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Peter Dodds McCormick (1833–1916)

by Jim Fletcher

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Peter Dodds McCormick (1833-1916), schoolteacher and songwriter, was born on 28 January 1833 at Port Glasgow, Scotland, son of Peter McCormick, seaman, and his wife Janet, née Dodds. After completing his apprenticeship to a joiner, he migrated and reached Sydney on 21 February 1855. He pursued his trade and became involved in musical societies.

In 1863 McCormick attended Fort Street Model School for a month before being appointed teacher-in-charge at St Marys National School. On 16 July he married Emily Boucher, who became sewing teacher at her husband's schools. They taught at schools closer to Sydney in 1865 but she died in March 1866; on 22 December he married Emma Elizabeth Dening. McCormick was appointed to the Presbyterian denominational school at Woolloomooloo in 1867 and to Dowling (Plunkett) Street Public School in 1878 where he remained until he resigned in 1885.

McCormick was an elder of St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Woolloomooloo, and later of the Grahame Memorial Church at Waverley. In 1896 he published a moral tale, Four School Mates. He gave religious instruction in public schools until 1916 and was remembered by A. R. Chisholm as 'a white-haired man with a red face … [who] remained imperturbable amid the tumult of the class-room, and was extraordinarily laconic'.

Both ultra-Scottish and ultra-patriotic, McCormick was honorary secretary of St Andrew's Benevolent Society, a founder of the Caledonian Society and, after its merger, of the Highland Society of New South Wales and of the Burns Anniversary Club. His greatest interest, however, was music: he was precentor of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales and organized many church choirs. He conducted very large choirs such as the 10,000 children and 1000 teachers at the 1880 Robert Raikes Sunday school centenary demonstration, and 15,000 schoolchildren at the laying of the foundation stone of Queen Victoria's statue.

McCormick published about thirty patriotic and Scottish songs; 'The Bonnie Banks o' Clyde', 'Advance Australia Fair' and others became very popular. 'Advance Australia Fair' was first sung (by Mr Andrew Fairfax) at the St Andrew's Day concert of the Highland Society on 30 November 1878: the Sydney Morning Herald described the music as 'bold and stirring', and the words as 'decidedly patriotic'—it was 'likely to become a popular favourite'. As 'Amicus' he later had the music and four verses published by W. H. Paling & Co. Ltd. It was sung by a choir of 10,000 voices at the inauguration of the Commonwealth and played by massed bands at the naming of the Federal capital celebrations in Canberra. In 1907 the Carruthers government awarded McCormick £100 for his patriotic composition.

On 1 August 1913 McCormick described how he came to write the song: after attending a concert at which national anthems were sung he 'felt very aggravated that there was not one note for Australia. On the way home in a bus, I concocted the first verse of my song, & when I got home I set it to music. I first wrote it in the Tonic Sol-fa Notation, then transcribed it into the Old Notation, & tried it over on an instrument next morning, & found it correct … It seemed to me to be like an inspiration, & I wrote the words & music with the greatest ease'. On 3 September 1915 he formally registered his copyright.

Survived by his wife, McCormick died childless at his home at Waverley on 30 October 1916 and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £52.

After his death sporadic attempts to have 'Advance Australia Fair' proclaimed Australia's national anthem succeeded in 1984. Subsequently a descendant of John Macfarlane (d.1866) claimed that Macfarlane had originally composed the music and written the first verse. Some musicologists consider the tune to be based on a typical 'wandering melody', a theory given some credence by McCormick's ease and method of composition. It seems, however, that there is little doubt that McCormick was responsible for 'Advance Australia Fair'—certainly his contemporaries accepted his bona fides.

Select Bibliography

  • A. R. Chisholm, Men Were My Milestones (Melb, 1958)
  • Messenger (Presbyterian, New South Wales), 22 Feb, 21 Mar 1907, 24 July 1913
  • Scottish Australasian, 1 Mar 1912, p 867, Jan 1917, p 5221
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Nov, 5 Dec 1878, 31 Oct 1916, 10 May 1942, 20 July, 7 Aug, 20, 30 Nov, 1, 6, 7, 8 Dec 1943
  • Canberra Times, 19 May 1984, 26 Jan, 7, 23 Feb 1985
  • applications for employment (1/373, State Records New South Wales)
  • in-letters, 1863, St Marys National School, 1/421, Board of National Education (State Records New South Wales)
  • P. D. McCormick letter, 1 Aug 1913 (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Jim Fletcher, 'McCormick, Peter Dodds (1833–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Amicus

28 January, 1833
Port Glasgow, Renfrewshire, Scotland


30 October, 1916 (aged 83)
Waverley, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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