Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas McCombie (1819–1869)

by Fergus Farrow

This article was published:

Thomas McCombie (1819-1869), journalist, merchant and politician, was born in Tillyfour, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, son of Charles McCombie and his wife Anne, née Black. He arrived at Melbourne in April 1841 and tried his hand at squatting. In 1844-51 he was editor and part proprietor of the Port Phillip Gazette and on 1 January 1853 started the short-lived weekly Reformer. At Scots Church on 16 October 1844 he had married Elizabeth Willis.

In 1846-51 McCombie represented Bourke Ward in the Melbourne Town Council and served as chairman of the Health Committee. In June 1846 his motion was carried in the council for a humble petition to the Queen praying for the removal of Superintendent Charles La Trobe. In August he chaired a large public meeting which adopted a similar resolution. In 1848 he was largely responsible for the election of Earl Grey as a Port Phillip representative to the Legislative Council in Sydney.

After gold was discovered McCombie moved to the Mount Alexander diggings, where he drew public attention to the miners' grievances. On the separation of Port Phillip he contested the Kilmore electorate in vain but in 1856 he was elected to the Legislative Council for the Southern Province, and became minister without portfolio in the O'Shanassy ministry in March 1858. His parliamentary career was more solid than significant. Amongst other things, he argued for a comprehensive system of immigration with its cost a direct charge on the land instead of from public revenue. He proposed the introduction of Torrens's land titles into Victoria, and advocated uniform legislation in the colonies on such topics as the upset price of public lands, the abolition of transportation, the coinage and regulation of its value, postal matters, the naturalization of aliens, military establishments and lighthouses, railways, tariffs and excise. The ministry fell on 27 October 1859.

McCombie returned with his family to Britain where he was active on colonial affairs. He read a paper on the Aboriginals to the British Association at a meeting attended by the Prince Consort, and others on penal discipline, gold and colonization to the Social Science Association. He returned to Melbourne in the Wellesley in February 1866. He contested the Southern Province in the Legislative Council, but without success. In March 1868 he was elected for South Gippsland to the Legislative Assembly. A year later he sailed with his family in the Talbot for London. After great suffering he died in Scotland on 2 October 1869 aged 50, survived by his wife and two daughters of their four children.

McCombie had been connected with forming the Victorian Caledonian Society, the Melbourne Gas Co., the Commercial Bank of Australia and the Provident Institute of Victoria. Among his many publications were two descriptive novels: Arabin, or The Adventures of a Colonist in New South Wales (London, 1845); and Frank Henly, or Honest Industry Will Conquer (London, 1868). They were rather pedestrian accounts of contemporary Victorian life, but he has been credited with being 'one of the first Australian writers who addressed himself to the Australian rather than the English reader'. His enthusiasms for his adopted land and its problems were those of the journalist expounding ideas and novel proposals rather than practical action. 'Garryowen' noted that he was known as 'Tammy Ass' and 'Silly Billy' and claimed that 'it would have been no mistake to call him so, but for the shrewdness and occasional snatches of ability that leavened his dullness'.

Select Bibliography

  • ‘The early printers of Melbourne, 1838-1858’, Australasian Typographical Journal, 28 Sept 1897, 28 Jan 1898
  • H. G. Turner, ‘The beginnings of literature in Victoria’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 4 (1914)
  • Examiner (Melbourne), 31 Jan 1863
  • Argus (Melbourne), 29, 30 Nov 1869.

Citation details

Fergus Farrow, 'McCombie, Thomas (1819–1869)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 25 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

Life Summary [details]


Tillyfour, Aberdeenshire, Scotland


2 October, 1869 (aged ~ 50)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.