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McIlwraith, Sir Thomas


Son of John McIlwraith, was born at Ayr, Scotland, in 1835. He was educated at Ayr academy and the university of Glasgow, where he studied civil engineering. He emigrated to Victoria in 1854 and obtained a position as a civil engineer in the railways department, and afterwards with Messrs Cornish and Bruce, railway contractors. In 1862, having acquired interests in pastoral property in the Maronoa district, he went to Queensland, and in 1868 was elected as representative of that constituency in the legislative assembly. In January 1874 he became secretary for public works and mines in the third Macalister (q.v.) ministry but resigned in the following October. In January 1879 he formed a ministry in which he was premier and successively colonial treasurer and colonial secretary, at a time when the colony was emerging from a depression brought on by three bad seasons. The year 1878-9 closed with a serious deficit, but McIlwraith, helped by good seasons and partly by loan expenditure, brought about an increase in revenue which turned the deficit into a surplus. Immigrants too were pouring in and the colony was developing very rapidly. The population, however' in 1883 was still under 300,000 scattered over a very large area, and the necessity for some general system of local government led to the passing of the divisional boards act. Another important event was the establishment of the British India postal service via Torres Strait but what caused most stir was the annexation of New Guinea carried out under McIlwraith's instructions on 4 April 1883. This met with general approval in Australia, but was disallowed by Lord Derby the secretary of state for the colonies. The result was that the way was left open to Germany to annex a large part of the island. But the incident brought home to the Australian colonies, how hampered they were in making representations to the British government by the absence of any central authority that could speak with one voice for all of them. The executive council of Queensland in July 1883 decided to invite the home government to inaugurate a federal movement. Service (q.v.), the Victorian premier, however, took the more practical step of proposing that an inter-colonial conference should be held, which accordingly took place at the end of November. This was the first real step in the direction of federation, with which McIlwraith was warmly in sympathy. His ministry was defeated in November 1883, on the question of his proposal to construct the Queensland portion of a trans-continental railway line on a land grant system. McIlwraith had been made a K.C.M.G. in 1882 and in 1884 visited Great Britain, where he was given the freedom of his native town, and Glasgow university conferred on him the honorary degree of LL.D.

McIlwraith temporarily retired from politics in 1886 but in 1888 was elected for Brisbane North. His party had a majority, and on 13 June 1888 he formed his second ministry with the portfolios of premier and colonial treasurer. Failing health obliged hint to resign these positions in November, though he was able to be a minister without portfolio in the Morehead (q.v.) government formed at the end of that month. During his short term of office he came into conflict with the governor, Sir Anthony Musgrave, on the question whether in the exercise of the prerogative of mercy the governor must accept the advice of his advisors, or use his own judgment. The colonial office supported McIlwraith's contention that the first course must be followed. When the governor died in October McIlwraith represented to the home authorities that his government should be consulted before Musgrave's succcessor was appointed. Lord Knutsford refused to agree to this and appointed Sir Harry Blake. McIlwraith protested on behalf of his government, and the matter was only settled for the time being by the voluntary retirement of Sir Harry Blake. McIlwraith then took a trip to China and Japan for the benefit of his health. When he returned differences arose with his colleagues, and in August 1890 he made a coalition with his former opponent Sir Samuel Griffith (q.v.) and became colonial treasurer in his government. He was one of the representatives of Queensland at the federal convention held at Sydney in 1891, and was on the finance committee. He succeeded Griffith in March 1893 and became premier in a new government, holding also the positions of secretary for railways and vice-president of the executive council. On 24 October he handed over the premiership to Sir Hugh Nelson and became chief secretary. He, however, resigned his seat towards the end of 1895. He was offered the agent-generalship of Queensland but declined it. He had become involved in the financial crisis of 1893, and spent his last years in broken health trying to piece together his shattered fortunes. He died at London on 17 July 1900. He married in 1879 Harriette Ann, daughter of Hugh Mosman, who survived him with three daughters.

McIlwraith was a big man with big ideas, but his indifferent health did not allow him to successfully carry the full burden of them. He was rugged and masterful, possibly on occasions not over-scrupulous, with a habit of getting his own way by sheer force of character rather than by intellectual ability. For nearly 25 years he was one of the greatest personalities in Queensland.


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