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Harold Maclean (1828–1889)

by Suzanne Edgar

This article was published:

Harold Maclean (1828-1889), public servant, was born on 14 May 1828 at Lakefield, Inverness, Scotland, third son of Captain John Leyburn Maclean, 43rd Regiment, and his wife Jane Eliza, née Grant. In August 1837 he arrived with his family at Sydney. At 16 he became a clerk in the Colonial Secretary's Office. On 3 January 1852 he became assistant commissioner for the goldfields at Sofala and in 1856 at Tambaroora. In 1858-64 he was senior gold commissioner on the western goldfields.

Widely trusted, Maclean settled miners' disputes on the spot and later sat in the Appeals Court. He often advised the government and was responsible for changes in goldfields legislation and regulations, which he believed were the main factors affecting the miners' well-being. In 1858 he told a Legislative Assembly select committee of the civic virtues of the Chinese on the goldfields. The report of the 1870 royal commission into the goldfields leaned heavily on his evidence.

In August 1864 Maclean became sheriff of New South Wales. Determined to reform the inhuman conditions of the colony's prisons, he began by inspecting the recently improved gaols of Victoria in 1865. He hoped to implement classification, uniform management for all gaols and systematic employment for inmates. In 1867 his new regulations for the remission of gaol sentences were more lenient than England's, and against British advice he banned the treadmill. In 1869 he studied prison management in Britain and confirmed his ideals of separate treatment and productive labour. In 1871 his initiation of prison photography for identifying criminals was followed in other Australian colonies. He also ordered modern equipment to make prisons self-supporting by more useful hard labour.

In 1874 Maclean was promoted sheriff and comptroller-general of prisons. In 1875 he and the engineer-in-chief for harbours promoted a plan for an open prison, where prisoners would have increasing wages, leave passes and outside accommodation, for building a breakwater at Trial Bay near Smokey Cape: 'the most important departure that has been made by any country'. The system began but was not fully operative until 1886. In 1878 at a royal commission into alleged torture at Berrima Gaol, he defended occasional, recorded and brief use of the gag and chaining men to the cell wall but denied any spread-eagling. The commissioners recommended reforms and exonerated Maclean, praising his 'intelligence, experience, zeal and enlightened humanity'.

Maclean personally investigated prisoners' complaints, acted as a 'protector', reprimanded officers on prisoners' evidence and took pride in the decreasing number of second offenders during his régime. Despite insufficient funds, he worked to end indiscriminate herding together of all prisoners. Though at first in solitary confinement, they could progress towards more lenient treatment and training. On leaving gaol they received clothing, money, tools and passage to a place of employment. He carefully selected and trained warders and demanded better salaries and conditions for them. He argued that the prisons should be industrious hives of labour, and allowed prisoners schooling, choir practice and visits by authorized outsiders. He was sometimes painfully conscious of his difficult position, open to misinterpretation as too lenient or too harsh, but ex-prisoners often visited him.

In 1875 Maclean was a founding member of the Linnean Society of New South Wales. In October 1889 he took leave to recruit his health but died of typhoid fever in Sydney on 6 November intestate. He was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. To one obituarist he was a 'judicious, large-hearted, kind and merciful friend' to convicts. He was survived by a son and a daughter of his first wife Emily Strong, (d.1860), whom he had married on 16 May 1856, and by his second wife Agnes Helen, née Campbell, whom he had married on 26 February 1862, and by their two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), Reports on the Goldfields, 1856-57 to 1864, Reports on the Prisons, 1870-89
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1858, 3, 467, 1871-72, 2, 135, 373, 1877-78, 3, 289, 1878-79, 3, 1033, 1887-88, 7, 144 (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1867-68, 1, 899
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1879-80, 3, 2663, 1883-84, 979
  • Sydney Herald, 4 Sept 1837
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Apr 1878, 1 Sept 1886
  • Town and Country Journal, 16 Nov 1889
  • Sydney Mail, 23 Nov 1889
  • A. W. Powell, The Trial Bay Project: Politics and Penal Reform 1861-1903 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of New England, 1970)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue under Maclean (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar, 'Maclean, Harold (1828–1889)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 20 April 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]


14 May, 1828
Lakefield, Inverness-shire, Scotland


6 November, 1889 (aged 61)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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