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Sir Archibald Michie (1813–1899)

by H. L. Hall

This article was published:

Archibald Michie, by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co.

Archibald Michie, by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co.

State Library of Victoria, H29422

Sir Archibald Michie (1813-1899), lawyer and politician, was born at Maida Vale, London, son of Archibald Michie, merchant. Educated at Westminster School, he was admitted to the Middle Temple in 1834 and called to the Bar in 1838. In London he had helped to form the Abolition of Taxes on Knowledge Committee in 1836. He migrated to Sydney and in 1840 married Mary, daughter of Dr John Richardson. On 29 May 1841 he was admitted to the New South Wales barrister roll. His practice flourished despite his other activities. He bought two lots in Brisbane and wrote for the Atlas when it was founded in November 1844. An enthusiastic speaker, he often lectured with immense popularity at the School of Arts but was troubled by a throat affection. To relieve it in 1847 he visited South Australia by sea. Though endorsed by the Anti-transportation League for the Legislative Council seat of Cumberland County he was defeated, but in 1849 was a prominent speaker at the rally against the landing of Hashemy convicts at Sydney. He returned to England but soon afterwards migrated to Canada, then to Sydney and in 1852 to Melbourne.

Admitted to practise in the Supreme Court Michie became an associate of T. T. à Beckett. He was appointed to the Legislative Council in November but resigned in August 1853 to concentrate on his own practice. In 1855 he was one of the barristers who defended the Eureka rebels. He had bought a share in the Melbourne Herald, edited by G. S. Evans, but lost so heavily that he sold out despite his year's earnings of £8000 at the Bar.

In 1856 Michie was elected to the new Legislative Assembly, second of the five members for Melbourne. He worked with such Protestant liberals as R. Heales, J. McCulloch, F. T. Sargood and J. Service. In March 1857 Michie helped O'Shanassy to bring down the Haines ministry but refused to enter O'Shanassy's government because J. L. F. V. Foster had joined it; instead Michie became attorney-general in the reconstructed Haines ministry from 29 April 1857 to 10 March 1858. In a determined effort in 1857 to abolish state aid to church schools, he explained that his support for it in 1852 had been due to 'the transition crisis of social history through which Victoria was then passing'. His bill was passed in the assembly but defeated in the council by one vote; he failed again in 1858 and 1859. He won a St Kilda seat in October and supported Nicholson's land bill, claiming that without it much of the goldfields population would leave Victoria. He lost his seat in 1861 because, according to C. G. Duffy, he neglected the electorate. In 1860 his Victoria Suffering a Recovery had been published but its attack on the idea of 'protection to native industry' did not help his election. He certainly seems to have been an influential spokesman for free trade.

In 1863 Michie became Victoria's first Q.C. In July when the member for Polwarth and South Grenville retired, he won the by-election and in November 1864 recaptured a St Kilda seat. From 4 August 1863 to 18 July 1866 he was minister of justice in the McCulloch ministry although not a member after December 1865. Prominent in debates on the tariff bill and the deadlock over protection, he denied that a tariff with low duties could be called protection; quoting J. S. Mill he asserted that in a new country and new conditions 'a certain measure of protection might not only be necessary but justifiable'. As the appropriation and the tariff bills 'were not unrelated and incongruous matters', he contended that the government's action did not constitute a tack.

Michie was returned as member for Ballarat West and from 8 April 1870 to 19 June 1871 was attorney-general in the third McCulloch ministry. Although he had lost his seat in the January elections, he again stayed in office despite protest by F. Longmore. In August he was sworn in as a Legislative Council member for Central Province, but in May 1872 was given six months' leave because he had lost his voice. In 1873-79 he was agent-general in London for Victoria and was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1878. He returned to Victoria and practised as a barrister but with 'no flashes of the old fire'. He had antagonized solicitors by his attitude to the proposed amalgamation of the legal profession. In four select committees on federal union he had supported Federation. He served on the royal commission on penal and prison discipline in 1870 and was appointed chairman of a royal commission on public instruction in 1881 but resigned. He was also active in the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria.

In 1875 Michie supported C. G. Duffy's suggestion that if Britain became involved in war, Australia should be allowed neutrality, and in 1889 he opposed the notion of Imperial Federation. He lectured at length to a big audience in the Melbourne Town Hall in 1885, strongly advocating the annexation of all New Guinea. Interested in the economic well-being of Victoria he had advocated a Central Bank in 1860 and strongly favoured encouraging immigration in 1870. When the economy collapsed after the land boom, he condemned James Munro for 'bolting' to the safety of the Agent-General's Office in London while his companies went into liquidation. In May 1893 Michie wrote to the Age applauding the efforts of the solicitor-general, Isaac Isaacs, to compel the premier, J. B. Patterson, and the attorney-general, Sir Bryan O'Loghlen, to prosecute Sir Matthew Davies on a charge of issuing a false balance sheet for the Mercantile Bank.

A successful barrister, Michie in about 1858 had bought 73 Chancery Lane where a number of barristers were soon established. He continued to write for the Melbourne Herald and Punch, and for many years was Victorian correspondent for The Times. He continued to lecture on various subjects from Shakespeare to ghosts and published many pamphlets, some of which were reprinted in Readings in Melbourne (London, 1879).

References to his brilliance abound but he never attained the political prominence of some contemporaries, partly because of his large legal practice and partly because his political convictions were not very strong. With 'rare personal honour and … high integrity', he was often too uncompromising and outspoken. A superb parliamentarian, Duffy compared him with Disraeli, and Dr Evans exclaimed in 1857, 'Would to God his judgment and consistency were equal to his genius'. Aged 87 Michie died on 21 June 1899 at St Kilda, survived by his wife, three sons and two daughters. His estate was sworn for probate at £19,700.

Select Bibliography

  • C. G. Duffy, My Life in Two Hemispheres, vol 2 (Lond, 1898)
  • A. G. Austin, Australian Education, 1788-1900 (Melb, 1961)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melb, 1966)
  • C. D. W. Goodwin, Economic Enquiry in Australia (Durham, N. C., 1966)
  • R. L. Knight, Illiberal Liberal (Melb, 1966)
  • A. de Q. Robin, Charles Perry, Bishop of Melbourne (Perth, 1967)
  • A. Dean, A Multitude of Counsellors (Melb, 1968)
  • My Note Book, Feb-Dec 1857
  • Argus (Melbourne), 8 Jan 1885, 23 June 1899
  • Age (Melbourne), 23 June 1899
  • ‘Obituary’, Times (London), 23 June 1899, p 6
  • G. R. Quaife, The Nature of Political Conflict in Victoria 1856-57 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1964)
  • Michie papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • Thomas à Beckett, Memoirs (privately held).

Citation details

H. L. Hall, 'Michie, Sir Archibald (1813–1899)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 22 May 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

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