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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Morehead, Robert Archibald Alison (1814–1885)

by David S. Macmillan

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

Robert Archibald Alison Morehead (1814?-1885), businessman, was born in Edinburgh, third son of Dr Robert Morehead, episcopal dean of Edinburgh in 1818-32, and his wife Margaret, née Wilson. The Moreheads of Herbertshire in Stirlingshire were an old landed family with strong Whig sympathies. His elder brothers entered the East India Co. service and Robert was sent to Glasgow, where after apprenticeship to an insurance broker he worked for James Finlay & Co. as book-keeper and accountant and won their esteem. About 1837 he launched out on his own in Glasgow as a manufacturer of shawls and zebra cloth but ill health made him think of moving to a drier climate.

In October 1840 he applied for the post of manager in Australia for the Scottish Australian Co., formed in Aberdeen in 1839-40, and was appointed on condition that he took 1000 shares and gave surety for £5000. Morehead was cautious yet capable of quick decisive action, excellent qualities for a businessman arriving in Australia with investment funds in the depression of the early 1840s. When he reached Sydney in July 1841 with nearly £30,000 to invest, he discovered that by buying up mortgages and lending money at an average of 12½ per cent he was able to acquire some very valuable property in and around Sydney, in Melbourne and in such country centres as Maitland and Wollongong. By 'reaping this harvest of mortgages', as he put it, and his high rates of interest, he enabled his company to become the first really successful commercial venture based in Scotland and operating in Australia.

In 1843-44 Morehead became involved in the usury controversy raging in the colony. To counter William Charles Wentworth's proposals for an Interest Act, he wrote and published Some Words for and to the Capitalists and Shareholders in Banks and Other Moneyed Companies Connected with the Colony of New South Wales (Sydney, 1843), an indictment of the colonial speculators whom he termed the 'borrowcracy'. Having weathered the usury controversy and overcome disagreements with his directors in Scotland, who wanted him to be both cautious and daring, Morehead successfully launched out into commission and agency business and the advancing of money against produce, particularly wool. Other fields he entered were copper-mining in South Australia (1846), coal-mining at Newcastle (1858), and large-scale pastoral ventures in Queensland, particularly at Bowen Downs (1863), and in the Gulf country (1865-66) where his company was first to arrive, taking advantage of its holdings astride the route along the Thomson and Flinders Rivers. When he retired in 1884, Morehead had built up a great empire which included the largest pastoral station in Australia (Bowen Downs), holdings of city property on key sites, and some of the most productive mines on the northern New South Wales coalfield. The company's capital had increased from £30,000 in 1840 to over £600,000 in 1870.

Morehead's strong Whig and free-trade views were shown in his refusal to enter the coal vend in the 1870s and in his criticism of colonial politics. In the 1840s he opposed the claims of the squatters as 'would-be monopolists of the land', and later he gave no countenance to employers' associations or trade unions. Keenly interested in schools and more cultured than many of the businessmen of the day, he served on the Council of Education in the 1860s and was a trustee of the Public Library. He died in Sydney on 9 January 1885, aged 71.

In 1841 Morehead had married Helen Buchanan Dunlop in Stirlingshire. They had two daughters and a son, Boyd Dunlop, who became premier of Queensland in 1888-90.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Morehead (ed), Memorials of the Life and Writings of the Rev. R. Morehead, D.D. (Edinb, 1875)
  • D. S. Macmillan, Bowen Downs, 1863-1963 (Syd, 1963)
  • Scottish Australian Co. records (University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

David S. Macmillan, 'Morehead, Robert Archibald Alison (1814–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 27 October 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 2

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