One of the most personal and evocative relics held by the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales is a campaign desk once owned by Governor Lachlan Macquarie.
Lachlan Macquarie and his wife Elizabeth disembarked from HMS Dromedary at Sydney Cove on 31 December 1809. They were accompanied by some of their most cherished possessions, including the London made desk. It was possibly a betrothal gift from Elizabeth Campbell, who Macquarie married on 3 November 1807. Measuring 25cm x 51cm x 25.5cm the desk is made of mahogany, with corners and edges protected by decorative brass mounts. The lid carries a brass plaque engraved with Macquarie’s name, military regiment, and the year 1805.
The interior is lined with cedar and fitted with a green baize writing slope and a concealed document compartment. There is also a pen tray, ink bottle, and a pair of detachable brass candlesticks.
Macquarie had originally used the desk while serving as a British army officer in India. However, it would also have proved invaluable during his inspection tours of Sydney’s outlying settlements, his journeys to Van Diemen’s Land, and his historic ‘royal progress’ across the Blue Mountains in 1815.
Lachlan Macquarie left New South Wales in 1822, retiring to his estate on Scotland’s Isle of Mull. Naturally, the desk went with him, but in 2002 it was acquired by the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, with funds provided by the Macquarie Bank Foundation. Appropriately, its permanent home is in the Museum of Sydney, located on the site of the colony’s first Government House. The story of the desk and its return to Australia is intriguing.
THE STORY OF THE PORTER FAMILY
In the document compartment of the desk are two newspapers. The earliest is an issue of a publication called John Bull dated 18 July 1824, recording Macquarie’s death in London on 1 July of that year, and describing his impressive funeral procession. It is moving to think that it may have been placed in the desk by his grieving widow, Elizabeth. The second newspaper is an issue of The Ayrshire Times. Dated 22 May 1860, it is addressed to Mr Robert Porter at Glenforsa, the Macquarie family estate on Mull.
Robert Porter was appointed farm manager at Glenforsa in 1852 by the late governor’s daughter-in-law, Isabella Macquarie. In 1858 the widowed Isabella left Mull, leasing the farm to Mr Porter, who also purchased the farm’s livestock and equipment. Mrs Macquarie’s solicitor William Sproat had an extremely difficult job extracting payment from the new tenant. During a research visit to Scotland I had the privilege of reading his letter books, in which he commented; ‘It is my opinion that Porter has not the money at present to pay up the balance due…he told me that he was disappointed in getting the sum of ₤250 from his two sisters in law who, after promising it, changed their minds and went off to America.’ Mrs Macquarie also suspected Porter of secreting seven sheep in order to avoid paying for them. Not surprisingly their relationship became quite acrimonious.
In mid 1861, Isabella Macquarie relinquished her life tenancy of Glenforsa and an aggrieved Robert Porter was forced to leave as well. When Porter moved his family to the north of Mull he again owed money to Mrs Macquarie. It appears he also ‘spirited away’ some of his landlady’s belongings, including Lachlan Macquarie’s campaign desk, two significant artworks associated with New South Wales, four ‘picture’s’ by the Governor’s wife, native artefacts, and various items of silver.
After spending several years in Edinburgh, Isabella Macquarie made her home in the south of England. She died there in 1884 without ever realising that the Macquarie family relics had been removed by Mr Porter. Perhaps she presumed they were among items stored at the home of another solicitor, Thomas Sprot, as her will stated, ‘All the things belonging to me so long left in charge of Mr Sprot (Writer) Tobermory Mull Argyleshire I leave to him with the exception of any part of them my sister Augusta may select’. Significantly, the will’s inventory described the stored items at Sprot’s premises as, ‘Pictures and other effects’. Hmm…perhaps a few less pictures and effects than there should have been!
Robert Porter fell on increasingly hard times after leaving the Macquarie estate and in 1870 he and his large family became squatters in an empty schoolhouse in the Mull village of Mornish. When an unmarried teacher arrived, an enterprising Mrs Porter suggested they stay put and provide the young man with full board. No doubt the use of a fully equipped portable desk would have been an added inducement, but in the event the teacher was housed elsewhere until the Porters could be induced to leave.
Robert Porter and family, circa 1880
The family subsequently moved to the mainland town of Oban, where Robert Porter died intestate in 1890. At some point, possession of the Macquarie campaign desk passed to his son, Allan Muir Porter. The remaining relics were inherited by Robert’s youngest daughter Agnes (third from left, back row in above photo) on the death of her mother. Shortly after marrying Joseph Flockhart in 1903, Agnes emigrated to New York. In 1914 she offered the relics to Sydney’s Mitchell Library. Sadly, only one item was acquired; an unsigned oil portrait of an Aborigine dated circa 1820.1.
The fate of the remaining items, including a 1793 water colour of Sydney Harbour, is unknown.
The campaign desk remained in Allan Muir Porter’s family until being sold to the Historic Houses Trust in 2002 by one of his descendants.
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, some members of the Porter family refuse to believe that their ancestor misappropriated the relics. After gently broaching the subject on my behalf, a relative by marriage was quickly put in his place and told that it would have been, ‘…’unimaginable!” as our family at that stage were very much one of the upstanding and honourable families of the area.’
In the spring of 2008, I was invited to lunch at the home of Alan Muir Porter’s elderly grand-daughter, Muriel Beckenridge. Muriel was living in a beautiful home at Oban; a converted coach-house overlooking the sound of Mull. According to Muriel, the story within the family was that Isabella Macquarie had presented the desk to Robert Porter as a retirement gift when he left Glenforsa. Neither Muriel nor her sister Edie had any knowledge of the other Macquarie relics taken to the United States by their great-aunt Agnes. As a child, Edie spent several years living with her Porter grandparents in the Scottish town of Helensburgh. She said the campaign desk was always proudly displayed on the sideboard. It was not to be touched, and she had never been allowed to see what was inside.
After hearing the whole story, both Edie and Muriel accepted that the desk was not a retirement gift. Nevertheless, invoking the old maxim of possession being nine tenths of the law, Edie in particular was adamant that it should have remained within the Porter family. My attempt to soften the blow by explaining how much Australians appreciated its return to New South Wales cut no ice with her whatsoever.
After 140 years in the Porter family’s possession the desk arrived back in Sydney in perfect condition, complete with evocative remnants of sealing wax and coins dating from the reign of George III. Perhaps the purchase price of $19,500 could be viewed as the family’s ‘caretaker’s fee’; by my reckoning a very reasonable $140 per annum.
Letter books of Sproat & Cameron, Solicitors, Argyll & Bute Council Archives, Lochgilphead
Will of Isabella Macquarie, Edinburgh Sheriff’s Court Ref; SC70/4/210 Inventory – Ref; SC70/1/238
Personal conversations and written communications: Muriel Beckenridge, James Usmar and Hamish Porter.
More on Isabella Macquarie and her husband Lachlan Macquarie Jnr can be found in my article Bitter Legacy.