Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Alfred McFarland (1824–1901)

by H. T. E. Holt

This article was published:

Alfred McFarland (1824-1901), judge and author, was born on 24 April 1824 at Coleraine, County Londonderry, Ireland, son of John McFarland, merchant linen-bleacher, and his wife Anne, née Heuston. Educated at Foyle and Belfast Colleges, Trinity College, Dublin, and Lincoln's Inn, London, he was called to the Irish Bar in 1847. For ten years he practised in the Dublin courts and as a conveyancer and real property lawyer. He also wrote Treatise on Equity Pleading, Ireland (1848) and Observations on the Act to Regulate the Proceedings in the High Court of Chancery in Ireland (1850). In 1856 at Dublin he married Janetta Jeffreys. In 1857, nominated by the lord chancellor of Ireland, he was appointed sole judge of the principal civil and criminal courts of Western Australia; despite his resignation in July 1859 he stayed in office until his successor arrived early in 1861.

McFarland was admitted to the Bar of New South Wales on 8 April 1861 and acted as a judge of the District Court until his appointment as chief commissioner of insolvent estates. He became judge of the District Court and chairman of Quarter Sessions for the metropolitan district on 14 December 1865 but, preferring a country circuit, later went to the southern district until he returned to the metropolitan district in 1888. He was also a law reader in jurisprudence at the University of Sydney, a member of the board of law examiners and a frequent contributor to the literary columns of leading Sydney journals. He published several books including Illawarra and Manaro: Districts of New South Wales (1872) and Mutiny in the 'Bounty!' and Story of the Pitcairn Islanders (1884). His manuscript of a history of 'Australia and the New Hebrides from 1606 to 1804', to which he devoted many years, was destroyed by fire before it could be published.

In 1878 delays in the enactment of legislation drafted by McFarland and others induced him to stress acceleration in law reform. He proposed the re-establishment of the office of solicitor-general as a permanent crown law officer to supervise all government bills. In 1886 he offered his services as minister of justice to Sir Henry Parkes who refused. In 1889 he defied the Legislative Council when it ordered the production of his notes in a criminal trial to a select committee into the severity of a sentence he had imposed on a Chinese; the matter had already been decided by the government in the judge's favour.

In 1891 McFarland briefly resumed practice as a barrister and continued his historical research. He claimed that he had to retire from the bench because he was forced to petition to sequestrate his estate as two judgment creditors levied execution and, without his knowledge that the sale was to take place, the sheriff sold his possessions at a very low figure. His debts were £5191. He died at his home in Neutral Bay on 11 March 1901, survived by his wife, two sons and four daughters. He was buried in the cemetery of St Thomas's Church of England, North Sydney. He was reputed a careful judge and noted for the clear and orderly way in which he marshalled the facts of intricate cases and in his masterly charges to juries.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian, 1878-79
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Aug, 27 Sept 1889
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • A. McFarland note-book, WA, 1858 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 18/99, 105, 111.

Citation details

H. T. E. Holt, 'McFarland, Alfred (1824–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 22 April 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]


24 April, 1824
Coleraine, Londonderry, Ireland


11 March, 1901 (aged 76)
Neutral Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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