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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McLaren, Samuel Gilfillan (1840–1914)

by Ann G. Smith

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Samuel Gilfillan McLaren (1840-1914), missionary and educationist, was born on 17 September 1840 at Comrie, Perthshire, Scotland, son of Peter McLaren, head gardener of the Gask estate, and his wife, née Carmichael. An apt pupil, he wished to become a minister but, reluctant to put his parents to the expense, he served articles with a legal and banking firm, studying mathematics and modern languages at night. After four years he became a legal clerk with Tods, Murray & Jamieson in Edinburgh.

In 1870 McLaren's firm sent him to the United States of America in connexion with the missing earl of Aberdeen: McLaren was to establish the earl's brother as heir by proving that the earl was one and the same George Osborne who, childless, had died while serving as first mate on a ship bound for Melbourne. His successful handling of the case opened up excellent professional prospects but, spurning these, McLaren entered the University of Edinburgh, graduating M.A. in 1884. Then followed three years study at the Presbyterian Theological College and postgraduate work at Leipzig and Heidelberg, Germany. After ordination McLaren married Marjory Millar Bruce and went as missionary to Japan, becoming professor of history and biblical literature at the Presbyterian Union Theological Seminary, Tokyo. Eight years later 'lung troubles' drove him back to Scotland and, with health unimproved, he migrated to Melbourne in 1886.

For two years McLaren served as minister at Coburg and as chaplain at Pentridge gaol. Then in 1889 he received a call to succeed Andrew Harper as principal of Presbyterian Ladies' College, Melbourne. He proved a born teacher and his wife 'a real helpmate in the work of the school'. He astutely saw the college through the penny-pinching days of the 1890s, accepting substantial financial restrictions while simultaneously conducting an advertising campaign to attract much-needed pupils. After the depression the school expanded and prospered.

Believing in equality of educational opportunity, McLaren stated in 1899 that as a result of giving girls as good an education as boys 'the listless anaemic female of the Lydia Languish type is being replaced by the active, healthy new woman of real life'. He had in charge the last generation of girls to be educated in the classical tradition, among them such gifted scholars as Enid Derham and Marion Phillips. He was exceptionally supportive of his headmasters, first J. P. Wilson, then James Bee whose modernization of the science curriculum produced a stream of medical women including (Dame) Jean Macnamara.

'Perhaps the greatest of the Principals of PLC', McLaren retired in 1911 and died on 20 September 1914 at Ferntree Gully. He was survived by his wife, his sons Samuel and Charles and his daughters Mary and Marjory, both of whom graduated from the University of Melbourne and, until marriage, taught at P.L.C.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Fitzpatrick, PLC Melbourne (Melb, 1975)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 22 Sept 1914.

Citation details

Ann G. Smith, 'McLaren, Samuel Gilfillan (1840–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 24 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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