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Thomas McIlwraith

thomas mcilwraith
Sir Thomas McIlwraith KCMG 17 May 1835 – 17 July 1900 was for many years the dominant figure of colonial politics in Queensland He was Premier of Queensland from 1879 to 1883, again in 1888, and for a third time in 1893 In common with most politicians of his era, McIlwraith was an influential businessman, who combined his parliamentary career with a prosperous involvement in the pastoral industry


  • 1 Early life
  • 2 Australia
  • 3 Parliamentary career
  • 4 After politics
  • 5 Named in his honour
  • 6 See also
  • 7 Notes
  • 8 References
  • 9 Further reading
  • 10 External links

Early life

Thomas McIlwraith was born in Ayr, Scotland in 1835, one of four sons of John McIlwraith, plumber and shipowner, and his wife Janet Hamilton née Howat His eldest brother, John 1828–1902, migrated to Victoria in 1853; his youngest brother, Andrew 1844–1932, co-founded McIlwraith, McEacharn & Co in London with Malcolm McEacharn[1][2][3][4]

McIlwraith studied civil engineering at the University of Glasgow[5]


McIlwraith's brother John's success in Melbourne persuaded him, in 1854, to migrate to Victoria where he worked as a surveyor and engineer for the Department of Railways, and subsequently as a partner with Messrs Cornish[6] and Bruce,[7] railway contractors He also invested in eight pastoral holdings in the Maranoa district in Queensland

He retained close relations with his brother John, and on 6 June 1863 married Margaret Whannell, sister of John's wife They had three daughters, Jessie b 1866, Mary b 1868 and Blanche b 1872 He eventually moved to Queensland, but Margaret was reluctant to live in isolated Merivale station In 1871 she visited Merivale, but soon returned to Melbourne for Blanche's birth In 1874 they decided to live in Brisbane Thomas found that she was drinking heavily, and sent her to Scotland where she died in 1877 McIlwraith fathered an illegitimate daughter in Victoria In 1877 McIlwraith was a founding partner of the North Australian Pastoral Company[8] In 1879 he married Harriette Ann née Mosman Harriette was the sister of Hugh Mosman, who discovered gold in Charters Towers, and Cecilia Mosman, wife of his political colleague Arthur Palmer also Premier of Queensland;[9][10] she gave birth to his fourth legitimate daughter in 1881

Parliamentary career

While working for J V A Bruce,[7] he represented his employers in a dispute with the Victorian government, and attracted public attention In 1864 he contested the Sandhurst seat in the Victorian Legislative Assembly but won few votes as a free trader

McIlwraith was elected to the Legislative Assembly in the seat of Maranoa in 1868

He joined the ministry of Arthur Macalister in January 1874 becoming Secretary for Public Works and Mines He resigned from these posts in October of that year

The government of John Douglas was defeated in 1879 after a series of severe droughts and McIlwraith became premier for the first time He quickly worked to ameliorate the colony's finances and with the assistance of a return of agricultural prosperity he turned the budget deficit into a surplus Queensland at this stage was seeing increasing numbers of immigrants and McIlwraith oversaw the colony's economic development The McIlwraith government introduced the divisional system of local government to the larger part of Queensland and assisted in establishing a postal service through the Torres Strait Islands In 1882 he was knighted

The Australian colonies were extremely anxious about German colonial activities in the region, it became clear that the German government was planning to annex eastern New Guinea, to Queensland's north McIlwraith took the extraordinary step of attempting to annex New Guinea for Queensland; he employed Henry Chester to proclaim the Queen's sovereignty which occurred on 4 April 1883[11] This was later disallowed by the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Derby on the basis that a colonial government had no authority to annex other colonies Yet it was at the same time suggested that the British government expedite the annexation of New Guinea if the Australian colonies would combine to finance the venture This was then instrumental in the gathering of an Intercolonial Convention in November and December 1883, with federation and annexation on its agenda It was the first step to unite the Australian colonies in a federation movement The result was that orders were finally given to establish British New Guinea, as a protectorate on the southern coast of eastern coast of New Guinea on 6 November 1884 However, well informed the German Navy had secretly landed annexing the northern coast under the name ‘Kaiser-Wilhelmsland’ three days earlier But the news about German New Guinea was successfully kept a secret until finally the news finally broke on 22 December that year[12]

In 1883 a government proposal to raise funds for the construction of a transcontinental railway line by a system of land grants was attacked for corruption in allocation of grants McIlwraith lost office to his rival, Samuel Griffith, in November and retired from politics in 1886

McIlwraith returned to the Parliament in 1888, this time as member for North Brisbane His party won a majority in the elections and he again became Premier and Treasurer He came into conflict with the colony's Governor, Sir Anthony Musgrave over the exercise of the royal pardon Musgrave died in October and McIlwraith petitioned the new Colonial Secretary Lord Knutsford, to allow the Queensland government to be consulted on the choice of governor Knutsford refused and appointed Sir Harry Blake, however, the local legislature problematically declined to ratify the appointment[13] In November of that year ill-health forced him to resign in favour of Boyd Dunlop Morehead, whereupon McIlwraith travelled to China and Japan

After his return, McIlwraith's relationship with his colleagues had deteriorated, and in August 1890 he formed an alliance later known as the "Continuous Ministry" with his erstwhile foe to become Treasurer in the government of Sir Samuel Griffith In March 1893 Griffith stepped down to join the Supreme Court of Queensland and McIlwraith became Premier again His health was still poor and in October he resigned in favour of Hugh Nelson, contenting himself with the cabinet position of Chief Secretary and secretary for railways until 29 March 1895

The Dictionary of Australian of Biography[5] says:

McIlwraith was a big man with big ideas, but his indifferent health did not allow him to successfully carry the full burden of them He was rugged and masterful, possibly on occasions not over-scrupulous, with a habit of getting his own way by sheer force of character rather than by intellectual ability For nearly 25 years he was one of the greatest personalities in Queensland

After politics

Since 1888 the London directors of McIlwraith's Queensland Investment and Land Mortgage Co had complained about the practices of the local board, and in 1892 they charged McIlwraith, Palmer and two others with fraud The remaining years of his life were surrounded in financial scandal and large financial losses by institutions that he was involved with

Although McIlwraith left for England on 15 January 1895, he was still a minister of the Queensland cabinet until 25 November 1897 when the Labor Party with government support succeeded in passing a resolution that he should retire On 9 December he resigned from the Executive Council

McIlwraith died in London on 17 July 1900 and was buried at Ayr[1]

Named in his honour

The following places were named after him:

  • McIlwraith, Queensland, a locality in the Bundaberg Region[14]
  • McIlwraith Range, Queensland, a mountain range in the Cook Shire[15]

See also

  • Members of the Queensland Legislative Assembly, 1868–1870; 1870–1871; 1873–1878; 1878–1883; 1883–1888; 1888–1893; 1893–1896


  1. ^ a b Dignan, Don "McIlwraith, Sir Thomas 1835–1900" Australian Dictionary of Biography Melbourne University Press ISSN 1833-7538 Retrieved 2 December 2013 – via National Centre of Biography, Australian National Universitymw-parser-output citecitationmw-parser-output citation qmw-parser-output id-lock-free a,mw-parser-output citation cs1-lock-free amw-parser-output id-lock-limited a,mw-parser-output id-lock-registration a,mw-parser-output citation cs1-lock-limited a,mw-parser-output citation cs1-lock-registration amw-parser-output id-lock-subscription a,mw-parser-output citation cs1-lock-subscription amw-parser-output cs1-subscription,mw-parser-output cs1-registrationmw-parser-output cs1-subscription span,mw-parser-output cs1-registration spanmw-parser-output cs1-ws-icon amw-parser-output codecs1-codemw-parser-output cs1-hidden-errormw-parser-output cs1-visible-errormw-parser-output cs1-maintmw-parser-output cs1-subscription,mw-parser-output cs1-registration,mw-parser-output cs1-formatmw-parser-output cs1-kern-left,mw-parser-output cs1-kern-wl-leftmw-parser-output cs1-kern-right,mw-parser-output cs1-kern-wl-rightmw-parser-output citation mw-selflink
  2. ^ J Ann Hone, 'McIlwraith, John 1828–1902', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, Melbourne University Press, 1974, pp 160–161 Retrieved on 11 July 2009
  3. ^ D B Waterson, 'McIlwraith, Andrew 1844–1932', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, Melbourne University Press, 1986, pp 282–283 Retrieved on 11 July 2009
  4. ^ David Dunstan, 'McEacharn, Sir Malcolm Donald 1852–1910', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, Melbourne University Press, 1986, pp 263–264 Retrieved on 11 July 2009
  5. ^ a b Percival Searle, McIlwraith, Sir Thomas 1835–1900, Dictionary of Australian of Biography, Angus and Robertson, 1949 Retrieved on 11 July 2009
  6. ^ John Maxwell, 'Cornish, William Crocker 1815–1859', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, Melbourne University Press, 1969, p 464 Retrieved on 11 July 2009
  7. ^ a b John Maxwell, 'Bruce, John Vans Agnew 1822–1863', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, Melbourne University Press, 1969, pp 277–278 Retrieved on 11 July 2009
  8. ^ "The North Australian Pastoral Company Pty Ltd" NAPCO Retrieved 10 October 2011
  9. ^ J X Jobson, 'Palmer, Sir Arthur Hunter 1819–1898', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, Melbourne University Press, 1974, pp 390–392 Retrieved on 11 July 2009
  10. ^ "Death of Hon Hugh Mosman" The Brisbane Courier National Library of Australia 16 November 1909 p 4 Retrieved 22 June 2014
  11. ^ Mennell, Philip 1892 "Chester, Henry Majoribanks"  The Dictionary of Australasian Biography London: Hutchinson & Co – via Wikisource
  12. ^ Brisbane Courier 15 November 1884 page 4&5 & Brisbane Courier 23 Dec 1884, page 4
  13. ^ Martin, Arthur Patchett 1889 "The Moral of Queensland Imbroglio"  Australia and the Empire 1 ed Edinburgh: David Douglas pp 233–252
  14. ^ "McIlwraith entry 44741" Queensland Place Names Queensland Government Retrieved 8 February 2014
  15. ^ "McIlwraith Range entry 21393" Queensland Place Names Queensland Government Retrieved 8 February 2014


  • Joyce RB & Murphy, DJEd: Queensland Political Portraits, St Lucia University of Queensland Press, 1978

Further reading

  • Beanland, Denver 2007, "PhD thesis", Queensland Caesar: Sir Thomas McIlwraith PDF, School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics, University of Queensland

External links

  • Media related to Thomas McIlwraith at Wikimedia Commons
Political offices
Preceded by
John Douglas
Premier of Queensland
Succeeded by
Samuel Griffith
Preceded by
Samuel Griffith
Premier of Queensland
Succeeded by
Boyd Dunlop Morehead
Preceded by
Sir Samuel Griffith
Premier of Queensland
Succeeded by
Hugh Nelson
Parliament of Queensland
Preceded by
Samuel Hodgson
Member for Warrego
Succeeded by
Archibald Buchanan
Preceded by
William Miles
Member for Maranoa
Succeeded by
James Lalor
Preceded by
Walter Scott
Member for Mulgrave
Succeeded by
Walter Adams
New seat Member for Brisbane North
Served alongside: Samuel Griffith, John Kingsbury, Robert Fraser
Succeeded by
Thomas MacDonald-Paterson

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