John Macarthur (wool pioneer)
John Macarthur (1767 – 10 April 1834) was a British army officer, entrepreneur, politician, architect and pioneer of settlement in Australia. Macarthur is recognised as the pioneer of the wool industry that was to boom in Australia in the early 19th century and become a trademark of the nation. He is noted as the architect of Elizabeth Farm House, his own residence in Parramatta, and as the man who commissioned architect John Verge to design Camden Park Estate in Camden, in New South Wales.
Macarthur was born near Plymouth, England the second son of Alexander Macarthur, who had fled to the West Indies after the Jacobite rising of 1745 before returning and working as a linen draper and 'seller of slops', according to some accounts. His exact date of birth is unknown, but it is known that his birth was registered on 3 September 1767.
He spelled his surname "M'Arthur" for most of his life. He occasionally varied it to "MacArthur". The spelling "Macarthur" (with a lower case "a") became established only very late in his life.
John and Elizabeth Macarthur married on October 1788 and they subsequently sailed to the new colony after John joined the New South Wales Corps in 1789. Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter on the voyage to the new colony but the baby did not survive. John and Elizabeth Macarthur parented four sons: John, Edward, James (1798) and William (1800), the later two being born at Elizabeth Farm.
In 1782, John Macarthur was commissioned as an ensign in Fish's Corps, a regiment of the British Army formed to serve in the American War of Independence. The war ended before the regiment was ready to sail and was disbanded in 1783. On half-pay, Macarthur went to live on a farm near Holsworthy in Devon, where he evidently pursued a program of self-education and became interested in 'rural occupations'. During the next five years Macarthur used his spare time to travel, read, and perhaps contemplate a future at the bar. Instead, in April 1788, Macarthur returned to full-pay army duties, securing a commission as an ensign in the 68th Regiment of Foot (later Durham Light Infantry), a regiment which had been stationed at Gibraltar since 1785. Ensuing negotiations with the War Office resulted in an alternative posting to far-away Sydney, with the New South Wales Corps in 1789. He sailed on the Neptune in the Second Fleet, the 'worst ship in the worst of Australian fleets'. Before the Neptune had even departed the British Isles, Macarthur became involved in disputations with various personnel, including fighting a duel with Captain Gilbert, the Master of the Neptune. Further disputes were provoked by the cramped and squalid accommodation provided for his wife and infant son on board the Neptune. This eventually resulted in his family being transferred mid-voyage and on the high seas, to the Scarborough, another Second Fleet ship.
He arrived in Sydney in 1790 holding the rank of lieutenant and was appointed as commandant at Parramatta. In February 1793, the acting governor, Major Francis Grose, granted Macarthur 100 acres (0.40 km2) of land at Rose Hill near Parramatta. He was granted a further 100 acres (0.40 km2) in April 1794 for being the first man to clear and cultivate 50 acres (200,000 m2) of land. He named the property Elizabeth Farm in honour of his wife, Elizabeth Macarthur. Grose came to depend on Macarthur's administrative skills and appointed him as paymaster for the regiment and as superintendent of public works, which Macarthur resigned in 1796 to concentrate on his business and farming interests.
Macarthur was an argumentative man who quarrelled with many of his neighbours and successive Governors. He was involved in a campaign alleging that Governor Hunter was ineffective and trafficked in rum. The allegations led to Hunter being forced to answer the charges and contributed to Hunter being recalled to England where he fought to try and restore his reputation.
In July 1801, Governor King overturned a sentence of one year's imprisonment for Lieutenant James Marshall of the Earl Cornwallis, who had been convicted of assaulting Macarthur and Captain Abbott during their investigation into a theft. King referred the matter for trial in England on the grounds that the court had refused to hear Marshall's objection to an officer of the NSW Corps hearing the case. Macarthur saw this as a slight, and tried to organise a petty social boycott of Governor King and when his superior, Colonel Paterson, refused to co-operate Macarthur used personal material to try and blackmail him. This resulted in Paterson challenging Macarthur to a duel in which Paterson was severely wounded in the shoulder. Governor King had Macarthur arrested then released him and appointed him as commandant on Norfolk Island to try and defuse things. Macarthur refused to comply and demanded a court martial by his fellow officers. King, realising that this would be pointless, sending Macarthur to England for trial. Macarthur sailed on the Hunter, departing Sydney in November 1801. On this same vessel, Governor Hunter had sent a 'very bulky' dispatch, denouncing Macarthur. This dispatch went missing, apparently during the voyage. According to Evatt, in Rum Rebellion, Macarthur had a powerful motive for stealing and destroying it. Evatt infers that Macarthur, 'or some close associate', was responsible.
One year later, when Macarthur reached England, the courts ruled that the matter should be tried in Sydney, where all the evidence and witnesses were. The Duke of York, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, rebuked King for failing to deal with the matter himself, but confirmed that King's orders releasing Macarthur and transferring him to Norfolk Island stood. To avoid the posting, Macarthur resigned his commission, eventually returning to Sydney in 1805 after an absence of nearly four years to run his businesses as a private citizen. Governor King had declared while Macarthur was in London that, "if Captain Macarthur returns here in any official character, it should be that of Governor, as one-half the colony already belongs to him, and it will not be long before he gets the other half."
Establishes his flock of sheep
At Elizabeth Farm in 1794 he began his first experiments in improving wool growth by crossing hair-bearing Bengal ewes from India with Irish wool rams.
"By crossing the two breeds, I had the satisfaction to see the lambs of the Indian ewes bear a mingled fleece of hair and wool-this circumstance originated the idea of producing fine wool in New South Wales."
In 1796 two ships were despatched to the Cape by Governor Hunter from Sydney to obtain supplies for the colony. The two commanders, being friends of Macarthur, were requested by him to procure any good class sheep which they could buy. By a happy coincidence the two captains were enabled to execute Macarthur's commission far better than the latter hoped. The King of Spain had presented to the Dutch Government some of the finest pure merino sheep from the jealously guarded Escurial flocks, once owned by King Philip II. These sheep were sent to the Dutch Cape Colony under the care of a Scotch gentleman, who died shortly afterwards. His widow had endless disputes with the Dutch Government, and, to end dissension, the sheep were ordered to be sold. A number of them were purchased by the captains and were duly delivered to Macarthur, The merino sheep, including three rams, were bought by several landowners, including Samuel Marsden.
Macarthur visited England in 1801, taking specimens of the pure Merino wool, and of the best of the crossbred, and submitted, them to a Committee of Manufacturers who reported that the Merino was equal to any Spanish Wool, and the crossbred of considerable value. This encouraged him to purchase rams and a ewe from the Royal Flock at Kew.
By 1801, Macarthur was the largest sheep rearer in the colony, although he was certainly not the only landowner to have experimented with the breeding of fine-wooled sheep. As late as July 1800, there is no evidence of any 'prophetic word' from Macarthur about the future of Spanish wool: at that time he was considering selling his entire flock.
On his way to England, for trial over the duel with Colonel Paterson, Macarthur's ship had put in for repairs in Indonesia, where he met and offered timely advice to the young and inexperienced British Resident at Amboyna, Sir Robert Farquhar, son of the Physician in Ordinary to the Prince of Wales, Sir Walter Farquhar. Sir Walter became an important patron and friend to Macarthur. For example, when William Davidson, later Macarthur's business partner in New South Wales, applied for land next to Macarthur's holdings at Parramatta, he carried with him a letter of introduction announcing his Royal connections as nephew to Sir Walter Farquhar.
While in London, Macarthur lobbied extensively in support of his interests back in New South Wales. The Colonial Secretary, Lord Camden, was highly supportive and backed Macarthur for a grant of 10,000 acres (40 km²) of his choosing. Sir Joseph Banks, however, was not impressed with either Macarthur or his commercial venture. When Macarthur failed to conceal his low opinion of Banks, Banks became a strong opponent of the plan and had the grant halved.
When he arrived back in Sydney in 1805 Macarthur further antagonised local authorities by claiming his 5,000 acres (20 km²) in the Cowpastures. This was prime grazing land, well supplied by water from the Nepean river, and reserved by the Governor exclusively for the colony's cattle herds. Both Governors King and Bligh strongly objected to this and wanted the grant moved, but the Colonial Office wrote back affirming Macarthur's right to the land. Macarthur named it Camden Park after his patron. Bligh also turned down Macarthur's request for the remaining 5000 acres (20 km²) after he had begun exporting wool to England. Bligh was firmly opposed to Macarthur's venture, according to Evatt, not because he objected to the fine wool industry, but because he believed that 'first preference should be given to agriculture'. As reported much later by Macarthur, Bligh said to him in a conversation at Government House; "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!".
Elizabeth Farm House is one of the oldest remaining farmhouses in Australia, though all that remains of the initial house is said to be one room. It is regarded as one of the premier examples of early Colonial architecture in Australia.
Macarthur wrote to his brother:
"In the centre of my farm I have built a most excellent brick house, 68 feet (21m) in front, and 18 feet (5.5m) in breadth. It has no upper story, but consists of four rooms on the ground floor…"
The initial house was rectangular in plan, divided down the middle by a hallway with two rooms on either side. The house underwent many changes both immediately after construction and over time, the first of which being the addition of the north verandah. The verandah was a sign of prestige which indicated that the occupant was of a more leisured social class. The Elizabeth Farm verandah is also believed to be one of the first of its nature in Australia giving birth to a feature which has become characteristic of rural homesteads in the country, a tradition that continues to the present day.
Hambleden Cottage was built in the early 1824 (by John Macarthur and Henry Kitchen), in the early Colonial Georgian style, a few hundred yards away at the bottom of the hill that Elizabeth Farm House sat upon making this homestead a group of buildings. The cottage was first occupied by John Macarthur's son, Edward, later becoming the home to a former governess.
Both the House and Cottage have managed to survive to the present day. Elizabeth Farm is managed by Sydney Living Museums (The Historic Houses Trust of NSW) while the cottage is run by the Parramatta and District Historical Society.
The estate consisted of 5000 acres of prime pasture land with two notable dwellings; the Camden Park House and the Belgenny Cottage.
The original Belgenny Cottage was designed and built by Henry Kitchen in the 1820s. Its symmetrical Georgian style has been heavily altered from the original, retaining only some of the original vernacular. The cottage stood as the John Macarthur's residence whilst he awaited completion of the Camden Park House.
Macarthur had then decided that the family would relocate to Camden and in turn, he commissioned Camden Park House. It was completed in 1835, just after the death of John Macarthur, having been supervised by his sons James and William Macarthur. John Verge and Mortimer Lewis drew up plans for Macarthur regarding the house and the design by Verge was subsequently chosen. The house stands on a rise amid its plantation of trees presenting its original Palladian style, columned portico towards the garden side. A two storey wing was added in 1880 giving the overall look of the dwelling one akin with Old Colonial Regency. It is built of brick that has been stuccoed and limned like stone which combines with the use of local sandstone for the window surrounds and columns to add texture and colour to the building.
The descendants of John Macarthur continue to live in the Camden Park House.
Governor William Bligh was appointed, with backing by Sir Joseph Banks, to crack down on the commercial activities of the NSW Corps, especially their trade in alcohol. Macarthur and his friend and business associate Thomas Jamison (the colony's Principal Surgeon) were two prime targets. Macarthur clashed repeatedly with Bligh throughout 1807 while Jamison was dismissed from the magistracy.
Macarthur was owed a debt in wheat, the price of which had gone up fourfold, but on appeal Bligh ruled it was only payable at the original value. Bligh cancelled a lease Macarthur held for some government land that Bligh wanted to use and Macarthur tried to prevent Bligh taking hold of it.
When a convict stowed away and escaped to Tahiti on the Parramatta, a ship Macarthur part-owned, Bligh demanded that the 900 pound Transport Board bond be forfeited. Macarthur refused to comply and the ship was seized when it returned. In December 1807 Bligh had an order issued for Macarthur to appear before the courts, which Macarthur refused to obey and subsequently was arrested and bailed for a trial on 25 January 1808. This trial led to the so-called Rum Rebellion, when the officers of the NSW Corps, who had been assigned to the court, sided with Macarthur and his allies: as a consequence, Bligh was overthrown by the Corps in a military coup on 26 January.
Immediately after the 1808 rebellion took place, Macarthur dispatched his son Edward to London to convey Macarthur's version of the events. Accompanying him was the first bale of Australian wool to be exported. The British woollen mills were desperate for wool at the time because of the Napoleonic blockade, and the Australian bale sold for a record price.
Macarthur served as Colonial-Secretary in the rebel administration, until he was removed. Macarthur was sent to England where he remained for eight and half years to avoid an arrest warrant for him in Sydney. While there he put his sons into public schools and went for a tour of the continent. Macarthur had gained the right to return to Sydney through lobbying, but would not accept the conditions imposed, namely that he admit his wrongdoing and promise his good behaviour. He therefore remained in England until Lord Camden granted him unconditional return to NSW in 1817.
Macarthur was never tried, and apart from the exile, was not punished for his involvement in the Rum Rebellion. H.V Evatt, who was extremely critical of Macarthur, details the legal technicalities involved in his book Rum Rebellion.
On his return to NSW Macarthur devoted himself to his farming. Wool had great advantages as an industry for New South Wales, which because of its distance from European markets needed a commodity which did not perish during long sea-voyages and which offered high value per unit of weight. Wool also had a ready market in England because the Napoleonic Wars had increased demand and cut English cloth-makers off from their traditional source of quality wool, Spain. The export of wool soon made Macarthur the richest man in New South Wales. In 1822, The Society for the Arts in London awarded him two medals for exporting 150,000 lb (68,000 kg) of wool to England and for increasing the quality of his wool to that of the finest Saxon Merino.
In the early 1820s, John Macarthur was an owner of more than 100 horses. He established Camden Park Stud and was a major provider of bloodhorses. His sons, James and William Macarthur, followed in his footsteps and became important Thoroughbred owners and breeders.
Macarthur established Australia's first commercial vineyard. He imported vine plants when he returned to New South Wales in 1817, which he successfully cultivated at Camden Park. He was a founding investor in both the Australian Agricultural Company (London 1824) and the Bank of Australia (1826). His involvement in the Rum Rebellion blocked him from being appointed as a magistrate in 1822 but in 1825 he was nominated to the New South Wales Legislative Council where he served until 1832 when he was suspended due to his failing mental health. He was pronounced insane later that year and placed under restraint at his home in Camden.
John Macarthur died at Camden on 10 April 1834. His numerous and wealthy descendants remained influential in New South Wales affairs for many years. As the Macarthur-Stanhams and Macarthur-Onslows they are still wealthy but no longer prominent in public life.
In recognition of his contribution to Australian agriculture, Macarthur was honoured by a postage stamp issued on the centenary of his death in 1934 (depicting a merino ram).
John Macarthur's image and a merino ram appeared on the first Australian $2 note in 1966.
Both the Elizabeth Farm and Camden Park Estates are heritage listed and are now well looked after. They are also available for tours and other events, allowing the public to learn about the history of both.
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- State Heritage Inventory Public Presentation Report, modified by Stuart Read, 09/2004
- Elizabeth Farm – Historic Houses Trust
- Camden Park Estate and Belgenny Farm – About NSW
- Camden Park House – Camden Council