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Sir Charles MacMahon (1824–1891)

by Suzanne G. Mellor

This article was published:

Charles MacMahon (1824-1891), by unknown engraver

Charles MacMahon (1824-1891), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN01/10/91/16

Sir Charles MacMahon (1824-1891), police commissioner and politician, was born on 10 July 1824 at Fecarry House, Omagh, County Tyrone, Ireland, son of Sir William MacMahon, baronet and master of the rolls, and his second wife Charlotte, née Shaw. He served in Canada as an ensign with the 71st Regiment, transferred to the 10th Hussars and retired with the rank of captain after service in India. He joined the Dublin County Militia Regiment. In India he had taken on extra duties as veterinary surgeon, for which he had a diploma.

MacMahon arrived in Melbourne on 18 November 1852 with large capital and many letters of introduction which he did not present because, as he declared, he meant to make his own way. In January 1853 he applied for the sinecure of stud-master to the new police force but was persuaded by the chief commissioner, W. H. F. Mitchell, to become assistant commissioner. With Mitchell he reorganized the force by dispensing with chief constables and abolishing magistrates' control over police. While Mitchell was in England MacMahon became acting chief police commissioner in 1854. He was chief commissioner in 1856-58 and proved himself to be a diligent, painstaking officer and a 'high-minded and honourable public servant'. His military experience was invaluable in organization, though he was not good at delegating authority. During his administration he compiled the first police code for guidance of members, and the force was in a promising condition on his resignation.

On 19 February 1858 a select committee on 'Captain MacMahon's Case' was appointed to inquire into the management of police funds, the general conduct of the force since 1853 and the charge that MacMahon had profited personally from police contracts. Specifically also, a prisoner had died from lack of ventilation in the Sandhurst lock-up which was made to MacMahon's design and of iron purchased from him, and murder by negligence was imputed. The committee's report in June 1858 stated that the irregularities uncovered were rendered necessary by the peculiarities of the time and sanctioned by the government of the day, and that there was not the slightest evidence to substantiate the charges made against MacMahon. On 12 October copies of 'all Papers relating to the Retirement of Captain MacMahon from the Government Service' were submitted to the Legislative Assembly, because of the dispute between MacMahon and his ministerial head, J. O'Shanassy, over the district inspector, William, brother of H. E. P. Dana. O'Shanassy demanded that Dana be granted a transfer to Bourke and MacMahon, referring to Dana as 'impatient of control' and believing such interference detrimental to the force, offered his resignation which was accepted on 17 July.

MacMahon had been a member of the Executive and Legislative Councils in 1853-56. From August 1861 to August 1864 he represented West Bourke in the Legislative Assembly and was minister without portfolio in the O'Shanassy ministry till June 1863. From 1866 to 1878 he represented West Melbourne, strongly supported by the Irish Catholic community. In 1875 he was appointed K.B. for his services as Speaker from April 1871 during the troublesome period until the election of the new Berry ministry in 1877. MacMahon was in general sympathy with the landowning and mercantile groups, a 'staunch' free trader and therefore opposed to Berry, who at the general elections accused MacMahon of being a corrupt Speaker, giving decisions contrary both to parliamentary law and practice, and to the facts before him. MacMahon wavered between horse-whipping his critic and suing him for libel, but was dissuaded from both courses and could only emphatically deny the aspersion.

MacMahon was a member of the 1870 royal commission on Federal union and on penal and prison discipline. He again represented West Melbourne in 1880-86 in the assembly and then retired from politics. He had broad business interests and was director of the Melbourne Banking Co. and the Australian Alliance Assurance Co. in the 1860s.

MacMahon was twice married; first, to Sophie Campbell, sister of a Canadian barrister who became a magistrate at Beechworth, Victoria; and second, to Clara Ann, daughter of C. J. Webster of Yea. He had no children. He died at his East Melbourne home on 28 August 1891 and was buried according to Anglican rites in the Melbourne cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Sadleir, Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer (Melb, 1913)
  • P. S. Cleary, Australia's Debt to Irish Nation-Builders (Syd, 1933)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1857-58 (D27)
  • Age (Melbourne), 31 Aug 1891
  • J. E. Parnaby, The Economic and Political Development of Victoria, 1877-1881 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1951).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Suzanne G. Mellor, 'MacMahon, Sir Charles (1824–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 29 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

Charles MacMahon (1824-1891), by unknown engraver

Charles MacMahon (1824-1891), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN01/10/91/16

Life Summary [details]


10 July, 1824
Omagh, Tyrone, Ireland


28 August, 1891 (aged 67)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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