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Michie, Sir Archibald (1813–1899)

Archibald Michie, c1864

Archibald Michie, c1864

State Library of Victoria, H37475/37

The news of the death, at the age of 86 years, of Sir Archibald Michie, Q.C., last representative of a group of great men who were distinguished in Victoria forty years ago will be received with regret. Yet it will not surprise. Sir Archibald, it is well known, has been an invalid for many years, quite unable to leave his house, Tregarie, Alma-road, St. Kilda. Though nursed with tender solicitude and comforted by the members of his family, the aged man gradually became weaker and weaker. About ten days ago he slipped and fell, and suffered an abrasion on the leg. This developed into an abscess, and the simple necessary operation in such cases was an ordeal from which he never actually recovered. His end was hastened by the trouble, and he died late on Wednesday night, in the presence of Lady Michie and his son, Mr. William Michie. The funeral will take place on Sunday, and the St. Kilda Cemetery will be the scene of the interment. 

Sir Archibald belonged to a generation of public men in Victoria who were liberal by culture as well as in opinions, and who combined high character and rectitude of conduct with exceptional ability, and a disposition to devote much valuable time to the discharge of political duties, in the fulfilment of which they were often called upon to make considerable personal sacrifices. He was the son of a London merchant of the same name, living in what was then the suburban village of Maida Vale. In fact, it was only seven years old when the subject of this memoir was born there in 1813, having derived its name from the famous battle of Maida, fought in 1806. Educated at Westminster School, and entered at the Middle Temple, on attaining his one and twentieth year, the young law student was thrown into the society of men belonging to what was then called the school of philosophical radicals, which included John Stuart Mill, Bowring, Colonel Thompson, and the principal contributors to the Westminster Review. He espoused their principles, and lived to hear them stigmatised as conservative and retrograde by a community which has deliberately abjured freedom of commerce. Called to the English bar in 1838, Mr. Michie resolved upon seeking a less crowded field of professional labour in a British colony, and sailed for Sydney in 1839, where he practised at the bar, and soon became known as an acute, ready-witted, and successful pleader, with a quick eye for the weak points of an opponents case; great aptitude at repartee, and a clever knack of raising a laugh at the expense of a witness whom he wished to disconcert, and of putting a jury into good humour by a caustic remark, an apposite anecdote, or a diverting sally. But in those days the profession of a barrister was not so remunerative as it afterwards became, and Mr. Michie supplemented his legal earnings by contributing law reports and original articles to the press. In the year 1844 a weekly newspaper called the Atlas was started in Sydney. It was edited by Mr. (afterwards Sir James) Martin, and one of its principal writers was Mr. Robert Lowe, afterwards Lord Sherbrooke, who had arrived in the colony two years previously. Mr. Michie and he struck up a friendship, and the former was pressed into the service of the Atlas which also numbered Mr. William Forster among its contributors. 

About 1848 Mr. Michie revisited England and made a lengthened stay there, but, in the meanwhile, the discoveries of gold in Australia had opened a new chapter in the history of these colonies, and he returned to them in 1852, selecting Victoria as a place of residence, and settling down in Melbourne, where he resumed the practice of his profession. He was soon recognised as a "man of mark and likelihood," and having been admitted to the Victorian bar he was, in October, 1852, appointed by the government a nominee member of the old Legislative Council, which used to hold its sittings in St. Patrick's Hall, Bourke-street west. He sat in that body for two seasons and then resigned, owing to the claims made upon his time by his profession, and also by his having become part-owner of the Melbourne Herald, a morning paper. But the ability which he and the late Frederick Sinnett, one of his two partners, brought to bear upon the literary conduct of their property were inadequate to atone for its sadly defective business management, and at the end of two years, namely, in 1856, Mr. Michie retired from the concern, a very heavy loser by it. 

After the unfortunate affair of the Eureka Stockade, when the government had resolved upon the prosecution of the rioters, Mr. Michie, with other prominent barristers, volunteered to undertake the gratuitous defence of the prisoners, and, as is well known, the trial resulted in their acquittal. Soon afterwards the Constitution Act, framed by the old Legislative Council, and acquiesced in by the Imperial Parliament, was brought into force, and responsible government was established in Victoria. At the first general election Mr. Michie had the honour of being returned to the Legislative Assembly, in conjunction with Messrs. O'Shanassy, Stawell, David Moore, and J. T. Smith, for the city of Melbourne, and on the formation of the second Haines Administration, in April, 1857, Mr. Michie was offered, and accepted the Attorney-Generalship, having for his colleagues Messrs Ebden, Moore, Fellows, McCulloch and Mitchell. The Ministry was displaced on the 10th of March in the following year, and the late Attorney-General went into Opposition with his colleagues. In 1859 he was returned to the Legislative Assembly for the burrough of St. Kilda, in which he resided, and continued to represent it until a fresh election occurred in 1861, when he did not seek re-election, but remained out of Parliament until 1863, when the defeat of the third O'Shanassy Administration was followed by the formation of an unusually strong Government with Mr. (afterwards Sir James) McCulloch at its head. The two law offices in the Cabinet were filled by Mr. Higinbotham as Attorney-General and by Mr. Michie as Minister of Justice. Only three years before his accession to office in this Ministry, Mr. Michie had delivered an admirable lecture to a thronged and enthusiastic audience in the old Exhibition building, entitled "Victoria Suffering a Recovery," in which he had brought the artillery of his wit and logic to bear with destructive effect of that section of the community which was just then reviving the doctrines of "protection to native industry." Holding these strong opinions on the fiscal question, and having held them all his life, the new Minister of Justice gave a painful shock to his friends by aiding his colleagues to reverse the public policy of the colony, which had previously been that of levying Customs duties for revenue purposes only, and to make protection its guiding principle in the matter of taxation. After three years experience of the anxieties and responsibilities of office during this troubled and turbulent period, Mr. Michie retired from office, and was succeeded by Mr. Samuel Bindon as Minister of Justice. At the general election in 1866 he was returned to the Assembly by the electors of St. Kilda, having previously represented Polwarth and Grenville. Two years later he successfully contested South Gippsland, and filled the office of Attorney-General in the third McCulloch Administration from April 1870 to June 1871. In the latter year he presented himself for re-election to the same constituency, but was defeated. In fact, it was not his good fortune to meet with an immediate renewal of trust from any electorate; and the fact, paradoxical as it may sound, redounded to his credit. He declined to merge the representative in the delegate and commission agent. 

Mt Michie was afterwards elected to a seat in the Legislative Council, which he resigned in order to revisit Europe in 1872. On his return in the year following, Mr. Francis, who was then Premier of a Coalition Ministry, offered him the Agent-Generalship in London, vacant by the resignation of Sir George Verdon, who had filled the post from May, 1868 to February 1872. Mr. Michie accepted the position, which he occupied until 1879, when he returned to Melbourne, having been created a K.C.M.G. in the previous year. Sir Archibald Michie resumed practice as a barrister, and also, it is understood, the duties devolving upon him as the Melbourne correspondent of The Times, to which he was a contributor during many previous years. For the deceased gentleman was variously gifted, and his literary tastes and studies had always drawn him towards journalism, while he excelled as a causeur. A widely read man, he also possessed a retentive memory, in which was stored an inexhaustible fund of anecdote and apposite quotation wherewith to enrich his conversation. With a keen sense of humour he combined the facility of witty expression and a dramatic manner. Few raconteurs could tell a story so well or illustrate it more happily by voice and gesture, until advancing years had weakened the first and impaired the mobility of the second. The presence of Michie, Aspinall and Ireland at a bar mess was sufficient not only to "set" but to keep "the table in a roar," and their flashes of merriment, to quote the happy expression of Robert Herrick, "outdid the meat, outdid the frolic wine." 

If conversation had not possessed the charm it did for Sir Archibald Michie, the probability is he might have made some permanent contribution to the literature of these colonies. He was well qualified to do so, but beyond the articles he wrote for the Sydney Atlas, for the Melbourne Morning Herald, and for Melbourne Punch, most of which are difficult of identification now, and dealt with topics of ephemeral interest, he has only left behind him the three lectures, together with the fragment of a fourth, and a treatise on Victoria and Its Resources, which he collected and published in a volume under the title of Readings in Melbourne, while he was filling the office of Agent-General in London in 1879, and what is wittiest in his lectures suffers in the reading by the absence of the lecturer's voice and manner, which could lend such point to an epigram, such emphasis to a joke, such a mixture of vinegar and honey to a sarcasm. 

For upwards of 10 years past, as we have said, Sir Archibald was confined more or less to his house, advancing years and growing infirmities preventing him from maintaining the interest in public affairs for which his active mind and remarkable ability had in years gone by so well fitted him. He was content to remain within the circle of his family and immediate friends. they became his world, and the wider world outside almost forgot that one who had been such a leader among men as Sir Archibald Michie undoubtedly was, still lived. The deceased married in 1840 Miss Mary Richardson, daughter of Dr. John Richardson, inspector-general of hospitals, who survives him. He leaves three sons and two daughters, of the latter of whom Mrs. a'Beckett, wife of Mr. Justice a'Beckett, is one. The eldest son is Mr. A. D. Michie, solicitor, the second Mr. William Michie, of Melbourne, and the third Mr. G. D. Michie, who is in the service of the P. and O. Company at Colombo.

Original publication

Citation details

'Michie, Sir Archibald (1813–1899)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/michie-sir-archibald-4196/text25032, accessed 25 November 2017.

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