The Dictionary of Australasian Biography/McIlwraith, Hon. Sir Thomas

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McIlwraith, Hon. Sir Thomas, K.C.M.G., M.L.A., LL.D., Colonial Treasurer of Queensland, is the son of the late John McIlwraith, of Ayr, Scotland, and was born there in 1835. He was educated in his native town and at Glasgow University. Having studied engineering, he emigrated to Victoria (whither his elder brother had preceded him) in 1854, and was employed as a civil engineer on the Victorian railways, and also in the same capacity by Messrs. Cornish & Bruce, the well-known railway contractors, whose cause célèbre against the Victorian Government he was mainly instrumental in bringing to a successful issue. In 1861 Mr. McIlwraith became largely engaged in squatting pursuits in Queensland, and in 1870 finally settled in that colony, where the year before he had been returned to the Legislative Assembly for Maranoa. He was Minister for Public Works and Mines in the late Mr. Macalister's Government from Jan. to Oct. 1874, when he resigned. In 1878 he was elected for Mulgrave; and on the defeat of the Douglas Ministry in Jan. 1879 became Premier of the Colony, with the appointment of Colonial Treasurer. Two years later he exchanged this post for that of Colonial Secretary, and remained Premier until Nov. 1883, when he resigned with his colleagues, the general election having resulted in a majority for his successor, Mr. (now Sir) Samuel Griffith, who carried two adverse votes against him. The defeat of Sir Thomas, who was created K.C.M.G. in 1882, was mainly brought about by his proposal to construct the Queensland portion of the Trans-Continental Railway on the Land Grant System under a concession to an English company. Perhaps the most important event of his administration was the annexation of New Guinea, which was carried out under his instruction on April 4th, 1883. This act evoked the unanimous approval of the Australasian colonies, but, much to the general indignation, was disallowed by Lord Derby, then Secretary of State for the Colonies. The way was thus thrown open for the German Government to interpose; the statesmanlike action of Sir Thomas McIlwraith and the protests of the colonists against its disallowance being amply justified by the foothold which Germany was enabled to gain, not only in New Guinea, but throughout the Western Pacific. Out of these events sprang the Intercolonial Convention, held in Sydney in Nov. 1883, which formulated the basis upon which the Federal Council of Australasia was ultimately established. Sir Thomas McIlwraith had gone out of power before the Convention met, and it was attended by his successor; but he is understood to have warmly sympathised with this, as with all other attempts to advance the cause of Australasian unity. Sir Thomas, who became an Associate of the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1881, and had the honorary degree of LL.D. conferred upon him by Glasgow University, visited England in 1883, when he and his elder brother, Mr. John McIlwraith (formerly Mayor of Melbourne) were publicly invested with the freedom of their native town. Sir Thomas retired from public life in 1886, but re-entered it in 1888, when he headed the poll for North Brisbane by a large majority over the Premier, Sir Samuel Griffith. His programme of a national party aroused enthusiasm, the elections throughout the country turned in his favour, and he resumed office as Premier, Chief Secretary, and Colonial Treasurer in June. One of the principal events of his short tenure of office was his contest with the then Governor, Sir Anthony Musgrave, over the exercise of the prerogative of mercy in the case of convicted criminals, Sir Thomas contending that the Governor had no choice but to follow the advice of his ministers in these matters, whilst the latter claimed to exercise an independent discretion. The point was subsequently decided by the Colonial Office in Sir Thomas McIlwraith's favour. On the death of Sir Anthony Musgrave, in Oct. 1888, Sir Thomas claimed that his Government should be consulted by the Imperial authorities prior to the appointment of his successor. This was refused as a matter of principle by Lord Knutsford, who immediately announced the appointment of Sir Henry Blake to the Governorship of Queensland. Sir Thomas McIlwraith formally protested against the nomination, and a deadlock ensued, which was only obviated by the voluntary retirement of Sir Henry Blake from a difficult and delicate position. At the end of November Sir Thomas McIlwraith resigned the Premiership to Mr. Morehead, but still retained a seat in the Ministry without portfolio. On his return from a visit to China and Japan, undertaken with a view of recruiting his health, causes of difference arose, and he finally retired from association with his former colleagues in Sept. 1889. In the following year he joined with his former rival, Sir Samuel Griffith, in defeating their financial proposals; and, on their retirement in August 1890. accepted office as Treasurer in the Administration which Sir Samuel Griffith was then called upon to form. Sir Thomas, who is a Hon. Lieut.-Colonel in the Queensland Scottish Volunteer Rifles, married in 1879 Harriette Ann, daughter of Hugh Mosman of Armidale, N.S.W. In 1890 Sir Thomas, who was expected to visit the United Kingdom, was invited to contest the Ayr Boroughs in the Liberal interest at the next general election. He, however, declined the candidature. Sir Thomas McIlwraith was one of the Queensland delegates at the Federation Convention held in Sydney in March 1891. In the latter year, owing to some observations made by Sir Thomas McIlwraith in the Queensland Assembly in relation to the failure of the Queensland loan, the Bank of England terminated their business relations with the colony, but the difficulty has since been satisfactorily adjusted by mutual explanations. Some years ago Sir Thomas became involved in intricate litigation with the Queensland Investment and Land Mortgage Company, in which Sir Arthur Palmer and Messrs. Hart and Drury were his co-defendants. Damages were claimed in a series of actions for negligence on the part of the latter as local directors of the plaintiff company in making advances to certain persons on securities which proved to be insufficient. After protracted proceedings, the first of the actions terminated in a verdict for the defendants. Mr. Andrew McIlwraith, Sir Thomas McIlwraith's younger brother, is head of the firm of McIlwraith, McEacharn & Co., the well-known Anglo-Australian shipping and mercantile firm. It may be added that Sir Thomas McIlwraith took an active interest in the experimental voyage of the Strathleven early in the year 1880, when, it will be remembered, his brother's firm, above alluded to, sent out this steamer to Australia for the purpose of testing the possibility of bringing meat in a fresh condition to the English market. The experiment, being eminently satisfactory, was the means of conferring an enormous boon on the pastoral industries of Australia and New Zealand.

In appended Supplement, p. 536

McIlwraith, Hon. Sir Thomas (pp. 297-9). In the action mentioned on pages 298-9, the Chief Justice overruled the findings of the jury, and entered a verdict for plaintiffs, against which defendants have appealed.