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Alexander McLeay (1767–1848)

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Alexander McLeay (1767-1848), public servant and entomologist, was born on 24 June 1767 in Ross-shire, Scotland, the son of William Macleay, provost of Wick and deputy-lieutenant of Caithness. He was descended from an ancient family which came from Ulster; at the Reformation the family had substantial landholdings in Scotland, but by loyalty to the Stuarts suffered severe losses after the battle of Culloden.

Alexander had a classical education and went to London, where he became a partner of William Sharp as a wine merchant. On 15 October 1791 at St Dunstan's Church, London, he married Elizabeth, daughter of James Barclay, and in 1795 became chief clerk in the prisoners of war office. After the outbreak of war this office was linked with the Transport Board, of which he became head of the correspondence department and by 1806 secretary; when the board was abolished in 1815 he retired on a pension of £750. In these years McLeay acquired an enduring interest in entomology. He was elected as a fellow by the Linnean Society in 1794 and served as its secretary in 1798-1825. In 1809 he became a fellow of the Royal Society and joined its council in 1824. Among other public positions he was also a director of the British Fisheries Society and was associated with Thomas Telford's engineering projects in the north of Scotland. He prepared a monograph on the genus Paussus, and a variety of Bocconia was named MacLeaya cordata in his honour by Robert Brown. He also established the McLeay Collection, beginning with insects and enlarging it with varied purchases and acquisitions from Brazil, India, North Africa and Australia. By 1825 he was said to have the finest and most extensive collection of any private individual; as a noted scientist he was a corresponding member of several European societies and as a prominent public servant had served on many boards and given evidence in 1812 to the select committee on transportation.

In 1824 Earl Bathurst decided to end the friction between Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane and Major Frederick Goulburn in the administration of New South Wales by recalling both officers and replacing them with General (Sir) Ralph Darling and an experienced civilian assistant. After some persuasion by Bathurst McLeay was induced to accept appointment on 14 June 1825 as colonial secretary of New South Wales, at a salary of £2000. He also agreed to surrender the fees of his office on condition that his pension from the Transport Board was continued, though the British Treasury insisted on its payment from colonial funds.

With his wife, six daughters and his collection McLeay sailed in the Marquis of Hastings and arrived at Sydney in January 1826. Although John Macarthur junior had feared that he was too old and that his private pursuits would interfere with the duties of his office, McLeay was soon working twelve hours a day in conducting all the official correspondence, acting as 'the general medium of Communication' between governor and colonists and assisting in countless other details of government. In March he was made a magistrate and in July a member of the Executive and Legislative Councils. He became a member of the Board of General Purposes through which the colony's public administration was thoroughly reorganized and of the Land Board which implemented new regulations for the granting of land and the assignment of convict servants. He also served on many other public committees and inquiries, and became president of the Australian Museum, the Benevolent Society and the Sydney Dispensary, and vice-patron of the Agricultural Society. In 1826 he began a long association with the Subscription Library by chairing its first meeting; seventeen years later as president of its board he laid the foundation stone of the Public Library. A staunch Tory, he got on well with Darling, who commended him to the Colonial Office for labouring 'heartily and cheerfully, without intermission' and gave him such land grants as public servants were then entitled to. These included 54 acres (22 ha) at Elizabeth Bay and 2560 acres (1036 ha) in Argyle County, at Byalla, to which he added 863 acres (349 ha) by purchase. At Brownlow Hill he bought 2000 acres (809 ha) in 1829, and 1663 acres (673 ha) of the old government cattle station were reserved for him by Darling and purchased in 1841. McLeay bought another reserve of 2560 acres (1036 ha) at Ulladulla in 1840 and later he held the rights to several runs on the Murrumbidgee and Richmond Rivers.

To avoid repetition of earlier friction in high places in the colony McLeay had been specifically instructed to 'have no pretension to controul [the governor's] judgement or to direct [his] decision in any particular case'. He obeyed this order but inevitably shared in the growing unpopularity of Darling. In 1826 when Sudds and Thompson were heavily ironed and drummed out of their regiment McLeay's veracity was doubted and his letter to the Australian was bitterly criticized. Next year his prominence in the unsuccessful attempt to restrain the 'Rascally News Papers' brought even more outspoken criticism and in Darling's presence he asked Chief Justice (Sir) Francis Forbes personally to hear a libel suit against the Australian, hoping thereby to persuade Forbes to identify himself with the government. With judicial propriety Forbes rejected the suggestion and the case was dropped, but soon afterwards, when Robert Wardell and William Charles Wentworth sought to file a criminal information against McLeay, Forbes ruled that no public benefit could arise from it. On 27 September 1828 in the Sydney Monitor Edward Smith Hall took McLeay to task for accepting his Transport Board pension and choice land grants for himself and his family and doubling the costs of his department, and in March 1829 Wentworth's long impeachment of Darling purported to show the colonial secretary as the governor's accessory in a régime of 'fraud, falsehood and Cruelty'. These and other charges were carried to London and aired there by Joseph Hume. Although they were vigorously denied by Darling it was rumoured in Sydney that both Darling and McLeay were to be recalled. In the event Darling served his six year term and on his departure in 1831 reported so warmly on McLeay's competence and loyalty that the Colonial Office did not cut his salary in the general retrenchment after the Whigs took office, although Goderich ordered that McLeay's official residence was to be turned into government offices and that he must pay rent until his own house was built.

Under Sir Richard Bourke McLeay continued to work zealously. He shared the Whig governor's tolerance of Wesleyans and Quakers, but not his favourable attitude to emancipists, whom McLeay thought 'absolutely unfit to sit on any Jury on account of their ignorance and their drunken and immoral habits'. The press continued to criticize him as leader of the Tory or exclusive faction and in the Legislative Council members protested at his pension being charged to colonial funds; Bourke reported to London that strong and widespread feelings against it were revived each year when the estimates were debated. In July 1835, wearied by pinpricks but unyielding, McLeay told the council, 'it is not probable that I shall be long in office'. Bourke promptly reported to the Colonial Office that he supposed McLeay would publicly announce his retirement within a year, and nominated his own son-in-law, (Sir) Edward Deas Thomson, to replace him, arguing that the reputation and personal ease of any governor were much influenced by the ability and confidence of his colonial secretary. In London Glenelg gazetted Thomson's appointment and sent instructions to Bourke to allow McLeay, in consideration of his long public service, to name his own date for retirement. Before this dispatch reached Sydney McLeay heard of Thomson's promotion from friends in England. At his request he was shown the relevant letters and then insisted that his words to council had been misrepresented and that he had no intention of retiring. At that time the colony was in uproar over Bourke's National Schools bill. McLeay's determined hostility to it in and outside the Legislative Council was, according to Bourke, the cause of their final rupture. Notified that Thomson would assume duty in 1837 McLeay quitted his office on 2 January under protest. In bitter letters Bourke avowed a sincere respect for McLeay's private character but, to cover his own blunder, reported to the Colonial Office that he suspected McLeay of 'indifference and delays and perhaps the infidelities of office' in his release of official papers to the press; 'his constant intercourse and intimacy with the principal opponents of my Government may have led the Colonists to believe that its secrets were not best preserved nor its objects promoted in his office'. In return McLeay denied the truth of these suspicions but, while admitting that he had openly opposed the governor on three other issues beside National education, declared that he deserved credit for his moderation. The local press divided on the question, some supporting Bourke, others McLeay. The Monitor half-heartedly took Bourke's part 'on account of political consistency', dredged up unhappy memories of Darling's vengeful spirit, but concluded that honours were even.

In 1838, after Bourke was recalled, McLeay reprinted with more documents his pamphlet, Correspondence Between Major-Gen. Sir Richard Bourke … and Alexander McLeay, first published in 1836 in Sydney. In April 1838 he sent copies of it to Governor Gipps and six months later claimed a compensation of £4000 for injurious misrepresentation by Bourke. To settle this claim the Colonial Office recommended a pension of £250 for McLeay. A majority in the Legislative Council thought this sum 'totally inadequate as a compensation for his loss of office' and proposed that he be given a gratuity equal to two years of his earlier salary. However, the Colonial Office accepted Gipps's recommendation that McLeay should receive £1750 in commutation of his colonial pension.

Meanwhile McLeay had completed his house at Elizabeth Bay in 1837 and his garden became famous for its rare plants. He continued to send specimens to the Royal and Linnean Societies, experimented in horticulture at Brownlow Hill, gave active support to the Sydney Botanic Garden and found time to serve on charitable committees and missionary societies. In 1842 he was presented with a silver 'candelabrum' by more than five hundred leading colonists to mark his 'great moral worth … integrity, ability and zeal'. It was inscribed with his family motto Spes anchora vitae, and was later presented to the New South Wales parliament by his descendants.

In November 1842 he stood for election to the first City Council in Sydney but was unsuccessful. In July 1843 he was returned for Gloucester, Macquarie and Stanley to the first part-elective Legislative Council. In August he was chosen as Speaker, much to the annoyance of Wentworth who commented severely on his age and debility, but his fellow conservatives considered him the elder statesman of the council. The Speaker's salary had been fixed at £750 but McLeay received only £500 because of the pension he had commuted. Another £250 was deducted from his Transport Board pension, the payment of which had reverted to the British Treasury in 1837. When McLeay resigned as Speaker in May 1846 the Treasury continued this deduction, but the Legislative Council appealed to the Queen and McLeay's full pension was restored with compensation for reductions while he was Speaker.

In December 1844 Governor Sir George Gipps had considered McLeay eligible for an order of merit, but regretted that he was understood to be in 'pecuniary embarrassment'. This was true, for he had found it difficult to reduce his costs after the loss of his salary as colonial secretary. Despite high prices for wool all his properties were mortgaged and only the arrival of his eldest son, William Sharp, in 1839 saved him from insolvency in the depression of the early 1840s. William took over his father's liabilities and introduced the family to measures of economy which included the subdivision and sale of most of the Elizabeth Bay property. In April 1846 McLeay advertised for sale his library, 4000 of the 'best works on Theology, Biography, History, Botany, Medicine, Arts, Sciences, Mathematics, Education, and every branch of polite literature'. After his wife died on 13 August 1847, McLeay spent much time visiting his married daughters. After a carriage accident he died on 18 July 1848; his funeral at St James's Church, Sydney, was attended by many government officers.

Of his seventeen children, William Sharp was a noted naturalist, George an explorer and politician, and James Robert (1811-1892) secretary of the commission for the suppression of the slave trade in Cape Colony. Several of his daughters, with magnificent weddings, married into established colonial families: Margaret (b.1802) to Archibald Clunes Innes in 1829; Christiana Susan (b.1799) to Captain William Dumaresq in 1830; and Barbara Isabella (b.1797) to Pieter Laurentz Campbell in 1834. Through Rosa Roberta, who married Arthur Pooley Onslow in 1832, the Elizabeth Bay property passed into the hands of the Macarthur-Onslow family.

Alexander McLeay's reputation suffered from his zeal in carrying out the mandates of Darling and from his opposition to Bourke, and his unshakeable conservatism was later condemned by a few illiberal historians, although his competence and ability as a public servant were acknowledged by responsible contemporaries in London and Sydney. Long before he died public feeling had taken a favourable direction towards him and on his retirement as Speaker many grateful tributes were paid to him even by his former enemies, including Wentworth. He was loved and revered by his friends and inspired the loyalty of all who worked closely with him. As a man of science his name was respected far beyond the borders of New South Wales. His share in encouraging Australian exploration has been underestimated, though a river, mountain range, island and many streets bear his name. His scientific collection, augmented by his sons and nephew, was transferred to the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney in 1890.

A portrait is in the Dixson Gallery, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 11-26
  • J. J. Fletcher, ‘The Society's Heritage from the Macleays’, Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, vol 45, part 4, 1920, pp 567-635
  • Sydney Gazette, 5 Jan 1826, 2 Jan, 7 Mar 1828
  • Sydney Monitor, 18, 20 Jan, 6 Mar 1837
  • Australian, 8 June 1841
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Nov 1842, 19 July, 2 Aug 1843
  • manuscript catalogue under A. McLeay (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

'McLeay, Alexander (1767–1848)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Macleay, Alexander

24 June, 1767
Ross, Scotland


18 July, 1848 (aged 81)
New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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