ALEXANDER MACLEAY as recounted to Camellia News by Dr Evely-Cherry

reprinted from Camellia News 165 – Winter 2004

Unknown-1Many Sydneysiders have heard of Elizabeth Bay House but how many are familiar with the name Alexander Macleay? Probably few, which is not surprising, consideriQg the limited publications to date about this enigmatic figure. However, Derelie Evely-Cherry has just completed her nine-year study about him, which culminated on 30 April this year when she received her doctorate at the University of Sydney. Her forthcoming book: To the Very Antipodes: The Life of AlexandeMacleay will be published in May 2005 and will be the first biography that has ever been written about this significant New South Wales colonist.

Derelie chose to embark on her long study about Alexander Macleay because she was initially inspired by the beauty of Elizabeth Bay House-particularly the interior dome and staircase and also the domineering position of the house on the cliff overlooking the harbour ‘at Elizabeth Bay. As she delved deeper and discovered so many fascinating aspects of his exciting and varied life, her journey took her to archives in Wick in the very north of Scotland where he was born, to archives in London and material in the Mitchell Library i Sydney. Of special interest was his love of plants. Alexander was a great friend of Sydney ‘s first nurseryman, Thomas Shepherd and when Shepherd ‘s Lectures of Landscape Gardening were published in 1836 the booklet was dedicated to Macleay ‘in admiration of [his 1 consummate skill, knowledge, and zeal, in Horticultural pursuits . It is of special interest to camellia lovers that Robert Henderson, who was Macleay’s first gardener at Elizabeth Bay House, established his own nursery called Camellia Grove in Erskineville Lane, Newtown in the late 1830s. Alexander gave many plants to the Sydney Botanic Garden over the years and his name is linked with the introduction of 46 new plants to New South Wales during the period 1825 to 1827, including the double white Camellia japonica ‘Alba Plena’ from China in 1825. His garden at Elizabeth Bay spanned 54 acres and was considered to be the finest in the colony. From his days as secretary of the Linnean Society in London, Alexander had developed a network of contacts around the world and the seed notebook from his Elizabeth Bay garden for the period 1836 to 1853 records 3,806 seeds. In fact, his express ambition in 1827 was to cultivate every plant that he could possibly obtain. Roses also featured extensively in Macleay ‘s gardens and at his English country estate, called Tilbuster which was near Godstone in Surrey, the beds were constantly being extended to accommodate new rose gardens. When Alexander sailed for New South Wales he brought with him 34 roses, including three noisettes which were relatively new varieties in the world.

Joseph Banks played a part in Macleay’s life in London, as well as his close associate, the famous botanist, Robert Brown whose life at one stage appears to have been very nearly related to the Macleays, except that Eliza Macleay intervened as she wanted her eldest daughter Fanny to help her raise her 15 other siblings. All in all, 17 children were born into this family but, fortunately in many ways, only 10 survived to adulthood! In fact when Alexander arrived in Sydney in January 1826 at the advanced age of 58 to take up his position as second only Colonial Secretary in the colony, he brought with him his six single daughters! With all the men in the colony, surely they would find suitable husbands and relieve his extra financial burdens before too long!

Macleay’s public life in Sydney was influenced by the fact that his period in office as Colonial Secretary was during one of the most tumultuous times in the history of New South Wales. As the colony strived to establish itself through the transition from penal settlement to a free society, personal conflicts arose and Macleay encountered enormous pressure. Throughout these trying days he maintained his dignity and in 1843, only 5 years before his death in 1848, he had the honour of being appointed as the colony’s first Speaker in the Legislative Council. Colourful colonial characters such as William Wentworth of Vaucluse House, who had previously criticised and complained about Alexander, eventually changed their opinion, so much so that when Macleay resigned as Speaker in 1846, Wentworth openly acknowledged that although he had originally thought Macleay was not the proper person to fill the office as the first Speaker, he was now glad to say he had been most agreeably disappointed. 

Amidst all these difficulties, Alexander also had to contend with increasing financial problems. When the colony encountered a major depression in the early 1840s he narrowly avoided bankruptcy through the intervention of his son, William Sharp, who took over his father’s debts. But in the process he evicted his father from his home at Elizabeth Bay. A most tragic day and a very sad story. Furthermore, Alexander’s most talented and favourite daughter, Fanny, died in 1836, only weeks after her marriage at age 43. If you go into St James’ Church in Macquarie Street today you will discover three wonderful memorial plaques on the wall- one for Alexander, one for Fanny and one for her brother William Sharp. In fact it is thanks to Fanny that we have another recorded picture of her father-so different from the image that historians, such as Manning Clark, have incorrectly portrayed in the past. In the 1950s a large collection of Fanny’s letters to her brother William Sharp, spanning the period 1812 to 1836, were discovered and they have since been published, in 1993. Because of these important letters, this biography of Macleay has been able to be documented as accurately as possible, although of course Fanny’s writings are mostly, though not always, rosy coloured about her beloved father. Nevertheless her letters are the most extensive primary source available and, although there are numerous personal references in these private letters, Fanny would probably have been pleased to know how effectively they contributed to the writing of her father’s life story.

Unlike many other colonists, Macleay did not return to England. He is buried at the Camperdown Cemetery in the grounds of St Stephen’S Church in Sydney and there are numerous reminders today around Sydney of this clever and courteous Scottish gentleman, including Macleay Street in Kings Cross and the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney.

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