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John McLerie (1809–1874)

by Hazel King

This article was published:

John McLerie (1809-1874), by unknown photographer

John McLerie (1809-1874), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 10511

John McLerie (1809-1874), soldier and police officer, was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, and educated in Caithness. He enlisted early as a private in the Scots Fusilier Guards. Diligent, intelligent and literate he became an orderly clerk at the War Office, London. Commissioned in 1838 as ensign and adjutant of the 58th Regiment, he was promoted lieutenant on 27 June 1841.

In October 1844 McLerie arrived at Hobart Town in the transport Emily. He soon transferred to the regimental headquarters in Sydney. In 1845-47 he served with his regiment in the first Maori war in New Zealand, and on his return to Sydney was appointed adjutant and paymaster of the New South Wales Mounted Police Force on 1 May with an extra salary of £109 10s. In 1848 the press and the Legislative Council criticized the mounted police as a military force no longer suited to the character of the colony. McLerie's post was reduced. On 24 September 1849 he became principal gaoler in Sydney and, after his retirement from the army, superintendent of police on 1 October 1850. He faced many problems: the Sydney police were inadequate in numbers and training and their repute had been tarnished by the ignominious removal of several of their former heads after much public scandal. In Sydney gangs of hooligans roamed the streets at will and on 1 January the police had failed to quell a serious riot. A select committee of the Legislative Council recommended a thorough reorganization of the police. The Police Regulation Act unified the force under an inspector-general and McLerie, who had already improved the Sydney police, was appointed provincial inspector for the city and suburbs of Sydney. He was also visiting magistrate at Darlinghurst gaol and Cockatoo Island; his salary totalled £500.

Reorganization of the police was interrupted by the discovery of gold and further delayed when the Police Act was disallowed in London on a technicality. In 1852 an amendment Act reduced control by the inspector-general, but McLerie took over the office on 28 October 1856 at the salary of £800 and a house. He was also captain and commandant of the Yeomanry Cavalry. The 1862 Police Regulation Act again brought the force under the centralized control of the inspector-general and increased his executive powers. By 1874, mainly because of his efforts, the police had gained public confidence by controlling most bushranging. He had been ill when H. O'Farrell attempted to assassinate the Duke of Edinburgh, but believed that O'Farrell had accomplices in America or Ireland. McLerie had risen from the ranks and won the respect and affection of his men who familiarly called him 'the General'.

A prominent Freemason, McLerie was substitute provincial grand master of St Andrew's Lodge. He was a founder of the Society for the Relief of Destitute Children, a committee member of the Benevolent Asylum and the Sydney Female Refuge and a trustee of the Savings' Bank of New South Wales. In spare time he had built up a noted numismatic collection. He died from chronic bronchitis at Pitt Street South on 6 October 1874 and was buried in the Camperdown cemetery after a service at Christ Church St Laurence conducted by the bishop of Sydney. He was survived by his wife Jemima, née Dillinger, whom he had married in England, and by four sons and a daughter. His goods were sworn for probate at £1000. Posthumously he was awarded one of the special medals struck to honour those who had helped to suppress bushranging. A granite monument designed by the colonial architect, James Barnet, was erected over his grave by his men.

Select Bibliography

  • Select Committee on Destitute Children, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1854, 2, 1
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1861, 1, 919, 1234, 1868-69, 1, 797, 897, 1872-73, 3, 1528, Public Charities Com, 1873-74, 6, 2nd report, 236, 3rd report 47
  • H. King, ‘Some aspects of police administration in New South Wales, 1825-1851’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 42 (1956)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Oct 1874
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 17 Oct 1874
  • Town and Country Journal, 24 Oct 1874
  • Bulletin, 4 June 1881
  • manuscript catalogue under J. McLerie (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Hazel King, 'McLerie, John (1809–1874)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 14 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

John McLerie (1809-1874), by unknown photographer

John McLerie (1809-1874), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 10511

Life Summary [details]


Ayrshire, Scotland


6 October, 1874 (aged ~ 65)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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