New South Wales became a self-governing colony and elected its first Parliament in 1856. At that time, there was as yet no party structure. There were some clear factional chiefs, some with a defined political agenda, others with only a good idea of whom they hated (Irish Catholics, mostly) but it was all a little vague and chaotic by current standards, which are still often chaotic, but seldom vague.
There were some famous names amongst that first Legislative Assembly, including the conservative James Macarthur and the radical Henry Parkes, but the man who emerged to become the first Premier of New South Wales was a comparative nonentity, Stuart Alexander Donaldson, who is today almost completely unheard of.
Despite the slight kudos that attaches to being first NSW Premier, Donaldson was really much more important as a merchant than as a politician, and his early life is much more interesting – well, I think so, anyway! – than his later respectable years.
Donaldson was born in December 1812, the son of a London merchant who ran one of the numerous ‘agency houses’ that handled trade between Britain and the rest of the world. His father, also Stuart Alexander Donaldson, was a partner in Donaldson, Wilkinson & Co, and was involved in Australian trade from at least the 1820s. He was particularly close to Alexander Riley and Richard Jones, both of whom also worked with my man, Walter Stevenson Davidson.
These agency houses were nearly always based on partnerships formed amongst a close-knit, interrelated network of businessmen. They are a nightmare to untangle, partly because the links are often through the female line, which means that the surnames involved change from generation to generation, as sisters’ sons, and sons-in-law, are brought into the partnerships.
In 1831, at the age of 17, young Stuart was sent to Mexico to check out likely trade possibilities. In retirement he published the letters from this time in Mexico Thirty Years Ago, as described in a series of Private Letters; by a Youth (1865). Although the book was published anonymously, as it happens the copy digitized by Google Books not only has his name on it, but a dedication to his brother:
The book is fascinating. To begin with it is fun, the record of his years travelling through the Americas. Stuart was young and bright, with a sharp curiosity about other people and places, a sense of adventure, and an eye for the girls. In New York, he commented on:
The frankness of the young ladies here, and the real liking they have for a slight degree of flirtation is delightful. I have lost another piece of my precious fickle heart, and wish I could see a little more of their waltzing here.
In Mexico, he told his sister, he went out shooting one morning with friends and
came upon a bathing-party of Mexican Indian girls about daylight. No forms can be imagined more lovely than some of these children of nature in Eve’s dress.
Much of it sounds like a gap year, but it wasn’t just fun. Stuart was travelling around rural Mexico with a team of mules and a couple of servants, in the middle of a chaotic revolution of which, like many a western backpacker today, he seems at first to have been largely oblivious.
Eventually he settled down to work. He came armed with introductions to various English businessmen wherever he went, and he learned a lot about the commercial world. He learned Spanish, settled in Guanaxuato working with the Anglo-Mexican Mining Company, met Santa Ana, and sent his father reports on political and commercial conditions in Mexico. He finally headed for home in early 1834, carrying 50 ounces of gold concealed in a belt. He was still just 20 years old.
The following year, his father sent him out again, this time to New South Wales. He worked first with the merchant Richard Jones, then set up independently. He was shrewd and hard working, and soon he was doing very well, lending to the squatters, buying up their wool and sending it home to his father’s agency house in London.
He made money speculating in town land in Port Phillip, bought squatting runs and helped to set up the Australia Club in Sydney, which is still going. An agreeably ‘clubbable’ man, in due course he was elected to the first Legislative Assembly in 1856, and became Premier.
He comes across in his NSW letters as a sociable young man mixing with a smart set of rich young men and (rather fewer) women. Then, in 1840, something happened. In a private letter to his brother George, unfortunately very hard to read, he wrote about ‘a tender subject’ –
…I am an unlucky beast – I am always in some scrape or other with women – & [this] is one of them – There is to be a little [??] some time in December, & as I do not approve of that heartless system of leaving a woman to [the] mercy of the world, after a mishap of that sort – [I] mean to send her home…. [?] ask you to be so kind as look after her …[?] I do not contemplate [?renewing] the acquaintance there – in a carnal way – but I think it only fair to put her out of the sphere where her [?frailty] has been known…
In January 1841, he wrote again to George.
I was presented with a fine boy on the 11th January at 2 p.m. who with his Mama [is] doing well, & though my better sense [???] me the consequences of a continuance of a [?connexion] so begun. It is a bitter pill to break it…
Please God I will do it gently nevertheless; – I will send her home & [provide] for her & her child without becoming the [papa] of a numerous family of [???] whose claims upon one’s feelings grow stronger as they grow more numerous – She is of a kind, tho, not to be easily forgotten…
According to another ‘Private and Confidential’ letter to George, mother and child left for England on the Honduras on 20 April 1841. ‘I intend her to retire to the north of England where she has some friends’. He asked his brother to meet them and see them through to her friends in Cumberland.
According to the Sydney Monitor, the Honduras left for London with ‘Mrs. Leicester and child’ on board. According to the Morning Post, the ship arrived in London on 23 September, and I can only presume George met ‘Mrs Leicester’ and her child, and sent her up to Cumberland. Oddly enough, when Stuart Donaldson did eventually marry in 1854, he chose a girl from Cumberland, Amelia Cowper of Carleton Hall, Penrith. I’m sure it was only a coincidence, but it would be nice to think he was visiting his son when he met her.
I mentioned before that the partners in agency houses were often drawn from the female line. One reason, I am sure, is that businessmen like Donaldson deferred marriage until they were financially secure – and caused terrible collateral damage to the Maria Leicesters of their world. By the time they were ready to become ‘the papa of a numerous family’, they chose a much younger woman. As a result, they relied on their sisters’ sons to bring new blood into their businesses, because their own sons were much too young.
Donaldson is one of my ‘Dead Darlings’. I’m interested in him only marginally, because he came out to New South Wales with Walter Davidson’s nephew Patrick Leslie. They shared a cabin, and Stuart was best man at Patrick’s wedding. But there the similarity ends. Patrick had never been as far as London before he began his journey to Sydney, and despite his heroic status as a ‘pioneer’, he was far from capable when his uncle sent him to New South Wales as manager of his properties.
Walter came to think poorly of him – and one of the things he did wrong, in his uncle’s view, was to fall in love and marry, before he was established. In 1841, Stuart’s decision to reject Maria Leicester, while acknowledging her son and supporting her financially, was the correct decision. I’d like to think we’ve moved on, though I sometimes doubt it.