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The Macarthurs and the merino sheep

Australia is the largest wool-producing country in the world. We have tens of thousands of wool producing properties and production of this fibre is one of the most significant and important uses of our farm land. Our annual production consistently accounts for over one quarter of the world's wool and is often valued at well over $2 billion each year. Australia is also recognised as producing the world's highest quality woollen fibre – Australian merino wool. All of this has been achieved in just over 200 years and began with the hard work of one family – the Macarthurs.

The beginning of a dynasty

Portrait of John Macarthur.

Portrait of John Macarthur. Image courtesy of the Mitchell Library.

John and Elizabeth Macarthur were married in Devonshire in England in 1788. John, the son of a mercer and draper (a seller of fabric and sewing materials) was one of fourteen children. He first joined the army in 1782 at 15 years of age but was retired the next year as the American War of Independence had ended, and with it, England's need for so many soldiers.

In 1788, John Macarthur married Elizabeth Veale in Devonshire and re-joined a regiment that was based in Gibraltar. In 1789 he moved to the New South Wales Corps as a lieutenant, for service in the new colony on the other side of the world.

Portrait of Elizabeth Macarthur.

Portrait of Elizabeth Macarthur. Image courtesy of the Mitchell Library.

On June 28 1790, John and Elizabeth Macarthur arrived in Port Jackson with their infant son Edward. Their hard work and struggle over the next 50 years would make a large contribution to shaping the character of the then-fledgling colony of Australia – a contribution that can still be seen today.

The journey to Australia with the second fleet ships Neptune and Scarborough, with hundreds of convicts, was harsh for the family. During the voyage Elizabeth gave premature birth to their second child, who died soon after. She also nursed her husband through a serious illness while on board.

Upon their arrival and until December 1792, Governor Phillip was in charge of the struggling colony. John Macarthur, an ambitious and argumentative man, did not get along with Phillip and created a stir in NSW society with his many quarrels with the Governor.

It wasn't until Major Francis Grose arrived as Commanding Officer of the New South Wales Corps in February 1792 that the Macarthurs' fortunes changed.

Grose indulged many of the officers of the Corps and Macarthur was no exception. Under Grose he was appointed paymaster for the colony and stationed in Parramatta, a half day's journey west of Port Jackson. Soon he was promoted again to Inspector of Public Works.

The residence of John McArthur Esqre near Parramatta, New South Wales, by Joseph Lycett, April 1 1825.

The residence of John McArthur Esqre near Parramatta, New South Wales, by Joseph Lycett, April 1 1825. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

In 1793, Macarthur received a grant of 100 acres of land near Parramatta from the Governor and began work clearing and farming it, using convict labour. As a reward for improving the land, he was given another one hundred acres. In November 1793 the Macarthur family moved to the farm house they had built, called Elizabeth Farm, with their expanding family.

Not long after the family settled on the farm, Elizabeth wrote to her friends and relatives in England, describing it:

Our Farm, which contains from four to five hundred Acres, is bounded on three sides by water. This is particularly convenient. We have at this time, about one hundred and twenty Acres in Wheat, all in a promising state. Our Gardens, with Fruit and Vegetables are extensive and produce abundantly It is now Spring & the Eye is delighted with a most beautiful variegated Landscape. Almonds, Apricots, Pear and Apple Trees are in full bloom.

In 1796, John Macarthur bought his first merino sheep from a flock of Spanish merino sheep reared in South Africa. At the time, sheep were used for both their meat and their wool and the quality of the fleece from the breeds already imported to Australia was very poor. Other farmers in the region also bought merino sheep in 1796, but they cross-bred their merinos with other breeds, which resulted in coarse wool of a low quality.

The merino sheep

A merino ram.

A merino ram. Image courtesy of The Land.

The merino sheep was originally bred in Spain, a country with a warm climate like Australia. Unlike many of the other European animals imported to Australia at the time, the breed thrived as it was able to cope with the summer heat.

Merinos are known to have a thick, fine fleece that is highly suitable for spinning and weaving into a fine fibre that is mainly used in clothing.

Hard work and growing success

Macarthur deliberately did not cross-breed his merinos and he and Elizabeth worked hard to establish their flock. This hard work soon began to pay off for the Macarthurs and by 1803, their flock numbered over 4000 almost-pure merinos. In subsequent years they bought merinos from flocks in various locations which meant that the bloodline of the flock – and therefore the health of their sheep and the quality of their wool – was strengthened and improved over time. In 1807, the Macarthurs sent their first bale of wool to England.

John Macarthur returned to England several times, leaving his wife and growing family in Sydney. In 1801 he was sent to London to be court-martialled (as he was still an officer with the Corps) for involving himself in a duel. He was not only able to get the charges against him dropped, but also secured approval from Lord Camden to establish a large sheep-run south of Sydney, which he named Camden Park on his return in 1805.

In 1808 Macarthur was in trouble again for his role in the Rum Rebellion, where Governor Bligh's efforts to stop the trade of rum in the colony were overthrown by an angry mob. This time, he resigned from the army in order to avoid another court-martial. He was, however, exiled from New South Wales and remained in England until 1817.

During this time Elizabeth ran the farm. Although she had many labourers and servants, she was deeply involved in its running and managed all aspects of its day-to-day operation. Her remarkable agricultural ability is still recognised today at the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute. It is fitting that both John Macarthur and Elizabeth Macarthur should be remembered as joint founders of the wool industry in Australia.

In the early years of the 1800s world demand for wool increased as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. This meant that the Macarthurs' high quality wool was bought at a premium price upon its arrival in England and the family quickly became the wealthiest in New South Wales.

After his return to Australia in 1817, John Macarthur and his wife continued to work hard on their farm. In addition to growing their own fortune and further developing their flock, John Macarthur was involved in the first commercial production of wine in Australia, was a founder of both the Australian Agricultural Company and the Bank of Australia and was one of the earliest members of the New South Wales Legislative Council.

John Macarthur died at Camden Park in 1834 and his wife, Elizabeth, died in 1850 in Sydney. John Macarthur's image and that of the merino sheep was commemorated on the old two dollar note in recognition of the impact the wool industry has had on Australia.

The Macarthurs descendents continued to farm merinos and continued to live at Camden Park. The merino sheep still thrives in Australia; since 1796 their numbers have continued to swell and average well over 100 million.

Useful links

Australia's wool industry links

The Macarthurs

Last updated: 13th July 2007
Creators: Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd

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