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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McArthur, David Charteris (1808–1887)

by Geoffrey Blainey

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

David Charteris McArthur (1808-1887), banker, was born on 20 September 1808 in Gloucester, England, son of Captain Donald McArthur and his wife Elizabeth, née Wemyss. Educated in Scotland, he worked for an insurance firm in Edinburgh and then joined the Bank of Australasia when it opened in Sydney in December 1835. An able accountant, he went to Melbourne in a cutter with £3000 in coin, an armed guard and two bulldogs, and opened a branch of his bank in August 1838. He kept the government account and won so much private business that in three years his branch was nearly the size of the office in Sydney.

McArthur was often too good-natured; some of the early loans were unsound and probably delayed his promotion. He was nominated assistant superintendent of the entire bank in August 1843, but the London directors appointed instead J. J. Falconer, who was superintendent in 1849-67. McArthur remained as Melbourne manager, opened many new goldfields' branches in the 1850s and became general inspector of branches in 1862. He thrice visited New Zealand and spent much of 1867 pruning the bank's accounts in Christchurch before returning to Melbourne with charge of the entire bank. At 57 he was too old, according to the bank's historian, S. J. Butlin. He was slow to interfere in the policies of branch managers and touchy when London interfered with his decisions. He was the brittle link in the chain of control from the London court to the remote branches. While most chiefs of the Anglo-Australian banks came to Australia as hand-picked executives and obedient servants of the London boards, McArthur had risen by his own merits and identified himself with his customers and his adopted country.

As a squire in the Heidelberg hills, leader of Melbourne's bankers, first chairman of the Associated Banks and commercial confidant of Melbourne politicians and merchants, McArthur was inclined to see Melbourne as the hub of the universe. He was sometimes lax in directing business in other colonies, and when his bank had trouble in Tasmania and New Zealand his reaction was to accept defeat. The London directors retired him in October 1876, gave him a free trip to England, an annuity of £1500 and later a seat on the bank's advisory board in Melbourne.

To his friends McArthur was kind, tactful, conscientious and honest. In Melbourne he was active in the Mechanics' Institute and many other movements; he was a member of the first lay committee to assist Bishop Perry in administering his diocese and in 1854 was on the committee which advised Governor Hotham on the colony's finances. He was chairman of the Heidelberg Road Board, one of the five original trustees of the Public Library of Victoria in 1853 and president of trustees of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria in 1880-83. At various times he was also chairman of the Austin Hospital, president of the Melbourne Cricket Club and Old Colonists' Association and chairman of the Trustees, Executors, & Agency Co. He died at his home Charterisville in East Ivanhoe on 15 November 1887, leaving an estate of £30,215 to his wife Caroline, née Wright, whom he had married on 3 April 1835 at St Cuthbert's parish church, Edinburgh.

A portrait is in the Melbourne boardroom of the Australia and New Zealand Bank and at St John's Church, Heidelberg, he is commemorated by a stained-glass window entitled 'King David'.

Select Bibliography

  • S. J. Butlin, Australia and New Zealand Bank (Melb, 1961)
  • Australasian Insurance and Banking Record, Dec 1887, Mar 1900
  • Argus (Melbourne), 16, 17 Nov 1887
  • private information.

Citation details

Geoffrey Blainey, 'McArthur, David Charteris (1808–1887)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 26 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

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