The Macarthurs

To The Manor Born

It is a warm spring morning, and the only sounds are the hum of cicadas and the crunch of feet on gravel as a well-mannered queue forms on the circular carriageway. The scent of wisteria, dust and hay lingers in the air. A face peers out of a ground-floor window, and the porticoed front door swings slowly op. For just one weekend each year Camden Park, the family home of the Macarthur dynasty for over seven generations, open to the public. This homespun affair, which takes place with almost no marketing or advertising, will bring hundreds of visitors eager for a peek at our colonial past. In a society obsessed with real estate values, Camden Park offers something more. The closest thing Australia has to an aristocratic heritage, it stands as testament to the aspirations of Australia's earliest mogul, John Macarthur, and his family, who saw themselves as the first of a new landed gentry. Driven by a burning ambition and keen entrepreneurial instincts, this aspiring dynast established his fortunes, and those of the emerging colony, by transforming New South Wales from a distant penal outpost into England's foremost supplier of fine woo.


Commissioned in 1831, Camden Park was built to celebrate and confirm Macarthur's position as the colony's largest private landholder - an achievement that would keep his descendants at the forefront of society until late in the twentieth century. In a country of few historic buildings, it offers a vision of Australia that we barely recognise today; a glimpse of the good life as it once was for the tiny, elite cartel that helped shape the foundations of a nation. An hour's drive from Sydney's central business district, the house stands in a park-like landscape of paddocks and trees, its outlook punctuated only by the steeple of a distant church, 'built to the glory of God and to enhance the Macarthurs' view'. There is an air of substance and permanence, a sense of serene graciousness and place, of belonging built over generations. Of course, this could simply be the enduring illusion of Georgian architecture, for later colonists would continue to build in this style as if, by invoking an earlier age and respectability, they could disguise the tenuous nature of their antipodean roots. But Camden Park's impact is undeniable - perhaps because, to contemporary eyes, it seems extraordinary to encounter such a splendid testament to English traditions in the Australian landscape.

The reigning head of the Macarthur dynasty, Quentin Macarthur-Stanham, is rarely present during Camden park's open weekends. Spring usually finds him in Rhode Island, the home of his third wife, Diana, whom he met while on a croquet tour of the United States. When in Camden, he lives in the dowager's cottage, a short walk from the main house. With his starched English accent, beetling eyebrows and gentlemanly air, Quentin cuts as string a figure as the house to which he was devoted his life. His children are more recognisably part of a contemporary Australian landscape,. On the back lawn, John Macarthur-Stanham - Quentin's son by his second marriage - is overseeing the sausage sizzle.

Helen Macarthur Stanham, matriarch of the fifth generation of Macarthurs.
This photograph was taken as she prepared to attend the first Buckingham Palace tea party held after
World War II and just before she returned to Australia to take up her inheritance at Camden Park. (Marion Millwood)

His half-brother Mark, the child of an earlier marriage, directs traffic in the car park with a more parochial good humour. Heavier set and ten years John 's senior, Mark is as dark as his brother is fair. Nonetheless, the two men bear a striking family resemblance, both to each other and to their antecedents. Both share their father's craggy features as well as his passion for Camden Park. Both grew up here. But their lives since then have taken very different turns. As the eldest, Mark came to adulthood believing Camden Park was his birthright. But it is his younger sibling who occupies the house and John's children who will one day inherit. While there is always a bedroom for him, Mark will only ever be a guest at Camden Park. The house and the farmlands surrounding it are forever beyond his reach, for Quentin passed over his eldest child when Mark was in his early thirties, making John his sole heir.

Today, Mark lives in Cowra where, as Macarthur Farming Services, he works as a farm labourer and runs a small haulage company. His younger brother, meanwhile, shoulders the responsibility of safekeeping what remains of the family's heritage - an endowment that has shaped his life as much as its dispossession has shaped his brother's. For while the family's fortunes may have steadily diminished with the passing of generations, its custodianship of an iconic Australian heritage beckons as strongly as ever before. From a European perspective, this dynastic legacy carries considerably less gravitas than those of the old world. As any member of the British peerage will tell you, Cambden Park with its eighty-odd rooms is merely the home of a draper's son who made good on the sheep's back - a relatively recent upstart whose fortunes depended on the patronage of colonial power-brokers. Contrast this with the dynastic imperative of an estate such as Chatsworth, home of the duke of Marlborough, with its imposing mansion of two hundred plus rooms - a heritage that has been held by the same family for over twelve generations.

And yet no other private house in Australia can boast such significance, age or lineage. In its heyday Camden Park was the nerve point of a pastoral empire that stretched over thousands of hectares and the headquarters of a family that, in shaping the colony's economic and political direction, were among its most influential citizens. Above all else, its history mirrors the success of early efforts to adapt English ideas to a new and contested landscape, as played out by one of the colony's most powerful families. Today only 400 hectares remain, devoted mainly to dairy and poultry farming. The rest is illusion - old Macarthur land that was bought by the state government for an agricultural college, the grounds of which hold at bay the rapidly encroaching town of Camden, named after the family estate. Surrounded by this buffer, Camden Park is the Macarthurs' last link to a glorious dynastic past. And perhaps this is what makes the house such an enduring drawcard, because it is not a museum but an evolving repository of family history and secrets, as each visitor soon discovers.

That the present-day Macarthur dynasty has the makings of soap opera comes as less of a surprise when one considers that the family's early history is in itself worthy of a Regency melodrama. Dominating this drama is the character of John Macarthur who, in a portrait painted at the high point of his career, exudes an arrogance that is palpable centuries later. With an assessing stare, he gazes disdainfully down his aquiline nose at the rest of the world, the embodiment, it would seem, of an autocratic English gentleman. And yet he was born the second son of a Plymouth draper on 13 August 1767. Unlike his older brother, who would follow his father into the family trade, John was encouraged to seek his future elsewhere.

Quentin Macarthur Stanham with his first wife Andalusia and their two eldest children, Mark and Anne, at Camden Park.
The marriage was soon to end, and Miss Andy (as he was known) returned to England, leaving the two children behind. (Marion Millwood)

His father's mercantile success secured him the upward mobility of a private school education, followed, at the age of fifteen, by an ensign's commission in the army, traditionally the chosen vocation of second sons of the nobility. But John's fledgling career prospects stumbled to a halt a year later when America won its war of independence against Britain and his corps was disbanded. Unable to sell his commission, which was of little value in peacetime, he spent the next five years living a desultory existence near the Devon-Cornwall border, riding and hunting, studying history, contemplating a legal career and working occasionally as an assistant teacher to supplement his meagre income. (In short, providing himself with a wide-ranging liberal education that would advantage his later career.)

It took a woman to get him out of this rut. Elizabeth Veale was twenty, the same age as John, when they met. She was the daughter of a Devonshire farmer who had died when she was six - to the detriment of her own social and economic standing. As one of her biographers observes, 'Like many of Jane Austen's poor heroines with inadequate family connections, her prospects of marriage were uncertain. Like them, she looked for strangers, new comers to the village, army and navy  men on half pay trying to make something of farming. But while the couple may have been well matched in terms of their place in the rigid social hierarchies of the day, their alliance was viewed with some pessimism by the bride's relatives. 'I was considered indolent and inactive; Mr Macarthur too proud and haughty for our humble fortune or expectations,' reflected Elizabeth of their marriage in October 1788. As an officer consigned to half pay, her husband lacked the means to support himself, let alone a wife - or the family that was rapidly upon them when Elizabeth gave birth to a son a mere five months later. Had this been a Jane Austen novel, John and Elizabeth would no doubt have fallen into further obscurity, in keeping with the class politics of the day.

From left to right: John, Helen, Mark and Jane Macarthur Stanham. (Marion Millwood)

Instead, whether as the result of desperation, the scandal of a child conceived out of wedlock, or a shared vision, their alliance seems to have empowered them both. Accordingly, in June 1789 Macarthur seized the opportunity to transfer his commission, becoming a lieutenant in the New South Wales corps. It was a posting filled with risk and danger, for the penal colony had been founded only eighteen months earlier, and the fate of its first shipment of officers and convicts was uncertain. Indeed, one imagines that only the most unenviable of prospects could have motivated someone to embark on an enterprise that would put no less than six months of perilous voyage between themselves and all they had known, with little assurance of what lay in wait. (Let alone to do so with a baby.) But Elizabeth, despite her self-proclaimed 'timid and irresolute' appearance, was an ardent advocate of the scheme. As she enthused in a letter to her mother, it was a decision from which 'we have every reasonable expectation of reaping the most material advantage'. She would be the first woman to embark on such a journey of her own free will.  

The young family sailed with the Second fleet on 17 January 1790. But even before they had left British water, John Macarthur would fight the first duel of his Australian career with the captain of their ship, the Neptune, over the unsanitary conditions on board. It marked the start of a voyage notorious in the history of transportation to Australia for the suffering endured. Locked away in her small cabin, where the heat and stench soon became insupportable, Elizabeth wrote vividly of their plight, for 'no imagination could conceive the misery I experienced'. But she expressed no empathy for the welfare of others, lamenting that only a 'slight partition' separated her family from the women convicts, 'their dreadful imprecations' and 'attendant filth and vermin'. After protracted arguments with his commanding officer, John Macarthur was able to secure upgraded quarters on a sister ship, the Scarborough. Nevertheless, for the remainder of the voyage their son Edward was gravely ill. John also contracted a raging fever from which he nearly died - and on which his subsequent bouts of depression were blamed. A daughter born prematurely on the voyage lived less than an hour. When they disembarked half a year later, on 28 June 1790, the Macarthurs knew themselves fortunate to survive. Of the thousand prisoners transported on the Fleet's three vessels, one quarter had died, half were landed sick, and many died soon after - having been brutally beaten, starved and placed in irons. There was little joy on land either, for the thousand-strong penal colony was in the grip of famine and the supply ship accompanying the Second Fleet had hit ice and sunk.

Even at the best of times, the new settlement was a gossipy, avaricious and venal place. The small society was highly polarised between the 'haves' of the officer class and the convict 'have-nots'. At the same time, the colony's social structure, despite the inherent constraint of the convict taint, was remarkably fluid in contrast to English society. Those who migrated to New South Wales were 'precisely those who would not be accepted into the best society at home' and even ex-convicts could attain wealth and prestige, if not respectability. The latter was reserved for free settlers, although as he rose through the ranks, Macarthur's sturdy bourgeois origins would be sneered at by his detractors. But Jack Bodice, as Macarthur was nicknamed in snide reference to his draper father, had gambled well. Unlike the colony's governor, who came and went, the New South Wales corps was the enduring and dominant force in the small and isolated community. Its officers controlled aspects of colonial life; they ran the courts, managed the convicts, and organised provisions. Nor was Macarthur alone in hoping to advance his fortunes. For the ambitious young men of the corps, even the assignment of convict labour became an instrument of profit, and they resisted any attempts to moderate their power. This often placed them at odds with the governors of the day - most of whom were more concerned with the colony's stable administration as a penal outpost than its economic future. 

Few officers, however, made as early, decisive or lucrative an impact on the colony's affairs as john Macarthur. Although he quarrelled almost immediately with governor Phillip, who promptly barred him from all social gatherings at government House, he befriended his ageing commanding officer, who promoted him to regimental paymaster (at more than double his lieutenant's salary) and shortly thereafter Inspector of Public works for Parramatta and Toongabbie. These assignments gave Macarthur extensive control over the colony's rudimentary resources, including the government stores. He capitalised on this with admirable filial allegiance by immediately directing orders for the regiment's slops - the clothing and other supplies sold to seamen from the ship's stores - to his elder brother in Plymouth. Macarthur's position also enabled him to make the most of his own land grants and, using the convict labour under his command, he was soon able to double his original entitlement of 20 hectares as a reward for being the first to clear his land. But his vigorous pursuit of self-advancement was not without its benefits  the colony, insists historian Alan Atkinson, who points to Macarthur's progressive agricultural employment practices.

John Macarthur, the founder of one of Australia's oldest dynasties.
Seemingly the epitome of the assured English gentleman, he was a tailor's
son and a self-made man. (State Library of New South Wales, Australia)

By the same token, the practical administration of his farm-bred wife was equally decisive in transforming their property, Elizabeth Farm, into the best-run agricultural estate in the colony. (it did not perhaps take much to excel; Macarthur was the first man in the colony to import and use a plough.) By 1796, the colony numbered just over three thousand Europeans, close to two thousand of whom were convicts. The officers of the New South Wales Corps, including Macarthur, made up a small and privileged caste, for they owned nearly a third of the colony's land, three-quarters of its livestock, and enjoyed a monopoly over the importing and sale of food, liquor, clothing and tobacco. For Elizabeth, the prosperity this brought easily made up for her isolation as the first free woman to have arrived in the settlement. As she happily admitted in a letter home to her best friend on 1 September 1798, 'The country possesses numerous advantages to persons holding appointments under government.' Her only qualm was the difficulty of educating her children - and the necessity of sending her boys to London to study. She would farewell her eldest, Edward, when he was twelve. Her second son, John, considered the brightest and most beautiful of her children, would leave when he was seven. She would never see him again.

John junior accompanied his father back to England in 1801. It was an ignominious departure, for Macarthur was returning home to face court martial after seriously wounding his new commanding officer in a duel. He was by now a veteran of a series of battles with the colony's governors. Phillip's successor, John Hunter, had already been precipitately recalled after Macarthur - regarded by his adversary as 'restless, ambitious and litigious' - had mounted a campaign of complaint against him. Relations with the colony's third governor grew almost as sour when Governor King failed to support Macarthur in a dispute with another officer. In response, Macarthur organised a boycott of all social activities at government House - only to extend the brawl to his commanding officer when the latter refused to comply. Certainly his new superiors felt that, as one of the colony's wealthiest men, Macarthur had already exceeded his station. 'He came here in 1790 more than 500 pounds in debt and he is now worth at least $20,000 pounds,' complained Governor King in an emotional yet prescient letter to the colonial Office. 'His employment during the 11 years he has been here has been that of making a large fortune and helping his brother officers make small ones ... If Captain McArthur returns here in any official character it should be that of Governor, as one half of the Colony already belongs to him and it will not be long before he gets the other half.'

But King's hopes of seeing Captain John Macarthur receive his just desserts would be dashed. In the course of a slow year-long journey back to England, Macarthur met and befriended Robert Farquhar, the British Resident at Amboyna in the Indonesian archipelago, whose father, Sir Walter, was physician to the Prince of Wales. These new friends brought their considerable influence to bear in Macarthur's favour, ensuring that while he was officially centuries, he avoided a trial. Ironically, Macarthur's forced return could not have been better timed to advance his interests. The Napoleonic wars had robbed Britain's lucrative textile industry of its continental source of wool and the country was desperate to secure an alternative supply. Seeing an opportunity, Macarthur seized it. Resigning his commission, and investing himself with a monopol of authority in the wool industry, Macarthur campaigned vigorously for a scheme of colonial wool production under his personal supervision. He made a convincing case, stressing the advantage to British industry as well as its necessity to a colony that remained dependent on British imports for its survival and which was constantly on the brink of starvation. 'this small population,' he argued, 'can have no prospect of success unless it can raise the export of some raw material in considerable demand, which can be produced with little labour, and be capable of bearing the expense of the longest sea voyage.' with his new entree into royal circles, Macarthur took his case to the highest authorities and won the ear of Lord Camden, the colonial secretary.

Official history has it that Macarthur also brought with him samples of the fine wool he was already producing at Elizabeth Farm (proof of his credentials in the trade). But some historians who take issue with Macarthur's standing as the father of the Australian wool industry, question whether these samples ever existed. They argue that others - notably governor King and the Reverend Samuel Marsden, who notwithstanding his religious calling was one of the colony's largest land- and stock-holders - did more to encourage an early wool industry in the colony. And, in fact, it was Marsden who would send the first commercial shipment of wool to England from New South Wales in 1811.

The first matriarch, Elizabeth Macarthur, in her widowhood.
 Although instrumental in creating the family's pastoral empire alongside her husband, Elizabeth would
inherit none of the business, though she continued to take a keen interest in its affairs. (Macarthur-Stanham family)

None of this, however, detracts from the fact that not only was Macarthur in the right place at the right time, but that he had the entrepreneurial instincts to exploit a small window of opportunity, predominantly for his own, but also others', benefit. One can only imagine governor King's immense chagrin when his bete noire returned to the colony in June 1805, should his own ship - a former whaler which, with poetic licence, Macarthur had renamed the Argo - more powerful than ever before. Macarthur brought with him merinos from the king's royal flock and Lord Camden's approval of a grant of 2000 hectares of the colony's best pastures - the largest entitlement by far allowed in the colony to date. Moreover, Camden had promised Macarthur a further 2000 hectares if his plans for a fine-wool industry in the colony came to fruition. King immediately wrote to the colonial secretary, begging him to reconsider, but to no avail. He went the way of all governors, back to England, while Macarthur stayed and prospered.

One would imagine that Macarthur was by now secure in his position as the colony's pre-eminent pastoral baron. But further conflict and controversy were soon to follow. Having survived the mutiny on the Bounty, William Bligh, King's successor, would make the grave mistake of challenging Macarthur's ascendancy. Bligh, who throughout his career had demonstrated a remarkable imperviousness to the opinions of others, envisaged New South Wales as a relatively static and stable society that would slowly develop as its convicts progressed gratefully up a truncated social ladder to the status of small-scale farmers or labourers. It was a cozy, paternalistic vision, at odds with the trading interests of the colony's business elites and with realities on the ground. From the penal colony's inception, the officers of the New South Wales corps had been the only people in the settlement to receive financial payment for their services in British sterling, as convicts were not considered to need money. They had quickly transformed this fiscal monopoly into a monopoly on the importation and distribution of all the colony's goods, enjoying mark-ups (at wholesale) of anywhere from 100 to 500 per cent. At the centre of this trade was rum, which became the major currency in the colony and soon held much of the population in its thrall. The result, as historian Manning Clark vividly describes it, was that 'in the eyes of the moralizers, gaming, whoring and drunkenness staled in broad daylight without least check; religion was laughed at, the Sabbath profaned. The more elemental passions went unrestrained.' Governor King, himself an alcoholic, was the first to bemoan the ill effects of liquor on the colony. Bligh, as his successor, was determined that 'the pernicious customs of the place shall be checked by every means in my power'.

The new governor established port regulations to tighten up the government's control of ships, their cargoes - including spirits - and their crews, which may have included possible escaping convicts. He then declared the bartering of spirits for grain, food or labour illegal, and ordered that all promissory notes should be drawn 'payable in sterling money'. Bligh also reissued an earlier ban on the use of private stills. These reforms placed him on a collision course with the colony's budding entrepreneurs, including the officers of the corps and Macarthur. The two men already held each other in deep suspicion, for Bligh had also made clear his skepticism of Macarthur's enthusiasm for the colony's fledgling wool industry and challenged his right to the land granted him by Lord Camden. Only a few months later, in October 1807, Bligh further alienated Macarthur and his peers by declaring that all private houses and buildings on the leasehold crown land of Sydney town were illegal and would be removed.

The dutiful sons of the second generation, James (left) and William Macarthur. With none of their father's
flamboyance, these two men did much to consolidate and increase the family empire. (State Library of New South Wales, Australia)

Macarthur responded by building a fence round his leasehold property in a flagrant and popular act of civil disobedience. Matters came to a head when Macarthur was brought to trial for permitting some of the crew of the Parramatta, a ship of which he was part owner, to land, contrary to regulations. In what had clearly become, among other things, a clash of personalities, Macarthur now found himself facing a long-time adversary, and one of the least reputable of Bligh's few allies. Richard Atkins, the fifth son of an English baronet, had fled to New South Wales to escape his creditors. As Macarthur publicly pronounced, 'this aristocratic relic, sent out hidden from other eyes, this befuddled buffoon full of demon drink, this human ruin, this vague bewildered wreck.' had been made the colony's highest judicial authority, its judge-advocate. Macarthur's scathing opinion of Atkins was widely shared, not lest by Bligh himself, who nonetheless continued to support Atkins's findings against their common enemy. It would prove the governor's undoing.  

In the lead-up to his hearing, Macarthur sponsored a petition urging the governor's removal. The request was well received, for Bligh had angered the corps' officers and enlisted men by challenging its status in the colony, arguing that it was becoming a dangerous militia and needed replacing. When the trial commenced on 25 January 1808, Macarthur (who had a better grasp of the law than his adversary) immediately challenged Atkins's right to adjudicate - a claim quickly supported by the officers on the Bench who had uncovered suggestions that Atkins had prepared fabricated evidence. The judge-advocate retaliated by insisting that the officers be charged with treason, a recommendation Bligh adopted thereby precipitating his own downfall. The next day, on the twentieth anniversary of the colony's foundation, the commander of the New South Wales corps freed Macarthur, and William Bligh, for the second time in his career, fond himself at the mercy of his own men. After a swift and bloodless military coup which he had done much to engineer, Macarthur assumed the title of colonial secretary and became, for a time, the virtual administrator of the colony.

The Rum Rebellion, as it has since been known, remains one of the most controversial episodes in Australian colonial history, confirms our protagonist's aptitude for political intrigue and self-preservation. Although like everyone else in the colony, including the clergy and the governor himself, Macarthur used rum as currency, he had gone on record condemning the traffic in liquor. Moreover, as colonial secretary he would anger his fellow revolutionaries by trying to suppress it. Indeed, Macarthur would soon prove almost as unpopular an administrator as the man he had toppled. Smaller settlers particularly fretted at his political dominance, arguing that his 'monopoly and extortion have been injurious to the inhabitants of every description'. Macarthur had also overestimated his support among the colonial authorities. When he returned to London in 1810 to rebut charges of treason, bringing with him his two youngest sons, William and James, who were due to commence their English schooling, he found himself condemned to virtual exile. Although as a civilian Macarthur cold not be court-martialed, instructions were sent to the colony's new governor, Lachlan Macquarie, that as the 'leading Promoter and Instigator of the Mutinous measures' he was to be arrested if he returned to New South Wales and tried before a criminal court'. Macarthur would spend the nest seven years campaigning for his return to the colony. To add insult to injury, this setback coincided with a low point in his fortunes for his most recent commercial speculations had failed, leaving him with debts the family's wool trade barely covered. Macarthur focused his attention on promoting his wool and ensuring that it established itself competitively in the British market, demonstrating a degree of circumspection and diplomacy that was remarkable for its absence in New South Wales.  

Elizabeth, meanwhile, remained at home loyally tending the family's estates and flocks. Both flourished under her care. Despite complaining that 'the management of our concerns gets troublesome to me in the extreme', and bemoaning the lack of any assistance from the men in her family, Elizabeth was an able manager. In theory she followed her husband's advice; in practice a year or more could pass between letters, and Elizabeth relied on her own judgment and that of her convict workers. It was Elizabeth who bought, tended and bred up the flock of fine wool merinos upon which the family fortunes increasingly depended. She also developed new methods of washing wool and was responsible for the building of the first prudent management', acknowledged her grateful husband, was such that 'not many men would be capable of conducting so successfully as you have done, so much to your own credit, and to the advantage of your Family'. Observes Quentin  Macarthur-Stanham generations later, 'The vision of it was unquestionably John's, but the mechanics of making it work almost entirely Elizabeth's. John's absence might even have been to his wife's advantage, for Elizabeth was as even-keeled as John was volatile.

'Where he was angry and abrasive, she was charming and diplomatic. He took things personally. She saw them as part of politics,' reflects one biographer. As a result, Elizabeth Macarthur was as well regarded in the colonies as her husband was controversial. She was without doubt far more conventional than he, and her keen interest in social order and rank was reflected in her frequent request for up-to-date copies of Debrett's and other such lists of the British peerage for her library. Intensely aware of her own social standing, Elizabeth assiduously cultivated her position as 'the First Lady of the colony' through her many of connections and friendships with the governors and their wives. Hers was one of the most gracious private homes in New South Wales, emulating 'as near as possible that of minor country gentry as they had known it in England. The rarity and beauty of this family life within the context of the colonial situation so impressed even John's most extreme political enemies that it purchased immunity for his family ... Elizabeth Macarthur, her ordered home, her carefully nurtured children, always escaped any criticism levelled against John, as they escaped any possible reprisal for his part in the rebellion against governor Bligh. It was a measure of her status that she was the only private citizen who did not have to bring her own bread to dinners at Government House. 

Elizabeth was fifty-one when John returned from England in 1817, with their two youngest sons still in tow. Their youngest daughter, Emmeline had never met her father. With the return of her menfolk, Elizabeth would step back from active management, although she continued to execute a strong influence over the family's public and private affairs. But after nearly a decade as her own woman, one wonders how easy Elizabeth found her retirement, for her correspondence suggests she was not only fully conversant with the wool business but enjoyed her involvement. One also wonders what she made of her husband's growing antipathy towards the latest in a long line of governors. Elizabeth had enjoyed a long and warm association with Lachlan Macquarie and his wife, and their friendship secured her, among other things, an additional land grant of 240 hectares. Macarthur, however, soon took umbrage at Macquarie's reluctance to endow the family with yet more property as well as his liberal attitude to convicts, not least his eccentric if egalitarian practice of inviting prisoners to dinner. Despite having undertaken to play no further part in the colony's public affairs as a condition of his sanctioned return, Macarthur would once more set out to undermine the crown's representative, successfully calling for an external investigation into Macquarie's emancipist practices.

In Macarthur's opinion, a lamentable and dangerous 'democratic feeling' had taken root in the colony as a consequence of 'the absurd and mischievous policy pursued by Governor Macquarie'. This, he insisted, could only be set right by supporting the interests 'of really respectable settlers - Men of real Capital - not needy adventurers' who with government support and land grants 'of at lest 10,000 Acres'. While this might suggest a breathless and self-serving hypocrisy, Macarthur no doubt believed that, in keeping with the prejudices of the day, the mere absence of any convict taint bestowed unlimited credibility on his own personal endeavours. In 1821, a 'dejected Macquarie' left New South Wales to answer to a commission of inquiry in London, while Macarthur secured further imperial support for his pastoral ambitions. Macarthur's determination to entrench the established hierarchies of the colony and see off any nascent competition was well in keeping with prevailing attitudes of the day. Indeed, it has been argued that Macarthur was more progressive than many free settlers in his association with ex-convicts, and for a time he counted 'the bastard son of a highway robber by a convict whore' among his close friends. William Charles Wentworth, who in character and contribution was at least as strong a colonial personality as Macarthur, would go on to found his own dynasty. But the two men fell out after Wentworth was refused the hand in marriage of Macarthur's eldest daughter, Elizabeth. That the refusal and come from the girl herself (although who can say how much influence her mother exerted in the background) and that Wentworth had sought his alliance on purely dynastic grounds made no difference to the rejected suitor's animosity. Henceforth he would accuse his erstwhile friend of rank prejudice at every turn.

Wentworth would eventually marry the daughter of an emancipated convict and, as a consequence, would suffer far more entrenched snobbery. In order to secure his own daughters' marriages, Wentworth would have to assure their prospective husbands that they would have no further contact with their mother. Sarah Wentworth would work as her daughter's laundrywoman in order to maintain contact with her children - no matter that, at the time, she was fie to one of the richest men in the colony, as Wentworth had become. While the Wentworth dynasty would secure an enduring place for itself in Australia's conservative establishment, such was the convict taint that their ancestry remained an unspoken family secret for five generations. Viewed against bigotry such as this, Macarthur could almost be regarded as generous in acclaiming the diligence and perseverance of former convicts, and upholding their contribution to the colony. Moreover, he happily entrusted responsibility to those in his employ and, as a local newspaper acknowledged, 'his prisoner servants never had cause to complain of deficient sustenance'. But one does not establish a dynasty by promoting the interests of others in advance of one's own, and Macarthur's loyalties were firstly, firmly and exclusively allied to himself and his offspring. While he accepted that ex-convicts should be able to purchase small landholdings ,he reserved for himself and his family a superior entitlement to honours and free land. Of the country's indigenous occupants there was no consideration.

Future governors would learn to work with this status quo, and even come to admire Macarthur, despite his hair-trigger temper. Increasingly sure of his power within the colony, Macarthur would boast to Governor Darling of his ability to rid himself of any man who had become obnoxious to him. (Darling evidently believe him, remarking with considerable restrain that here was a man of 'violent passions; his friendship strong, his hatred invincible'.) Now in his sixties, Macarthur had come to regard the colony as home, and in 1831 he commissioned the distinguished colonial architect John Verge to design a mansion at Camden park to be the family's principal place of residence. But, as his wife observed in a letter to their eldest son, Edward, 'Your poor Father cannot do anything in a quiet orderly way.' Indeed, Macarthur's outburst were becoming increasingly frenzied and frequent.

Left to right: Victoria, John, William, George and Edwina Macarthur Stanham. (High Life magazine)

Less than a year later, in June 1832, Elizabeth's 'long previous apprehensions' about her husband's state of mind were realised when he was confined to his apartments at Elizabeth Farm convinced he was being robbed by his daughters, deserted by his sons, poisoned by his sons-in-law and cuckolded by his wife. Elizabeth, that 'best beloved wife', the 'one woman in a thousand', who had so assiduously tended his fortune and flock, was banished from the house. The couple would never meet again. Two months later, in August 1832, John Macarthur was officially declared insane, despite his physical health and lucid intervals. He was moved to Camden in 1833 where, under the charge of his sons William and James, he continued to take an interest in the building of his new home. However, as Elizabeth somewhat acidly observed, 'I do not hear that he makes any enquiries or notices anything in relation to the sheep. Nor would john Macarthur live in the mansion of his dreams. As his condition deteriorated, he was confined to a small cottage on the estate's farm. He died there on 11 April 1834 and was buried on a small hill overlooking the site where the house was still being built, and where he has since been joined by many of his descendants. 

There was little notice of his passing - although that year the colony's producers exported four and a half million pounds of fine wool to Britain, double that which came from Spain and other sources. Nor had Macarthur's exertions gone unrewarded, for he died one of the richest men in the colony, and his estate was declared at probate at more than 400,000 pounds. Very little of this would go to the women in his family. His three daughters received a modest annuity, and Elizabeth only a small income from his estates, his shares in the faltering Bank of Australia, and the use for as long as she wanted of the homestead at Elizabeth Farm. As her biographer would later bemoan on her behalf, 'Not a single sheep of the flocks she had nurtured, not an acre of the thousands she had acquired would belong to her.' Instead, in a spirit of chauvinistic egalitarianism, which some might argue remains a defining national characteristic, the family estates would be divided among John's surviving three sons. In this, Macarthur was clearly not concerned with emulating the British aristocratic tradition of preserving the hereditary privileges of its class by ruthlessly safeguarding the sole inheritance by imperial arrangements, the fact that he was not a peer of the realm meant Macarthur never entertained such pretentions. Perhaps, in this land of opportunity, he never saw the need. Either way, neither here nor in other elite colonial families would the notion of primogeniture take root. Rather, Macarthur would leave his sons partners in an increasingly lucrative family business. 

None of John Macarthur's heirs would match his volatile entrepreneurship, nor would they need to. Indeed, from this second generation on, the Macarthur dynasty would assume a far more restrained public face, aspiring on the one hand to social respectability while bound on the other by a common veneration of their mercurial ancestor. Although later individuals might occasionally lay claim to, or be accused of having, the famous Macarthur temper, there would be no successor to cut such a dramatic swathe through the society of their day. Highly strung (if not, as some historians quietly speculate, struggling with a degenerative mental illness) and 'suffering all the anxious doubts of those who depend on favours'. John Macarthur had revelled in his contentious reputation, believing that a certain arrogance and unpopularity were essential to one's public persona. His descendants, however, have since emphasised his more conventional qualities. 'he's portrayed as being a bit of a maverick and a leader of the rum Rebellion and so on, but I don't think that is an accurate portrayal of John Macarthur as i understand him from being a descendant,' insists present-day patriarch Quentin Macarthur-Stanham. 'He undoubtedly didn't suffer fools gladly. But, at the same time, I think he was a man of very strict upbringing and extremely sound morality. I think in his dealings, he rally did take an awful lot of trouble to make certain that all the people who were working for him were well treated. And he was certainly one of the first people to look after the local Aborigines. In fact, so much so, that when Bligh was trying to curtail his power and his landholdings, the local aborigines came to him and said, "Look, we can easily go to Parramatta and we'll kill the governor for you. Wouldn't that make it easier for you?"

'And that was the relationship between John and the local indigenous people.'

Australia - Dynasties - The Macarthur Family - Part 2

Australia - Dynasties - The Downer Family

Australian Aboriginal Sites in Temperate Australia

Australian Aboriginal Anthropology

Australian Aboriginal Music

Australia Postcards and Picture Galleries
Australia Home Page
Pacific Islands Radio
Please enter your email address for your free Pacific Islands Radio Newsletter!


Hosted By Topica















Jane's Oceania Home Page Newsletter
to get the latest news, information and Web site updates!
Please enter your email address below,
then click the 'Join' button
for your free Newsletter!
 Join newsletter! 
Search Jane's Oceania Travel Page Search the Internet

Oceania Time Zones
Oceania Weather

Back to Jane Resture's Oceania Page

Back to Jane's Oceania Home Page

(E-mail: -- Rev. 15th March 2012)
eXTReMe Tracker
eXTReMe Tracker