Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Matheson (1821–1882)

by Raoul F. Middelmann

This article was published:

John Matheson (1821-1882), businessman, was born at Lairg, Sutherlandshire, Scotland, son of William Matheson, crofter, and his wife Anne. Two uncles who had been indigo planters in India and settled in Van Diemen's Land for health reasons invited John to visit them; in 1835 he went by fishing smack from Cromarty to London where he embarked for Tasmania. Until 1838 he worked in a merchant's office in Hobart Town. He then joined the Union Bank of Australia at its new Hobart branch as an accountant. One of the tellers he met was James Blackwood. In 1845 Matheson became the manager of the Geelong branch of the Union Bank and in 1851 was appointed to Melbourne.

Early in 1853 Matheson became first manager of the Bank of Victoria. As the new bank was the first with almost exclusively Victorian shareholders, he wrote to the government arguing that the existing banks in Melbourne were 'merely Branches of Banking Houses whose interests are not identical with those of the Colonists'. He asked for his bank to be given not only a share of government deposits but to be made the sole depository. The new bank wanted to manage the public debt and accept measures for the regulation of the issue of bank-notes 'under similar arrangements to those which characterize the relation between the Bank of England and the British Government'. Matheson did not achieve this high position for his bank but was soon made its first general manager. He held this position until his retirement in 1881, except when he visited England in 1859-61 to establish the bank's London office. In 1870-73 he had been a member of the royal commission inquiring into the state of the Victorian public service.

Matheson held several properties, the most prominent being Moranghurk at Lethbridge, between Geelong and Ballarat, which he acquired in stages after 1857; his descendants held the property until 1953. Matheson also held interests in Mount Napier near Hamilton, Maryvale near Casterton with his brother Robert, and Kilfera in the Riverina. At St Kilda he owned the stately home, St Leonards, which became a fashionable boarding house early in the twentieth century. A staunch Presbyterian, John was married to Flora Macdonald; they had four sons and four daughters. Two sons died young and the eldest son inherited Moranghurk. Matheson died in Melbourne on 10 July 1882, leaving an estate worth £250,000.

Self-educated, Matheson's success depended heavily on his skill in combining banking with squatting when these pursuits were probably the most profitable in Victoria. It was his good luck that he died before the bursting in 1891 of the boom, which had depended so heavily on lending of short-term local and foreign funds on long-term mortgage security. The bearers at his funeral included not only his children and Henry Miller, the biggest shareholder of the Bank of Victoria, but also James and Donald Munro who suffered heavily when the bubble burst.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Humphreys (ed), Men of the Time in Australia: Victorian series, 1st ed (Melb, 1878)
  • P. L. Brown (ed), Clyde Company Papers, vols 2-7 (Lond, 1952-71)
  • G. Blainey, Gold and Paper: A History of the National Bank of Australasia (Melb, 1958)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, Victoria), 1853-54, 3 (D12)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 11 July 1882
  • Australasian Insurance and Banking Record, 10 Aug 1882
  • Australasian, 7 Oct 1882
  • Pastoral Review, 15 Oct 1909
  • private information.

Citation details

Raoul F. Middelmann, 'Matheson, John (1821–1882)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 23 June 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]


Lairg, Sutherland, Scotland


10 July, 1882 (aged ~ 61)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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