often visiting his estate at Duisdale, Isle of Skye, and offering hospitality on the grand scale. Always delighted to entertain his friends' sons who went to England to finish their schooling, he undertook responsibility for the education and training of his cousin, Lauchlan Charles Mackinnon, his intended successor in the Argus.

While expressing confidence in the local board and anxious to leave its members a free hand in managing the Argus, Mackinnon continued to follow its affairs closely and offer advice. Unlike Wilson he refused to be alarmed when Syme's Age outstripped the Argus in circulation. He deplored Wilson's 'proneness to panic' and with Spowers always outvoted any move to disturb the paper's prosperity. An extensive tour of North America in 1869 to observe the practices there left him confident of the 'impregnable strength' of the Argus.

When the telegraph link between Britain and Australia became imminent, Mackinnon was convinced of the importance of an independent news service and in 1870 attempted to form a press association embracing all colonial newspapers which could receive news telegrams direct from London, thus avoiding dependence for foreign news on Reuter. By 1872 when the link with Britain was established, he had succeeded in achieving a cable partnership between the Argus, Sydney Morning Herald and South Australian Register, whose London representatives selected and cabled the news at their discretion, dispensing foreign news to associated papers outside the 'ring'. Opposed to 'stinting, false economies', Mackinnon fought for 'free expenditure' on the special news service, despite its high cost of some £8500 a year until a special press rate was introduced in 1886.

Mackinnon did not write for the Argus but his business ability was chiefly responsible for its financial success. His letters to his representative, J. S. Johnston, reveal his assurance and liberal vision in business; with enterprise, energy and no fear of 'bold action', he constantly exhorted his colleagues, impatient of the timidity and narrow vision which led to short-sighted policies. He was just but stern with employees, intolerant of incompetence and claimed that sentiment was a 'fatal error' in business.

Mackinnon was a vigorous, forthright Presbyterian, respected by his friends for his courage and integrity. A Liberal in politics he had profound faith in education 'without which Religion and Morals must give place to every species of public and private depravity'. He was a member of the original Council of the University of Melbourne. He died at Malpas Lodge, Torquay, Devon, on 21 March 1888 leaving a vast estate. He was twice married: first, to Jane Montgomery who died in Sydney on 13 June 1849; and second, at Parramatta on 9 May 1850 to Emily Bundock who died at Malpas Lodge on 17 June 1893 survived by two adopted children.

Select Bibliography

  • Garryowen (E. Finn), The Chronicles of Early Melbourne, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1888)
  • W. Westgarth, Personal Recollections of Early Melbourne and Victoria (Melb, 1888)
  • R. V. Billis and A. S. Kenyon, Pastoral Pioneers of Port Phillip (Melb, 1932)
  • M. L. Kiddle, Men of Yesterday (Melb, 1961)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 23 Mar 1888
  • Times (London), 24 Mar 1888, p 14
  • Niel Black papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • Haddon papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • J. S. Johnston papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Jacqueline Templeton, 'Mackinnon, Lauchlan (1817–1888)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 22 May 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]


26 February, 1817
Isle of Skye, Scotland


21 March, 1888 (aged 71)
Torquay, Devon, England

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