Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Macdowell, Thomas (1813–1868)

by Louis Green

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

This is a shared entry with Edward Macdowell

Edward Macdowell (1798-1860), barrister, and Thomas Macdowell (1813-1868), newspaper editor, were the sons of John and Susan Macdowell of Marlton, near Wicklow, Ireland. Edward was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in 1824 and served for some years on the Midland Circuit before he was appointed solicitor-general of New South Wales in 1830. He lost this position when he failed to take up his duties promptly, and had to accept instead the less remunerative solicitor-generalship of Van Diemen's Land. He held office from January 1833 to September 1837 when he succeeded Alfred Stephen as attorney-general. In December 1838 his brother Thomas joined him in Van Diemen's Land.

Thomas, who had worked in London as a reporter on the Constitutional, began his newspaper career in the colony early in 1839 as editor of the Hobart Town Courier under the conductorship of William Elliston. In July 1841 he founded the Van Diemen's Land Chronicle and remained in charge until it ceased publication next December. Although both these newspapers enjoyed government patronage, the first loyalty of Thomas as their editor was not to the government but to the '(Sir) George Arthur faction', with which Edward became linked by his marriage in June 1835 to Laura Jeanette, daughter of Charles Swanston, the influential manager of the Derwent Bank.

From Thomas's arrival in the colony, the association of the Macdowell brothers was close and notorious. Many, including Gilbert Robertson and Lady Jane Franklin, suspected Edward of inspiring his brother's newspaper articles. In 1839 the Hobart Town Courier, with Thomas as editor, repeatedly attacked the solicitor-general, Herbert Jones, who had quarrelled with Edward and forced him to resign over the distillation issues bill. When these press attacks did not cease on Jones's handing back of the attorney-generalship to Macdowell after the bill had been piloted through the Legislative Council, Jones was stung to make counter charges in a letter published in a rival newspaper, Gilbert Robertson's True Colonist. The dispute between the two law officers, each of whom appealed against the other to the Colonial Office, became a public scandal and in July 1841 both were dismissed.

The loss of his attorney-generalship left Edward free to devote his time to his legal practice, which became one of the most successful in the colony; one of its highlights was the defence in 1843 of the bushranger, Martin Cash. Freedom from office also allowed him and his brother more openly to support John Montagu, the colonial secretary and leader of the 'Arthur faction', in his quarrel with Sir John Franklin. Thomas, as editor of the Van Diemen's Land Chronicle, was responsible for the first and most damaging of the attacks on Lady Franklin in the Tasmanian press. As a journalist, he excelled in invective: his jibes at John Macdougall, editor of the Colonial Times in 1841, and Thomas Gregson in 1848 struck home so effectively that the one attempted to whip him, the other to cudgel him in public; and of the critics of the Franklins, he was undoubtedly the most skilful and unrestrained.

After 1842 Thomas, although he continued to have an occasional interest in the Hobart Town Courier and in the short-lived Spectator, ceased to play an active role as a newspaperman. In February 1840 he had been elected manager of the Tasmanian Fire, Life and Marine Insurance Co., with which was associated the Hobart Town and Launceston Marine Insurance Co., and until his death devoted himself to running these two companies. On 28 April 1845 he married Jane Palmer at Hobart. She died in 1866, and two years later he left Hobart to establish in Melbourne a branch of the Derwent and Tamar Insurance Co. He died there on 18 December 1868, survived by five children.

After the recall of Franklin, Edward Macdowell began to make his way slowly back into official favour. In 1844 his successor as attorney-general was dismissed for having fought duels with Robert Stewart and Thomas Macdowell both, according to the True Colonist, provoked by Thomas Macdowell. This led to a series of promotions which left vacant the position of commissioner of the Insolvency Court to which in March 1845 Edward Macdowell was appointed. In December 1851 he was further charged with the duties of acting crown solicitor. In March 1854 his tenure of this position was made permanent. Next year he resigned and went with his children to Melbourne where he practised at the Bar until his death on 24 April 1860.

Although the role played by the Macdowell brothers in Tasmanian history was not attractive, they should not be dismissed merely as henchmen of the 'Arthur faction'. Men of undoubted capacity and ruthless ambition, they both found time during their stormy careers to defend not only their private interests but also the conservative and realistic political principles on which they held the Arthur administration had been based.

Select Bibliography

  • E. M. Miller, Pressmen and Governors (Syd, 1952)
  • Hobart Town Courier, 29 Nov 1839, 14 Feb 1840
  • True Colonist (Hobart), 6 Dec 1839, 22 Mar 1844
  • Mercury (Hobart), 21 Dec 1868
  • correspondence file under Macdowell (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Louis Green, 'Macdowell, Thomas (1813–1868)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/macdowell-thomas-2838/text3165, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 22 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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