Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Alexander Grant McLean (1824–1862)

by C. Davis

This article was published:

Alexander Grant McLean (1824-1862), surveyor-general, was born in Scotland, the second son of Captain John Leyburn Maclean, principal superintendent of convicts (1837-55), and his wife Jane Eliza, née Grant. He arrived in Sydney with his family in the Earl Durham on 31 August 1837. In April 1842 Governor Gipps was asked by Surveyor-General Sir Thomas Mitchell to fill a vacancy in his department by appointing McLean who had long been studying plan drawing and doing useful work. He was appointed on 11 May, became chief draftsman in 1856 and was secretary to the Court of Claims in 1854-59. In 1855 he told the commission into the Surveyor-General's Department of drafting and surveying procedures and his objection to the large number of temporary staff. At the 1859 select committee on the Survey Department he attributed the department's inefficiency to lack of supervision and the dual system of staff and licensed surveyors.

In August the minister for lands, John Robertson, reorganized the Survey Department and made McLean acting surveyor-general on 12 August. Robertson believed that although McLean lacked field experience he had ability and long departmental experience. Instructed to propose reforms, McLean argued that an efficient and energetic administration was required, not radical changes. He rearranged the duties of his staff, transferred some to the Department of Lands and appointed district surveyors to supervise licensed surveyors. In January 1861 Governor Denison severely criticized the unprofessionalism of the surveyors-general and the inaccuracy of their methods. He strongly advocated a trigonometrical survey but McLean believed that cost outweighed its merits. He authorized the compilation of a map of New South Wales which was published in 1861. His work facilitated the introduction of Robertson's Land Acts. On 1 November 1861 he was appointed surveyor-general.

An original member of the volunteer movements of 1854 and 1860 McLean attained the rank of captain. On 6 April 1861 at St Anne's Church, Ryde, he married Catherine, daughter of Captain John Woore. For some time he had suffered from Bright's disease aggravated by overwork. On medical advice he took leave in August 1862 to stay with E. K. Cox at Fernhill, Mulgoa. His condition worsened and he died on 28 September at Fernhill aged 38 and was buried in St Thomas's Anglican church-yard. He was survived by his wife and an infant daughter. He had failed to establish efficiency or to overcome the arrears of work, but his energy, attention to detail and obliging manner raised the department in popular esteem, something his more qualified predecessor had failed to achieve.

A town near Grafton is named after him. Portraits are in the Mitchell Library and the Department of Lands.

Select Bibliography

  • Returns of the Colony of New South Wales, 1842-62
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1855, 2, 43
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1858-59, 2, 10
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Sept 1837, 10 Apr 1861, 29 Sept–7 Oct 1862
  • Sydney Mail, 27 Sept–11 Oct 1862
  • Colonial Secretary's in-letters, 42/3549 (NSWA)
  • Executive Council NSW minutes, 1 Aug 1859, 29 Oct 1861 (State Records New South Wales)
  • Lands Dept in-letters, 59/3466, 61/4087, surveyor-general, 1859-62 (State Records New South Wales)
  • Lands Dept out-letters, surveyor-general ,1859-61 (State Records New South Wales)
  • Woore papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 201/517.

Citation details

C. Davis, 'McLean, Alexander Grant (1824–1862)', 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]




28 September, 1862 (aged ~ 38)
Mulgoa, New South Wales, Australia

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