The Macleay Family

Alexander Macleay 1767-1848

Alexander Macleay

Alexander Macleay was a collector as well as a bureaucrat of science. For 27 years he was honorary secretary of the Linnean Society of London. His serious minded pursuit of collecting meant that by 1805 his collection was one of the more important in England. When William Kirby and William Spence collaborated to produce an 'Introduction to Entomology' Macleay's collection was a crucial source for the scheme. By 1825 his insect collection was without parallel in England, not merely because of its size but also for its range and importance of specimens. Over 9000 of them were specimens from which the first published descriptions were made. These are now known as type specimens and a large number are on loan to the National Insect Collection in Canberra. (For more information on taxonomy see Mississippi State University's description).

In 1825 he was appointed Colonial Secretary of New South Wales under Governor Darling. He brought his wife, six daughters, a large library and his unrivalled collection of insects with him to Sydney. Alexander served as Colonial Secretary from 1826 until he was succeeded by Edward Deas Thomson in 1837. Soon after his arrival in Sydney, Alexander received an extensive land grant at Elizabeth Bay, a few kilometres to the east of the settlement. Initially living in the town, Alexander developed the grounds at Elizabeth Bay and later erected the handsome Elizabeth Bay House designed by a fashionable colonial architect, John Verge.

Although of advanced years, Alexander was busier as Colonial Secretary than he had been as a bureaucrat in England and had little opportunity to devote himself to science. Nevertheless, when a Committee of Superintendence was set up to oversee Sydney's Botanic Gardens and local museum, Alexander was appointed chairman. This began an association with Sydney's scientific institutions which continued with other members of the family for the remainder of the century.

William Sharp Macleay 1792-1865

William Sharp Macleay

Alexander's eldest son, William Sharp Macleay, was a philosophical naturalist. Educated at Westminster School, he took the degrees of BA and MA from Cambridge University in the 1810s. Posted as a diplomatic official to Paris following the defeat of Napoleon, he mixed with leading scientific figures there. In 1819 and 1821 William published the two parts of Horae Entomologicae, a study which introduced his circular or quinary system of classification. This system was widely discussed in London's natural history societies in the 1820s but failed to achieve general acceptance.

In 1825 William was not able to achieve a posting to New South Wales to join his family, but instead was appointed to the Mixed British and Spanish Court of Commission for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in Havana, Cuba. While in Cuba, William collected crustacea as well as insects and sent bats and other vertebrate specimens to the British Museum. William returned to Britain via the United States in 1836. The following year he presided over the natural history of the British Association meeting in Liverpool and served on the council of the Zoological Society of London.

Having not seen his family for more than a decade, William came to Sydney in 1839. Initially planning an extended trip, William remained in Sydney until his death in 1865. William lived in Sydney in retirement and was involved with few public matters. In 1840 he was appointed to the committee superintending the Sydney Botanic Gardens and Australian Museum. He was actively engaged in the management of the museum for more than two decades and was instrumental in drafting the Museum Act of 1853 which brought the Australian Museum under the management of trustees. He only retired as a trustee in 1862 as he was confronted by declining health. In his later years William devoted himself to developing the garden at Elizabeth Bay.

William's collections including that inherited from his father were bequeathed his cousin, William John Macleay on the basis of a signed agreement that these would be maintained in good order and eventually passed either to the University of Cambridge or to the University of Sydney.

Sir William John Macleay 1820-1891

William John Macleay

William John Macleay took possession of the Macleay Natural History Collections in 1865, soon after the death of his cousin William Sharp Macleay. In 1874 he decided to enlarge the collections considerably to cover most areas of natural history. The following year he funded and organised the first Australian funded scientific expedition to the Torres Strait and New Guinea. For the journey he brought a boat named the Chevert and fitted it out for the collecting expedition. On this journey he amassed what he described as "a vast and valuable collection" of fish, reptiles, corals, vertebrates, invertebrates and birds as well as ethnographic artifacts. By the 1880s the collections had outgrown the capacity of the Macleay family home, Elizabeth Bay House, to hold them. Macleay offered to donate the collections to the University of Sydney as soon as a suitable building was ready.

Macleay was a member of the Legislative Assembly of NSW, the University of Sydney Senate, a founding member of the Entomological Society of NSW and the inaugural president of the Linnean Society of NSW. His association with the University began in 1857, when he married the daughter of Edward Deas Thomson, a future Chancellor of the University. His decision to leave the Macleay collections in the safekeeping of the University of Sydney as opposed to the University of Cambridge may have been influenced by this association.

Macleay died in 1891 only four years after the construction of the Macleay Museum.