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Alexander Cameron Macdonald (1828–1917)

Alexander Cameron Macdonald, n.d. photographer unknown

Alexander Cameron Macdonald, n.d. photographer unknown

Australasian (Melbourne), 23 June 1917, p 29

We greatly regret having to record the death of an old and valued contributor to this, journal in Mr. Alexander Cameron Macdonald, which occurred at his residence, Punt road, Prahran, early on Monday morning, June 18. Mr. Macdonald, who was in his 89th year, had made the language and lore of the Australian black his hobby; he had studied his ways, knew his language, and understood, him as few men have. He had a vocabulary of many thousands of native names and their English equivalents. He loved his subject, and by papers and pamphlets read before the Royal Geographical Society and the Historical Society served to disseminate his knowledge. It was, however, as a contributor to "The Australasian" and by the answers he supplied in its columns to questions requiring familiarity, with aboriginal languages and dialects that he became so widely known. For the last 30 years it was rare for a week to pass without his name appearing in the "Notes and Answers" column. It was all a labour of love with him.

Mr. Macdonald was the third of a family of twelve sons and daughters of the late Mr. Alexander Cameron Macdonald, one of the pioneers of New South Wales, who settled at Campbelltown, in the County of Cumberland, very early last century. It is a remarkable tribute to the hardihood and longevity of this Scottish family that until a brother died last year, there had not been a death among the brothers and sisters since September 13, 1838, a period of nearly 78 years. Mr. Macdonald's brother George, of Glendarriwell, Maude, near Geelong, aged 93, a sister aged 91, and six others, the youngest of whom is now nearly 71, survive him.

Mr. Macdonald was born at Campbelltown on August 9, 1828, and was educated there. He often recalled the fact that while he was a schoolboy the Governor of New South Wales, Sir George Gipps, after whom Gippsland is named, inspected the school, His Excellency's questions to young Macdonald were so satisfactorily answered that the boy was awarded by the Governor a set of mensuration instruments. On leaving school he assisted his father in working the property which they had taken up. He loved the bush, and thus early had begun to learn the ways of the blacks. When, in 1847, he started from Sydney for Port Phillip over land with horses it was as an enterprising young man. He was going into the unknown, but he carried out his project, and, though he had numerous adventures and perils, having to swim flooded creeks and rivers, and to find his way through the then trackless country, he delivered his mob safely and returned. In the following year he made two trips with horses, and then took charge of horses at Peechelba station, on the Ovens River. Later on he opened the first post-office in the Wangaratta district. In 1849 Mr. Macdonald joined the survey party of Mr. Burnett, a well-known surveyor of the early days, and became a qualified surveyor. He then became assistant to, and subsequently the partner of, Mr. Charles Rowand, C.E., at that time practising as a surveyor, architect, and civil engineer at Geelong. Much of the laying-out of the town was done by the firm. The gold rush to Ballarat in 1851 attracted Mr. Macdonald, as it did many others, and he tried his luck there, but with little success. He turned his professional ability to account, however, and prepared the first map of the Ballarat goldfields. The map now hangs in the School of Mines at Ballarat.

Mr. Macdonald did not remain a gold-miner long, for in 1852 he returned to Geelong, resuming, his practice as a surveyor, combining with it an auctioneering, business, until, in 1876, he moved to Melbourne. Mr. Macdonald was a heavy sufferer in the financial depression of the sixties, but his enterprise and courage could not be damped. In 1873 he was secretary of the Western District Railway League. He was a member of the Geelong Town Council, being twice returned unopposed. He stood for Parliament on three occasions in the Freetrade interest, contesting the South Grant and Geelong East seats for the Legislative Assembly, but was unsuccessful, though receiving a large measure of support. During his long residence in Geelong he was actively engaged in public movements. Among other things, he was concerned in the establishment of vineyards , on the banks of the Barwon and Moorabool Rivers, subsequently ruined by the outbreak of phylloxera.

When Mr. Macdonald came to Melbourne In 1876 he went into business as an accountant and manager of companies, and gave much time to collating his records of the aborigines and their language and ways. He soon became known as an authority. In 1883 he founded the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia. He became its first hon. secretary and hon. treasurer, and it is not too much to say that it was his interest, energy, enthusiasm, and unfailing devotion which maintained the society for many years. He was also the librarian and editor of the Society's Journal until 1906, when he retired from the position of hon. secretary, but retained the treasurership. To mark their sense of his invaluable services for 23 years, the members presented him with a purse of sovereigns and an illuminated address.

Mr. Macdonald brought into his study of Australian exploration and discovery much personal knowledge. He knew such pioneers as Mitchell, Sturt, Hume, Gregory, Hamilton, and Howitt, and his remarkable memory helped materially in his work of recording the doings of the early days. He took an active part in the work of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, and was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of London, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society (England), a member of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and of the Geographical Society of Lisbon. He was a founder and Fellow of the Incorporated Institute of Accountants of Victoria. He was the last survivor of the founders of the Colonial Bank of Australasia.

Mr. Macdonald married, in 1852, the third daughter of the late Mr. Gilbert Robertson, a pioneer journalist of Tasmania and Victoria, but had no family. His wife died some 15 years ago, leaving an adopted daughter, Miss Lily Macdonald, who tended him in his declining years. He retired from business about five years ago, but to the end retained all his faculties and his interest in the matters to which he had devoted so much attention.

The funeral took place at the St. Kilda Cemetery, and was largely attended by members of the Geographical Society and others. The Rev. Dr. Strong officiated at the grave. The pall-bearers were Mr. Henry Gyles Turner (president of the Royal Geographical Society), Mr. Sachse, M.L.C. (vice-president), Professor Masson, Mr. H. Byron Moore, Mr. C. R. Long, M.A., and Messrs. Fraser, Gardiner, and Gilroy.

Original publication

Citation details

'Macdonald, Alexander Cameron (1828–1917)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 May 2024.

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