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James McMeckan (1809–1890)

by G. R. Henning

This article was published:

James McMeckan (1809-1890), master mariner, shipowner and pastoralist, was born in Wigtonshire, Scotland, son of James McMeckan, farmer, and his wife Grace, née Carth. The family had owned the larger part of the parish of Kirkcolm for over 300 years. Appropriately educated, James at 14 sought a maritime career. In 1829 he was apprenticed to a London shipping firm, Brocklebank & Rolt. He became a thoroughly practical seaman, typical of the sailing age. For twenty years he led a varied career in the merchant marine and the navy. His experience included convict transportation, the London-Hobart run and the Australian coastal trade. In 1840 he had become a master and in 1849 transferred to the new Tasmanian-built barque Mary Brock engaged in a regular Melbourne-Adelaide service. He was in command when she was wrecked on the South Australian coast in 1852.

McMeckan did not return to the sea and as the Victorian goldfields had been opened he grasped the opportunity to enter business. In 1853 with J. H. Blackwood as junior partner he established McMeckan, Blackwood & Co. and commenced operations as shipping agents and general merchants. McMeckan had exclusive control over the shipping side of the business and Blackwood handled the rest. The goldfields' demand for wheat and flour soon gave the new firm trading links with the South Australian miller, Samuel White. The company helped to establish a regular steamship service between Melbourne and Adelaide in 1854 when they obtained the agency for the new 301-ton steamer Havilah, which was commanded and part-owned by McMeckan's younger brother Hugh. The success of the weekly service brought a mail contract from the two colonial governments and further tonnage was added to the agency. The partners bought the Queen, the first steamer on their own account, in 1856.

During the 1860s the firm successfully controlled the Melbourne-Adelaide trade. They added another four steamers either by outright purchase or together with their Adelaide associates. They branched out into New Zealand services commencing with passengers, general cargo, mail and livestock to Dunedin in 1860. A year later the Otago gold rush offered enormous opportunities for the direct Melbourne-Port Chalmers traffic and within three months 15,500 prospectors had been landed. Late in 1864 gold was discovered at Hokitika on the west coast of the South Island, and the Australasian trade received another great stimulus. The ships which the firm bought or chartered in order to exploit the expanding commerce gave them pre-eminence in the trans-Tasman trades.

The firm retained its hold over the Melbourne-Adelaide trade till the mid-1870s. It had dominated the Northern Territory trade carrying supplies for the overland telegraph construction in 1871-72 and the later gold and copper miners. However, the Adelaide Steamship Co. was formed in 1875 and it created serious competition in the Melbourne-Adelaide trade; in 1877 the partners sold two steamships and their interests in this run to the Adelaide company. Unfortunately several company ships were wrecked in the 1870s and the partners were faced with buying ships equal to those of their other new opponent, the enterprising Union Steam Ship Co. of New Zealand. In 1878 McMeckan, Blackwood & Co. sold the New Zealand business and the four most modern ships to Union Steam and thereafter acted as its agent. As a shipping agency the firm was wound up in 1883 and the principals concentrated on their pastoral properties in the Riverina, and the Charlton district, Victoria.

McMeckan had refused various civic and public positions because of deafness and inability to serve two masters despite his sanguine temperament. He gave the business undivided attention and his shrewdness, integrity and punctiliousness won him high esteem from a large circle of friends and acquaintances. Unmarried, he died at Corsewell, Hawthorn, on 23 May 1890, aged 81, and was survived by several relations in the colony. In his honour two nephews and two nieces gave £10,000 to Scotch College in 1922 for building McMeckan House for boarders.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Franklyn, A Glance at Australia in 1880 (Melb, 1881)
  • T. W. H. Leavitt and W. D. Lilburn (eds), The Jubilee History of Victoria and Melbourne, vol 1 (Melb, 1888)
  • W. A. Laxon, ‘The Blue Emu at sea’, Sea Breezes (Melbourne), 41 (1967)
  • Age (Melbourne), 26 May 1890
  • Argus (Melbourne), 26 May 1890
  • Australasian, 14 June, 31 Dec 1890, 18, 25 July, 1, 8 Aug 1891.

Citation details

G. R. Henning, 'McMeckan, James (1809–1890)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 17 July 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]


Wigtownshire, Scotland


23 May, 1890 (aged ~ 81)
Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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