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William Sharp Macleay (1792–1865)

by David S. Macmillan

This article was published:

William Sharp Macleay (1792-1865), by unknown photographer

William Sharp Macleay (1792-1865), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 03148

William Sharp Macleay (1792-1865), scholar and naturalist, was born on 21 July 1792 in London, the eldest son of Alexander McLeay. He was educated at Westminster School, where he distinguished himself as a classical scholar, and in 1809 proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1814; M.A., 1818). In 1818 he was appointed attaché to the British embassy in Paris and secretary to the board for liquidating British claims on the French government. In 1825 he became British commissioner of arbitration to the conjoint British and Spanish Court of Commission in Havana for the abolition of the slave trade; in 1830 he became commissary judge in that court, and by 1833 he was judge to the Mixed Tribunal of Justice. He remained in Havana until 1836, when he retired with a pension of £900. He arrived in March 1839 in Sydney where he spent the remainder of his life living at his father's home, Elizabeth Bay House, which he inherited in 1848.

His principal interest was natural history, for which he shared his father's enthusiasm. In Paris he had become acquainted with several distinguished scientists, including Georges Cuvier (1769-1832). Macleay published in London Horae Entomologicae; or, Essays on the Annulose Animals, pts 1-2 (1819-21) and another useful work, Annulosa Javanica; or an Attempt to Illustrate the Natural Affinities and Analogies of the Insects Collected in Java by T. Horsfield, no. 1 (London, 1825). He continued his scientific observations and researches while in Cuba, and by 1837 he was sufficiently well known as a scientist to be elected to the councils of the Linnean Society of London and of the Zoological Society. At the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Liverpool in September 1837 he was president of the section on natural history. In 1838 he published in London Illustrations of the Annulosa of South Africa and in Sydney he quickly developed a keen interest in the natural history of Australia, especially in the marine fauna in and around Port Jackson. The site of Elizabeth Bay House on the waterfront east of Sydney was convenient for such studies, and from about 1840 he began to build up a very large collection of specimens. Later he returned to his original scientific interest, entomology, and made a large collection of Australian insects. He was chiefly interested in the philosophical aspects of zoology, in investigating, as Joseph James Fletcher put it 'natural affinities and analogies, and in endeavouring to discover the natural system of classification'. His theories were hailed by his scientific friends, the ornithologists Vigors and Swainson, and he undoubtedly showed no small degree of originality. Professor Alfred Newton in his article on ornithology in the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, while critical of Macleay's theories, referred to him as 'a man of real genius'.

It was not only along the line of independent research and inquiry that Macleay's scientific bent developed, for he also interested many others in natural history, especially his cousin William John Macleay, and to a lesser extent, his brother George. He was keenly interested in the Australian Museum, and served on its committee before becoming a trustee in 1841, a position which he held until 1862. He was largely responsible for framing and introducing the Act establishing and endowing the museum. In his time Elizabeth Bay House became a regular meeting place for Sydney men with scientific interests, and visiting scientists were invariably entertained there, a tradition carried on by W. J. Macleay. Botany and geology were other fields in which he was absorbed from time to time, and in the 1850s the gardens at Elizabeth Bay became famous for the exotic shrubs and plants cultivated there under his supervision.

Macleay's interests were not narrowly scientific. He was a man of broad culture and worldly experience, a fine classical scholar and an accomplished conversationalist. His circle of friends included Robert Lowe, Charles Nicholson, James Macarthur, and most of the intellectual circle in Sydney. Throughout his life he was studious, and he had the reputation of being shy and retiring, but his wide range of friends and acquaintances seems to belie this, and the belief may have grown up as a result of his gradual withdrawal into seclusion after 1860, when his health began to fail, partly as a result of his ten years residence in Cuba. Never openly involved in political controversies, he was widely respected in the Sydney community. For some years in the 1850s he was a member of the National Board of Education, and he served on the Executive Council under Sir William Denison in 1855.

Macleay was a fellow of the Royal Society and a well-known contributor to various scientific journals. According to his obituary notice in the Linnean Society of London Proceedings, 1864-65, his Horae Entomologicae 'contained some of the most important speculations as to the affinities or relations of various groups of animals to each other ever offered to the world, and of which it is almost impossible to overrate the suggestive value'. Macleay died at Elizabeth Bay House on 26 January 1865. He never married and the heir to his estate and to Elizabeth Bay House was his brother, George. W. J. Macleay inherited his library and collection of specimens on the understanding that the bequest would be deposited in a suitable institution. In 1890 it was transferred to the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • P. P. King, Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1827)
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Macleay Memorial Volume, ed J. J. Fletcher (Syd, 1893)
  • W. S. Macleay, 'Correspondence', Calcutta Journal of Natural History, vol 2, no 6, July 1841, pp 263-74
  • Annals of Natural History, 8 (1841), 9 (1842)
  • Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science, 3 (1849)
  • Macleay papers (University of Sydney Archives).

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Citation details

David S. Macmillan, 'Macleay, William Sharp (1792–1865)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 14 June 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

William Sharp Macleay (1792-1865), by unknown photographer

William Sharp Macleay (1792-1865), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 03148

Life Summary [details]


21 July, 1792
London, Middlesex, England


26 January, 1865 (aged 72)
Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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