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Sir Samuel McCaughey (1835–1919)

by Peter Hohnen

This article was published:

Sir Samuel McCaughey (1835-1919), pastoralist and philanthropist, was born on 1 July 1835 at Tullyneuh, near Ballymena, County Antrim, Ireland, eldest son of Francis McCaughey, farmer and merchant, and his wife Eliza, née Wilson. After formal schooling he learnt accounting and office management in his father's linen business and worked on the farm. Strongly influenced by his strict Presbyterian upbringing, he was persuaded by his uncle, Charles Wilson, to try his luck in Australia and in April 1856 reached Melbourne in the Chamira. To save money he walked 200 miles (322 km) to the Wilson property near Horsham. McCaughey started as a general station hand but soon became overseer. His genial Irish humour and kindness helped him to get the best from his men and maintain their goodwill.

In 1860 McCaughey's relations backed his purchase of a third share of Coonong, 42,000 acres (16,997 ha) near Urana in the Riverina, in partnership with David Wilson and John Cochrane. Although they suffered such initial setbacks as the lack of water, McCaughey remained optimistic and in 1864 became sole owner. He brought water to Coonong by deepening Yanco Creek and building dams. In the 1860s he acquired Singorimba and Goolgumbla and by 1872 held 137,000 acres (55,443 ha). In 1871 he visited his widowed mother in Ireland and in 1874 brought out his brother David (1848-1899) to help in managing his properties.

McCaughey founded his stud in 1860 by buying from James Cochrane of Widegewa old ewes descended from Tasmanian pure Saxon merinos. He later experimented with Silesian merinos from the flock of Prince Lichnowski and in 1866 with two Ercildoune rams from his uncle, Samuel Wilson. In 1873-75 McCaughey bought over 3000 rams from N. P. Bayly of Havilah, and some from Ercildoune and other well-known studs. To improve quality he spared no expense in fencing and subdividing his paddocks. By 1883 the Coonong stud was one of the best in the Riverina. In that year, anxious to increase the weight of his wool, he bought ten Californian merinos and was so satisfied with the results that he visited America in 1886 and secured 120 ewes and 92 of the finest rams in the state of Vermont; six months later he selected 310 more Vermonts. The weight of the wool increased dramatically and for years the greasy, wrinkled Vermont sheep were invincible in shows. In 1879 only one of his stud rams had cut 16 lbs. of wool but by 1891 200 of them averaged 30 lbs. After severe losses in the 1902 drought McCaughey returned to Peppin blood from Wanganella, but Australian sheep breeders have had great difficulty in eradicating the Vermont strain. For many years McCaughey was vice-president of the New South Wales Sheepbreeders' Association.

McCaughey had a flair for mechanical appliances and regretted that he had never taken an engineering course. Although he employed several blacksmiths, he did much of the experimental work himself and was responsible for the design and improvement of many farm implements. He pioneered in New South Wales the use of heavy machinery for ploughing and soil excavation. He acquired Coree in 1881, later owned by his brother David, and Toorale and Dunlop, 2,500,000 acres (1,011,725 ha) on the Darling from Samuel Wilson. He lived at Coonong where in 1876 he had built a large homestead with a garden and lake. At various times he owned or shared in twelve stations in New South Wales and three in Queensland with a total area of about 3,250,000 acres (1,315,242 ha). From the mid-1880s Dunlop, Toorale and the Queensland stations were watered by artesian bores. In 1888 at Dunlop the shearing was done completely with Wolseley machines for the first time in Australia.

One of the first to see the advantages of widespread irrigation, McCaughey brought out Irish labourers who did not mind wet and boggy conditions. McCaughey was frustrated in his efforts to get more water for Coonong from dams on Colombo Creek when in 1898 he and his brother were sued in the Supreme Court by six down-stream graziers. In Blackwood v. McCaughey the jury awarded £2000 damages to the plaintiff and limited the height of the dams. On 15 June the other plaintiffs were compensated with £10,000 while McCaughey paid £17,000 in legal costs. In 1900 he bought North Yanco where he constructed a complex irrigation system with some 200 miles (322 km) of channels and used two steam engines to pump water from the Murrumbidgee; his success persuaded the government to build the Burrinjuck dam which was completed in 1927. He built a magnificent mansion at North Yanco and was famed for his hospitality.

In 1899 (Sir) George Reid appointed McCaughey and eleven others to the Legislative Council to secure the passage of the Federation enabling bill. He had no strong political leanings but his experience and knowledge of land were valued and he advocated large-scale immigration. He donated £10,000 to a fund for sending a bushmen's contingent to the Boer war. In 1905 he was knighted and visited Europe. He visited Louis Pasteur and tried in vain to obtain an efficient means of exterminating plagues of rabbits. After the federal Land Tax Act was passed in 1910 McCaughey started to dispose of his properties.

A great philanthropist, McCaughey was always ready to help people in trouble on the land. He contributed £10,000 to the Dreadnought Fund and another £10,000 to Dr Barnardo's Homes. In World War I he gave liberally to the Red Cross and other war charities besides insuring 500 soldiers at £200 each. After long suffering from nephritis he died from heart failure on 25 July 1919. Unmarried he was buried in the churchyard of St John's Presbyterian Church, Narrandera. His estate was sworn for probate at over £1,600,000. Apart from bequests of £200,000 and all his motor vehicles to his brother John and legacies to his station managers and employees, he left £10,000 to increase the stipends of Presbyterian clergy, £20,000 to the Burnside Orphan Homes at Parramatta, £20,000 to Scots College in Sydney, £10,000 each to five other independent schools, £5000 to the Salvation Army and £5000 each to seven hospitals. Half the residue of his estate went to the Universities of Sydney and Queensland; the other half went to the relief of members of the Australian Military and Naval Expeditionary Forces and their widows and children.

A portrait by Sir John Longstaff is in the University of Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • C. McIvor, The History and Development of Sheep Farming from Antiquity to Modern Times (Syd, 1893)
  • H. H. Peck, Memoirs of a Stockman (Melb, 1942)
  • P. McCaughey, Samuel McCaughey (Syd, 1955)
  • A. Crowley, ‘The life and work of Sir Samuel McCaughey’, JRAHS, 40 (1954)
  • Australasian, 25 June 1898
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Peter Hohnen, 'McCaughey, Sir Samuel (1835–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 23 July 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]


1 July, 1835
Tullyneuh, Antrim, Ireland


25 July, 1919 (aged 84)
North Yanco, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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