John Macarthur: Who gave this country wool [by Professor Ernest Scott , 27 May 1939]

[Editor: This is part two of the “Men who made Australia” series written by Professor Ernest Scott.]

Men who made Australia — No. 2

John Macarthur

Who gave this country wool

By Professor Ernest Scott

This is the second article in the series, “Men Who Made Australia,” by Professor Ernest Scott. The story of John Macarthur is the story of the foundation of Australia’s wool industry. It is something to fire the imagination. The first article, published last Saturday, dealt with Matthew Flinders.

“Experience has convinced every man in this colony that there are no resources which art, cunning, impudence and a pair of basilisk eyes can afford, that he does not put in practice.”

That unflattering character was etched in a private letter by Philip Gidley King, then Acting-Governor of New South Wales, in 1801; and it refers to John Macarthur. King’s predecessor, John Hunter, wrote of him that “scarcely anything short of the full power of the Governor would be considered by this person as sufficient.” The fourth Governor, Bligh, was the victim of the famous mutiny which Macarthur engineered; and Bligh described him as “the extraordinary Hydra of New South Wales, differing only from the mythological description of that Serpent by affixing six of his heads upon the shoulders of others he had prepared lor them.” But the next Governor, Macquarie. who formed an acquaintance with Macarthur, several years later, certified that ‘‘he had always conducted himself with the utmost propriety.” By Macquarie’s time, however, Macarthur had got nearly all he wanted, and was looked upon as the man who, more than any other, was the real founder of the country’s fortunes.

Elizabeth Farm

Macarthur’s career for 20 years from his arrival as an officer of the New South Wales Corps in 1790, was continually tempestuous. He fought a duel with his commanding officer; was frequently engaged in bitter quarrels, particularly with persons in authority; was engaged in some trading adventures which notoriously tended to the depravity of private life and the public welfare; and he was temperamentally defiant and masterful.

His courage was such that no risk was too great for him to face to overcome obstacles to his designs. He was well aware that his part in the Bligh mutiny put him in danger of being convicted for a crime. But, being in the quarrel, it was not in his nature to flinch from possible consequences. He persistently “lived dangerously,” and he cut his way through to success every time. Withal, he was kind and charming in his domestic circle, well read, acutely intelligent, a firm friend to those he liked, but a relentless enemy.

The first special duty assigned to Macarthur was that of inspector of public works. “I find,” reported Lieutenant-Governor Gross, who directed affairs after the departure of Governor Phillip, “by the assistance of this officer that we get a great deal more done than we used to do, and that the work in general is much better done.” He was 26 years of age then, an energetic lieutenant with a preference for constructive employment. The shortage of food made it necessary that enough should be produced to supply the colony; for it had happened several times through failure of ships to arrive in time that starvation point was reached. An offer was therefore made to officers that 100 acres should be granted to those who cleared such an area at their own expense, with the promise of 100 acres more to the officer who first cleared and cultivated 50 acres. John Macarthur won that prize. He thus became the owner of 200 acres, “on the south side of the creek leading to Paramatta.”


That was the beginning of Macarthur’s career as a landowner. He called the property Elizabeth Farm, after his wife. The first plough ever used in Australia was worked on that farm. Here he grew food-crops and bred animals to supply the settlement. Later, when the idea of breeding sheep for wool took possession of his mind, he would not allow any to be killed for food; that would be “extravagant;” but with the aid of greyhounds, kangaroos were provided for table, and wild duck were shot.

At home, then and always, he was a very different man from what might have been expected from his frequently turbulent relations with official people. “I can truly say,” wrote Mrs. Macarthur to a friend in England, “no two people on earth can be happier than we are. In Mr. Macarthur’s society I experience the tenderest affections of a husband who is instructive and cheerful as a companion. He is an indulgent father, beloved as a master, and universally respected for the integrity of his character.”

Macarthur commenced his experiments in sheep-breeding by crossing a small flock imported from Bengal with a few Irish sheep. The Indian sheep produced a coarse hair; the Irish a wool of poor quality. The crossing of the two strains resulted in fleeces of mingled hair and wool. “This circumstance,” he recorded, “originated the idea of producing fine wool in New South Wales.”

When two ships were being sent to South Africa in 1796 to purchase provisions, Macarthur requested their commanders to enquire whether they could buy some good wool-bearing sheep. They brought back a number of Merinos, which were acquired by Macarthur and some other Sydney men. But he was the only one of them who kept the breed pure, and improved it by further purchases of good stock. The other purchasers were tempted by tbe high price of mutton to use the Merinos and their progeny for the meat-market; with tbe result that within a few years the only man who had kept the descendants of the Cape Merinos for wool production, and had still further improved the fleeces by careful breeding, was Macarthur. In four years he was able to take to England specimens of his wool, which cloth weavers reported to be superior to any which they had ever handled before.

Thus encouraged, Macarthur resigned his commission as an officer, and, as he said, “determined to devote my attention to the improvement of my flocks.” He bought rams and ewes from the Merino flock of King George III, bought more land in New South Wales; and, pursuing his breeding policy with intelligence and knowledge augmented by experience, was at length able to supply the English market with quantities of wool which, as an expert told a special committee of the House of Lords, “made the finest cloth that had ever been seen in England.”

Macarthur’s opportunity

Macarthur’s production of fine wool was coincident with a decline in the quantity and quality of English wool during the Napoleonic wars. The Government was seriously concerned because the cloth trade had become absolutely dependent upon wool grown in Spain and Germany. Consequently there was a strong motive for encouraging the man who had shown that wool of the best quality could be produced in New South Wales. The Secretary of State sent out a direction that Macarthur was to be granted 5,000 acres for the extension of his activities. He knew exactly where he wished to select the land, for he had thoroughly explored the country between Paramatta and the Blue Mountains. So far did he justify the confidence reposed in him that three years later a bale of Macarthur wool was sold in London for the fancy price of 10 4 a pound.

This was the land grant which, having been made in Governor King’s term, afterwards aroused the anger of Governor Bligh, and commenced that feud between him and Macarthur which culminated in the famous mutiny. Yet no grant of land up to this time had been made to better purpose. It was made to the man who had displayed more originality and enterprise than any other in New South Wales, and who in fact had initiated Australia’s first important industry — that industry, too, upon which her fortunes still very largely depend.

Macarthur related in evidence before a tribunal in London that quite early after Bligh’s arrival in the colony he mentioned his sheep farming, when the Governor exclaimed. “What have I to do with your sheep, sir? What have I to do with your cattle? Are you to have such flocks of sheep and such herds of cattle as no man ever heard of before? No, sir! I have heard of your concerns, sir. You have got 5,000 acres of land in the finest situation in the country, but by God you shan’t keep it.”

Macarthur reminded him that the land had been granted by the Secretary of State in the British Government on the recommendation of the Privy Council, whereupon Bligh replied, “Damn the Privy Council and damn the Secretary of State, too. He commands at home; I command here.” It is true that Bligh denied later that he used the words, saying that he could not “persuade himself that he ever did” utter anything “disrespectful or contemptuous of those honorable and noble persons.”

But the language attributed to him was akin to expressions he had used on several recorded occasions and his biographer, Dr. G. Mackaness, is of opinion that “it seems tolerably certain that some such altercation did take place.”

Liberality “repaid”

A more important point is that Bligh did not deny that he had threatened that Macarthur should not keep the land which had been granted to him. Yet Mr. Commissioner Bigge, who was sent out by the British Government to report upon New South Wales 14 years later, and was severely critical about many things, wrote concerning Macarthur that “by the improvements he has made in the value of his fleeces he has well repaid the liberality of His Majesty s Government.”

In the same year as Bigge reported the Society of Arts in London awarded Macarthur two gold medals for importing wool of such quality as had never been known by the English cloth trade before. Even Sir Joseph Banks, who had previously used his influence — fortunately in vain— against granting land to Macarthur for “a mere theoretical speculation,” now wanted to found a company which was to be granted a million acres and be managed by Macarthur. But John, the stiffest of individualists, would have nothing to do with any syndicate.

The Bligh mutiny is a sensational feature in the early history of Australia; and there is no doubt that Macarthur was the principal instrument in inciting it. He was fully aware of the seriousness of what he did. The deposition of a governor by force might be determined to be treasonable, and certainly the consequences were likely to be ruinous to those convicted of being authors of the revolt. Why did Macarthur risk everything on the overthrow of Bligh? Injustices of which he and others complained might lead to quarrels, but there was a gulf of difference between a quarrel and a rebellion.

Bligh’s threat to prevent the expansion of Macarthur’s opportunities for producing fine wool was sufficient to occasion the leaping of that gulf. Wool growing was his ruling passion, and his fury was provoked by the Governor’s expressed and evident intention to block his progress. The consequences, to the long run, were not ill for Macurthur. The wool which was shipped from his land convinced the Government that this man was doing a great thing not only for Australia but for the English cloth industry. He had been mainly instrumental in opening a way to self-reliant prosperity in the one country and the revival of a decayed industry in the other. Although, therefore, Macarthur went to England, and it was within the power of the Government to charge him with being a ringleader in the mutiny, he was never brought to trial; and, what is more, the Government paid his passage back to Australia and gave him free tonnage for a cargo of commodities. So that the Government did not merely whitewash the violent incident; it gilded it.


A few months ago at the conclusion of the Conference on Imperial Relations at Lapstone, New South Wales, Mr. Ernest Beven made one of the valedictory speeches. In the course of it he said that one of the things which had interested him much in Australia, was the pen of descendants of John Macarthur’s original sheep, shown to the members of the Conference one afternoon, by their hostess. Miss Macarthur Onslow. They are kept segregated from other flocks at Camden Park.

Mr. Bevan, a sturdy English Radical and secretary of the great British Transport Workers’ Union, said with a wicked twinkle in his eye that these sheep reminded him of the House of Lords; ancestors of some of them came over with the Conqueror. The remark made one peer who was present laugh and another one wince. There was some aptness in the comparison, for although Macarthur was not a conqueror in the sense in which that designation is applied to the Norman king, in other respects he was.

The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Saturday 27 May 1939, page 28

[Editor: The editorial introduction to this article has been italicized, so as to distinguish it from the text written by Professor Scott.]

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