Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Donald McLean (1820–1866)

by D. B. Waterson

This article was published:

John Donald McLean (1820-1866), squatter and politician, was born at Condrae House, Kilmuir, Isle of Skye, Scotland, youngest son of Donald McLean, landowner, and his wife Flora, née Nicholson. His father became a founding director of the Australian Agricultural Co. in 1824.

Educated at Kilmuir Parish School, McLean migrated to Sydney with his brother and sister in 1837. After pastoral experience on the Clarence River he moved to the Darling Downs in 1848 and bought Westbrook station in 1853. Before his death he had acquired partnerships in some fifty southern and western Queensland runs, 'more than any other private individual in the country'. He also had extensive shipping and mercantile interests in New South Wales. On 13 September 1855 at St Phillip's Church, Sydney, he had married Mary Strutt and for three years they toured Europe. In 1860 he leased Hawthornden House, Sydney, and in 1865 built the mansion, Quiraing, at Edgecliff for £16,000.

A friend of Hodgson, Watts and other 'Pure Merinos', McLean represented Eastern Downs in the Queensland Legislative Assembly from May 1862 to December 1866. At first he was described as 'more likely to be influenced by his interests than his intellect' and 'a flunkey unable to speak, much less think for himself'. His sober influence grew slowly, but his land order and family purchases on the Drayton Agricultural Reserve displayed little care for legislative intentions or popular feeling. In a classic statement he scorned free selection as 'subversive of the true principles of civilization', disastrous for the revenue, productive of 'hordes of thieves and robbers' and economically fallacious. Realizing the force of the urban political threat, he claimed that while the squatters 'had run a race and won it, that was no reason why they should be prevented from running any more'.

A member of the select committee in the financial emergency of 1866, McLean became treasurer on 21 July after opposition by Governor Bowen and the banks against Macalister's legal tender note issue proposals had led to the collapse of the ministry. McLean's managerial experience and financial success had unexpectedly carried him into an office which he claimed to be 'a duty which I owe to my adopted country … to protect [its] credit'. Certainly his respectability, shrewdness and soundness helped to stabilize the interim Herbert ministry and ensured public confidence at a critical time. However, the price was high. The Leasing Act of 1866 which then 'typified all that was wrong with land policy' was the Pure Merinos price for inclusion of their representatives in the succeeding Macalister government. Before his policies could be seriously criticized McLean fell from his horse and died from concussion of the brain on 16 December 1866. He was buried at Westbrook. A parish near Toowoomba is named after him.

McLean was survived by his wife and seven children. His probate was sworn at £69,000 in Queensland and £30,000 in New South Wales. He left substantial legacies to relations and most of his estate to his wife. In a significant decision of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, affirmed by the Privy Council in 1878, his legatees were exempted from Queensland stamp duties because his family lived in Sydney and his own sojourn at the Queensland Club and Westbrook in 1862-66 did not determine residence.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1866, 365-69, 571
  • Darling Downs Gazette, 8 May 1862, 18 Dec 1866
  • Toowoomba Chronicle, 8 Apr 1876
  • Brisbane Courier, 3 May 1878.

Citation details

D. B. Waterson, 'McLean, John Donald (1820–1866)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 27 February 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]


Kilmuir, Inverness-shire, Scotland


16 December, 1866 (aged ~ 46)
Westbrook, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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