Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Alexander McNaughtan (1815–1884)

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Alexander McNaughtan (1815-1884), merchant, was born on 28 November 1815 at Milngavie, Dumbartonshire, Scotland, son of Alexander McNaughtan, United Presbyterian minister, and his wife Janet, née Blackwood. Well educated, he was trained in a firm engaged in the North American trade. At 26 he joined Kerr, Alexander & Co. and was sent to Van Diemen's Land for experience in the Launceston branch. The firm bought wool, whale bone, bark, kangaroo skins, hides and other raw products, in association with Kerr, Bogle & Co., which had started in Launceston in 1834 but soon made its headquarters at Hobart Town. In 1842 Kerr, Alexander & Co. was dissolved and McNaughtan became a partner in Kerr, Bogle & Co. John Bogle had returned to Glasgow in 1839 and Robert Kerr died in Hobart on 15 January 1846 aged 37. McNaughtan took charge in Hobart and on 29 March 1847 married Margaret, the sister of Robert Kerr.

By 1856 McNaughtan had carefully wound up the firm. In the next two years he became a justice of the peace, director of the Union Bank, trustee of St Mary's Hospital and chairman of the Chamber of Commerce. He helped to form the Gaslight Co., arranged the survey of water reticulation in Hobart, organized extensive searches for coal and promoted steamship services on the Derwent River and the east coast. He also made liberal gifts to the High School, Hutchins School, Royal Society, Public Library and Botanical Gardens, and helped to form groups for sponsoring emigration from Scotland. When he left Hobart late in 1858 leading citizens held a meeting to honour him and decided to found a scholarship fund named after him.

In Launceston he founded McNaughtan & Co. with Thomas Brown and John Dunn junior as his partners. On 10 February 1859 the firm contracted to lay a submarine telegraph cable across Bass Strait for £50,000, a third of which was paid by Victoria. The sections from Cape Otway to King Island and from Circular Head to the River Tamar were successful, but unfortunately, storms and rockbeds south of King Island broke the cable soon after it was laid, despite many attempts to find a sandy bottom. A few messages came through late in 1859 but the cable problem was not solved until 1868 when an English company contracted to lay a new cable from Low Head to Cape Schanck for £70,000 and to run and maintain the telegraph until 1888 for £7000 a year, paying the Tasmanian government any excess.

A select committee in Hobart exonerated McNaughtan from any fault and he was paid for his work, but his health was undermined by exposure and worry. He helped to form the Launceston Gas Co. in 1863 and presented a neat conservatory to the Northern Horticultural Gardens. Many landowners sought his help in introducing exotic plants and animals. For some years he was a warden of the Launceston Marine Board and in 1863 gave wise counsel to the select committee on the Deloraine railway. In the depression of 1864 he went bankrupt but managed to pay 19s. 6d. in the £.

Eulogized as a public benefactor and fine citizen, McNaughtan returned to Hobart where he had built a pleasing and unostentatious home in beautiful grounds stretching from Montpelier Street to De Witt Street. He lived there happily with his wife until she died on 20 December 1868. She was buried in the old Presbyterian cemetery in Church Street and given an inscription on one face of the monument to her brother. With no children and his energy spent, McNaughtan returned to his birthplace where he died from heart disease on 6 August 1884.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (House of Assembly, Tasmania), 1856 (35), 1859 (92), 1863 (26, 42), 1864 (92), 1868 (24)
  • Examiner (Launceston), 26, 30 Sept 1884
  • A. Rowntree, ‘Three good men’, Saturday Evening Mercury, 19 Jan 1957.

Citation details

'McNaughtan, Alexander (1815–1884)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 15 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]


28 November, 1815
Milngavie, Dumbartonshire, Scotland


6 August, 1884 (aged 68)
Milngavie, Dumbartonshire, Scotland

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