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Sir William John Macleay (1820–1891)

by Martha Rutledge and Michael Hoare

This article was published:

Sir William John Macleay (1820-1891), pastoralist, politician and patron of science, was born on 13 June 1820 at Wick, Caithness, Scotland, second son of Kenneth Macleay of Keiss and his wife Barbara, née Horne. Educated at the Edinburgh Academy in 1834-36 he entered the medical school of the University of Edinburgh. Orphaned in 1837 he was left with little money and two younger brothers to educate. Though fascinated by medical and scientific studies, he accepted the advice of his uncle Alexander McLeay to migrate and arrived in Sydney in March 1839 in the Royal George with his brother Walter. He found the company of his uncle and cousins William Sharp Macleay and (Sir) George Macleay congenial and under their influence acquired an increasing interest in natural history. In 1840 Macleay joined George on the family's runs first at Goulburn, then on the Murrumbidgee. A magistrate from 1841, he sat on the Wagga Wagga bench from 1847. He served on the local National school board and in 1852 was a founder of the Murrumbidgee Turf Club. By 1848 he had taken over Mulberrygong, 90,000 acres (36,422 ha) on the Murrumbidgee, and soon acquired Kerarbury in which he held a share until the 1870s. A Freemason he had become grand warden of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Scotland in 1855 and in 1861-66 he was a captain in the Sydney Volunteer Artillery. At St James's Church in 1857 he had married Susan Emmeline, 18-year-old daughter of E. D. Thomson. They lived in Macquarie Street until he leased Elizabeth Bay House from George in 1865.

In 1855 Macleay had been elected to the Legislative Council for the Lachlan and Lower Darling Pastoral District. After responsible government he represented the Lachlan and Lower Darling in the Legislative Assembly in 1856-58 and the Murrumbidgee in 1859-74. In 1860 he was a member of the general committee of the New South Wales Constitutional Association which failed in its aim of securing for parliament 'the services of gentlemen of standing and education' in the elections during ferment over the land laws. A protectionist from the 1860s, he pressed his own views by the unusual tactic of moving for select committees which he then chaired. In 1863 as chairman of the select committee on harbour defences he recommended batteries on North and South Heads. In November 1866 he used the report of the select committee on the unemployed to advocate the imposition of 20 per cent ad valorem duties on all timber imports and manufactures to protect local cabinet makers. Although described in James Gormly's Reminiscences as an able politician who 'always took an independent stand', his hostility to Henry Parkes, whom he regarded as a radical upstart, led him to support John Robertson. In December 1868 after the attempt to kill the Duke of Edinburgh, malice towards Parkes as much as a desire for truth led Macleay to move for and chair a select committee to inquire into 'the existence of a conspiracy for purposes of treason'. Although the committee found no Fenian conspiracy, the report was rejected by the assembly and Parkes later carried resolutions expunging it from the parliamentary records. In February 1870 as chairman of a select committee on railway extension Macleay proposed horse-drawn railways instead of main trunk lines. In 1870-91 he was a trustee of the Free Public Library and a member of the commission on defence from foreign aggression.

Macleay built up large pastoral holdings in New South Wales usually with working partners. While travelling to the Murrumbidgee he beat off an attack by Ben Hall's gang and was later awarded one of the gold medals struck to honour those who helped to suppress bushranging. Attracted by viticulture he had a forty-acre (16 ha) vineyard at Lake Albert near Wagga Wagga in the 1870s. He did not withdraw from politics completely and in 1877 was appointed to the Legislative Council on the recommendation of Robertson. That year he was president of the royal commission on oyster culture and in 1880-83 the fisheries commission. He was also a commissioner for the exhibitions in Philadelphia in 1875, Melbourne in 1876 and 1880, Sydney in 1879 and Amsterdam in 1883. He was elected to the Senate of the University of Sydney in 1875 and knighted in 1889. Active in moves to form a Protectionist party, he was president of the National Club and as chairman of its political committee attended the first National Protection Conference in October. However, by then he had won repute for his scientific achievements.

Although scientific opportunities in the colony were meagre in the 1840s and 1850s Macleay was fortunate to have the support of his cousin in studying insects and inland fishes. His active scientific career did not begin until, frustrated by the lack of a regular outlet for workers in the biological sciences, he helped to found the Entomological Society of New South Wales in 1862; within a year the society gave 'an impetus … to collecting … hitherto unknown in the colony'. Macleay sent George Masters to Queensland to collect insects and in 1863-66 thousands of his specimens were exhibited by the society. In 1865 Macleay had inherited his cousin's collections at Elizabeth Bay House; Captain A. A. W. Onslow and Dr James Cox were frequent visitors. Early attracted by the Australian Museum, Macleay became a trustee and was involved in the dismissal of its curator, Gerard Krefft. Although an interested party Macleay served on the select committee on the museum in 1874 and gave evidence. He denied imputations that he had added to his private collections at the museum's expense but admitted that he had offered a higher salary to the assistant curator, Masters, to care for his large collections at Elizabeth Bay.

Well read in zoological literature, Macleay demanded the highest standards of taxonomic and analytical writing for the Entomological Society. Despite support from R. L. King, A. W. Scott and F. L. N. Laporte the society's enthusiasm waned. Macleay's home and collections at Elizabeth Bay became a centre for naturalists, scientists and interested amateurs. He employed collectors of specimens throughout the continent and began to adopt the role of patron of Australian science by extending the scope of his own work in all fields of zoology and encouraging botany, geology and the marine sciences. He accepted the first presidency of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, formed in October 1874. From this office he castigated the local Royal Society for tolerating papers 'not of a scientific character' and promoted the Linnean Society as the colonial institution for independent pursuit of zoology, botany and geology. In June he had entertained the Challenger's scientists at Elizabeth Bay and in February 1875 at his own expense bought and fitted out the barque Chevert for a scientific expedition to New Guinea. His team included many scientists and collectors but from May to September the expedition was beset by dissension and dogged by fever, native hostility and contrary weather, and failed to enter the Fly River. They returned to Sydney with many scientific specimens, papers and reports but Macleay was harshly criticized for disavowing the potential of New Guinea as a site for European colonization. Thereafter his interest in science centred on his own work and collections, and patronizing the work of others.

Macleay was more than a dilettante and patron of science. He wrote over seventy reports and papers on entomology, ichthyology and other areas of zoology and was among the first colonials to publish most of his work in Australian journals. Though not always above scientific jealousy and often dependent on pupil assistants, he became the resident 'Sir Joseph Banks' of Australian science. His major works include the two-volume Descriptive Catalogue of Australian Fishes (Sydney, 1881) and Census of Australian Snakes (1884).

Survived by his wife, Macleay died without legal issue at Elizabeth Bay House on 7 December 1891 and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at over £81,000. The Macleay collections, valued at some £25,000, passed to the University of Sydney with £6000 to pay the curator. He also left £12,000 to found a chair of bacteriology but the university senate rejected his conditions and the money went to the Linnean Society. In 1956 the society and the university agreed to use the income from the bequest for part of the salary of the Linnean Macleay lectureship in microbiology. The society had already been given £14,000 from Macleay's estate and, after his wife died in August 1903, received £35,000 to endow four 'Linnean Macleay Fellowships' and an additional £6000.

Select Bibliography

  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Macleay Memorial Volume, J. J. Fletcher ed (Syd, 1893)
  • Entomological Society of New South Wales, Transactions, 1864-73
  • J. J. Fletcher, ‘The Society's heritage from the Macleays’, Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 45 (1920)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Feb 1876
  • Town and Country Journal, 12 Dec 1891
  • M. Lyons, Aspects of Sectarianism in New South Wales Circa 1865-1880 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1972)
  • Macarthur papers, Macleay family papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Log of the Chevert (University of Sydney Archives)
  • Macleay diaries (Linnean Society of New South Wales Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Martha Rutledge and Michael Hoare, 'Macleay, Sir William John (1820–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 19 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]


13 June, 1820
Wick, Caithness, Scotland


7 December, 1891 (aged 71)
Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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