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Alexander Melrose (1865–1944)

by Suzanne Edgar

This article was published:

Alexander Melrose (1865-1944), solicitor, writer and patron of the arts, was born on 16 May 1865 at Mount Pleasant, South Australia, eighth child of Scottish-born parents George Melrose, sheep-farmer, and his wife Euphemia, née Thomson. (Sir) John Melrose was his elder brother; Charles James Melrose and (Sir) Stanley Murray were his nephews. Alex was educated at Prince Alfred College (1877-82) and the University of Adelaide (LL.B., 1886). Articled to (Sir) Josiah Symon in 1883, he was admitted to the Bar on 23 July 1886 and practised (from 1890) as a solicitor, initially with Robert Homburg and later with Homburg's son. The partnership continued almost until Melrose's death.

A bespectacled, quiet and retiring bachelor, Melrose joined the Adelaide Club in 1898. He was a lively writer whose literary heroes were Thomas Carlyle, George Bernard Shaw and G. K. Chesterton. Melrose's early work appeared in Adelaide newspapers. As 'A. [or Alex] Somerville', he wrote plays, A Woman Unknown, The Prince Peter's Half-mile, The Usual Three, and The Adventure of an Adventuress which was performed by the Adelaide Repertory Theatre company on 17 November 1917 in the Queen's Hall and published that year in Melbourne. He was a governor of the Botanic Garden, Adelaide (from 1927), and of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of South Australia (1928-40). In 1929 Melrose was commissioned by the State government to report on literature and the fine arts in North America, Europe and Britain. He wrote a number of poems about his travels and expressed his homesickness in 'The Sound of Water Running in the Tank' and 'Nostalgia'.

After Melrose returned to Adelaide, he became president (1930) of the South Australian branch of the Royal Institution for the Blind; his brother John had lost his sight in 1898. During the 1930s Melrose adopted the pseudonym, 'Bill O'C', and wrote verse for the Bulletin that was characterized by a racy larrikinism; he also published Song and Slapstick (1934) which included a satirical view of the law. In 1936 he composed the centenary tribute, To the Pioneers, a fund-raising publication for the Pioneers' Association of South Australia, of which he was elected vice-president (1937). From 1921 Melrose had donated money for annual prizes that were presented under the auspices of the (Royal) South Australian Society of Arts. He gave £10,000 in 1934 for extensions to the newly constituted National Gallery of South Australia and chaired (1940-44) its board. In 1936 he was awarded the medal of the Society of Artists, Sydney, in recognition of his services to art.

Miss Alice Effie Ferguson, Melrose's niece, lived with him and cared for him at Chiverton, Wattle Park. He died there on 2 September 1944 and was buried in the Church of England cemetery, Mount Pleasant; his estate was sworn for probate in South Australia and New South Wales at £279,906. He bequeathed most of his collection of paintings to the N.G.S.A. Every three years between 1949 and 1967 the society awarded the Melrose prize for portrait or figure painting.

Select Bibliography

  • Board of Governors of Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of South Australia, Annual Report, 1928-29
  • National Gallery of South Australia, Bulletin, 6 (1944), no 2, 11 (1949), no 1
  • Art Gallery Board of South Australia, Annual Report, 1945-46
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 19 Nov 1917, 4 Sept 1944
  • Mail (Adelaide), 2 Sept 1944
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 7 Sept 1944
  • National Gallery of South Australia, minutes, 1944-49
  • Adelaide Repertory Theatre, programmes (Performing Arts Collection, Adelaide Festival Centre).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar, 'Melrose, Alexander (1865–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Bill O'C
  • Somerville, Alex

16 May, 1865
Mount Pleasant, South Australia, Australia


2 September, 1944 (aged 79)
Wattle Park, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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