Daily Archives: November 1, 2008

Port Phillip Apostle No. 4 Alexander McKillop

What’s Blessed Mary MacKillop doing here amongst a consideration of Port Phillip entrepreneurs of the 1840s???  I asked myself the same question when researching Alexander McKillop and finding links to Mary MacKillop.  But the Australian Dictionary of Biography helped  things come clear: she changed the spelling of her name, and ‘my’ Alexander McKillop was, in fact, her father.

All of a sudden one of the two ‘settler’ Apostles is catapaulted very much into the public eye, not in his own right, but as part of the story of his daughter, Mary MacKillop.  I found myself reading two hagiographic- in the true sense of the word- narratives of Mary’s life: In Search of Alexander MacKillop by Victor Feehan and Ann MacDonnell, and The Black Dress , a young adult fictionalized biography by Pamela Freeman.  Of course, narratives devised with a view to her beatification or eventual sainthood have their own logic and agendas.  It is to be expected that her life will be framed in terms of a struggle that she overcame, and  Alexander’s financial incompetence fits in well to that theme.  But at the same time, in terms of her own development of character, her parents’ devout Catholicism needs to seen as a facilitating rather than hindering factor, (especially in books written for Catholic teenagers and children).

Alexander McKillop had arrived alone in Sydney from Scotland as a bounty migrant in 1838 and through family contacts, obtained a position with Campbell and Sons, the Sydney merchants.  After his family joined him, he shifted to Melbourne to work in the Campbell and Sons agency in Little Collins Street.  Presumably this would have given him some experience in commercial transactions (Ville’s third category of colonial entrepreneurs included men with previous commercial experience).  He purchased a house in Brunswick Street Fitzroy for 700 pounds in 1841, and is listed by Billis and Kenyon as the owner of a property on the Merri Creek between 1840-1.  But his daughter Mary’s biographers emphasize his fecklessness.  His involvement with the Twelve Apostles imbroglio contributed directly to his insolvency in 1844, on the same day as fellow Apostle John Maude Woolley.   In May 1843 he admitted to losing more than 7000 pounds over two and a half years.  And there was a sixteen month trip alone back to Scotland in 1851 to accompany an old friend that seems curious, if not self-indulgent, requiring him to mortgage his property in Darebin Creek to his brother to raise the fare, possibly unbeknown to his wife.  When his return was delayed, his own brother foreclosed on the property, evicting his sister-in-law and young family (ah, there’s nothing like family!).  There was a string of unsuccessful jobs, futile relocations to Sydney and New Zealand and back, and a slow slide into dependence on family support from his extended family and his children’s wages.  Eventually the family splintered, with Alexander alone in Hamilton; his wife Flora running a boardinghouse in Portland, one son in New Zealand, other sons at school in South Australia and daughters in Penola (South Australia) and Coburg (Victoria).

However, the tension in creating the Mary McKillop narrative lies in balancing this financial and paternal incompetence with the strong Catholicism that Alexander shared with his family.  I’ve been too much influenced by the Scotch Presbyterian and Orange influence in Melbourne, because I initially assumed- incorrectly- by his name that he would be Presbyterian.  Instead, his family came from Lochaber in the Highlands, a region once known as ‘the cradle of the faith’ through the  ministries of  St Columba in 563AD and Coirell around 600AD, and supportive of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745.  At the age of twelve Alexander McKillop left for Rome to study for the Catholic priesthood, but was sent home in 1831at the age of nineteen because of ill-health.  On his return to Scotland he studied theology at Blair’s College in Aberdeen for a year, but left without completing his course.

On his arrival at Port Phillip he became deeply involved with the nascent St Francis’ Church and its priest Fr. Geoghegan.  He was a Trustee and Treasurer of the church; Fr Geoghegan travelled to the Darebin Creek to perform Mass for the family, and all family weddings and christenings took place at St Francis’. He instructed his children and encouraged them in their religious vocations.

His strong allegiance to the Church in some way explains his political involvement in Port Phillip at the time.  When the fiery Protestant preacher and politician John Dunmore Lang came to Melbourne as part of his electoral campaign for a seat on the Legislative Council, Alexander publicly remonstrated in letters to the Press against him and his sectarian and divisive attitudes.  Alexander came out in petitions and meetings in support for Edward Curr, Lang’s Catholic opponent for the Legislative Council.  His clerical training- incomplete though it was- gave him the literary and oratorical skills to engage in defence of his Church in the political realm.

But his political and civic involvement was even wider than this.  He attended the Levee to greet Governor Gipps when he visited in 1841, attended the Melbourne Debating Club, served on the committee of the Mechanics Institute and was a member of the St Andrews Society- a fairly pricey society with a one-guinea subscription fee.  He served on juries and occasionally on Special Juries, which is interesting because to qualify as a special juror a man had to be an Esquire or a person of higher degree, a Justice of the Peace, a Merchant not keeping a general retail shop, a bank director of a member of the Sydney or Melbourne Town Council- although the reference to the Town Council suggests that this legislation must have been promulgated after 1842.   He qualified as an elector in the Legislative Council elections of 1843, and stood very unsuccessfully for election in his own right in later years.  He was involved in the major political debates of the time, signing petitions in favour of Curr, George Arden and- most importantly for me- signed several petitions against Judge Willis.

I think that this public involvement is overlooked in the Mary McKillop biographies, and it could hold the key to Alexander’s otherwise puzzling involvement as one of the Twelve Apostles.  Even if he was not in the league financially, his social interactions on juries and committees enmeshed him into the political and financial milieu of the time.  The November 1841 Port Phillip Herald carries a small paragraph about a horse-riding accident at Heidelberg where Mr Boyd, the head of the Union Bank was injured while out riding with Rev Mr Sproat (of whom I know nothing) and Mr McKillop.  It was the Union Bank that lay at the heart of the whole Rucker scenario- was this one of the connections?  There were many other opportunities for McKillop to socialize with Fellow Twelve Apostles:  Chisholm and Carrington both attended the Debating Club; he sat on juries alongside Abraham Abrahams; Power was a Catholic who must have attended St Francis’; Were, Carrington and Welsh were all involved in the push to remove Judge Willis.  This is not merely a manifestation, as depicted by the Mary McKillop biographies,  of Alexander McKillop’s hotheadedness and querulousness : in a province where political “excitement” was making both Governor Gipps and especially Superintendent La Trobe uneasy, the networking and public visibility of this political and civic interaction was an integral part of masculinity in  Port Phillip public life.

So what’s the Entrepreneurial Lesson for Alexander McKillop?  None really, except perhaps that God works in mysterious ways. The whole Alexander/Mary McKillop scenario is ripe for “What if?” history.  Would Mary have been the woman she was had her family not been plunged into penury? How did her financial history affect the way she perceived her vocation?  What if Mary McKillop had not become involved in grassroots Catholic educational provision- who else might have instead?


  • Victor Feehan and Ann MacDonell In Search of Alexander MacKillop
  • Pamela Freeman The Black Dress
  • Edmund Finn (Garryowen) Chronicles….