Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Alexander McArthur (1814–1909)

by Ruth Teale

This article was published:

Alexander McArthur (1814-1909), merchant, was born on 10 March 1814 at Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Ireland, son of John McArthur, Wesleyan minister, and his wife Sarah, née Finlay. Educated privately, he was apprenticed in 1830 to a merchant in Omagh. After severe fevers he migrated to Sydney and arrived on 24 January 1842 in the Margaret. He began business with a consignment from his brother William (1809-1887) but soon became partner of William Little and James H. Atkinson. In 1848 he went to Ireland where in 1850 with his brother he formed W. and A. McArthur & Co., softgoods merchants. Alexander returned to Sydney in 1851 and profited handsomely as a shipping agent from the export of gold. His firm built a large Sydney warehouse and opened branches in Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane and Auckland. In August 1853 at Toxteth Park he married Maria Bowden, daughter of Rev. W. B. Boyce; they lived at Strathmore, Glebe Point, and had six sons and two daughters.

In 1854-55 McArthur visited England and on his return became a member of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce, a shareholder in the Australian Joint Stock Bank, director of many building societies and insurance and mining companies, and a justice of the peace. In June 1859 he was elected for Newtown to the Legislative Assembly as a free trader and an opponent of state aid to religion. On 11 October he moved the acceptance of the native chief's offer to cede Fiji to the Crown. Re-elected in December 1860, he resigned in June 1861 when nominated to the Legislative Council. He vacated his seat through absence in October 1865. In 1843 he had been elected to the committee of the Wesleyan Auxiliary Missionary Society of New South Wales; he was foundation treasurer of the Young Men's Christian Association of Sydney and a committee member of the Benevolent Asylum, the New South Wales Auxiliary Bible Society and other charities. He gave £2000 towards building Newington College.

In 1863 Alexander took over the London business and lived at Raleigh Hall, Brixton. In Transportation to Western Australia. Three Letters to the Editor of the 'Daily News' (London, 1864) he questioned 'the moral right [of the British Government] to poison the very atmosphere of four or five large and flourishing colonies' with convicts. In 1879 he and his brother gave £1000 to Ormond College in the University of Melbourne. In 1870-73 McArthur was a member of the first London School Board and in 1874-92 Liberal member for Leicester in the House of Commons, where he advocated the annexation of Fiji, stricter Sabbath observance and Home Rule for Ireland. He was a magistrate for Surrey, deputy-lieutenant for the city of London and a fellow of the Imperial Institute and from 1863 the Royal Geographical Society, and member of the Royal Colonial Institute in 1869, the Victoria Institute and the British Association. In 1898 his firm became a limited liability company with McArthur a director and in 1908 was reconstituted after liquidation. A devout Methodist, he died at Sydenham, London, on 1 August 1909.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Digby (ed), Australian Men of Mark, vol 2 (Syd, 1889)
  • T. McCullagh, Sir William McArthur (Lond, 1891)
  • J. Colwell, The Illustrated History of Methodism (Syd, 1904)
  • A. W. Martin, ‘William McMillan—a merchant in politics’, JRAHS, 40 (1954-55)
  • Empire (Sydney), 30 May 1859
  • ‘Obituary’, Times (London), 2 Aug 1909, p 9
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Aug 1909
  • Town and Country Journal, 11 Aug 1909
  • Macarthur papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Ruth Teale, 'McArthur, Alexander (1814–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 13 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]


10 March, 1814
Enniskillen, Fermanagh, Ireland


1 August, 1909 (aged 95)
London, Middlesex, England

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