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McCulloch, George (1848–1907)

by Lawrence McCallum

George McCulloch, seated, with Charles Rasp, C.1890

George McCulloch, seated, with Charles Rasp, C.1890

State Library of South Australia, 28307

George McCulloch (1848-1907), ship builder, sheep station manager, mining company director and art collector, was born on 23 April 1848 in Glasgow, Scotland, the youngest of four children of James McCulloch, contractor and Isabella, nee Robertson. His father, who died in the Glasgow cholera epidemic when he was nine months old, had been a successful contractor allowing his widowed mother to send McCulloch to the High School of Glasgow where he won a number of academic prizes.

At the age of sixteen or seventeen he travelled overseas, most likely to Uruguay with his brothers, sheep farming near Montevideo. He returned at age twenty and used his father’s inheritance to form a ship building business, McCulloch, Patterson & Co, in Port Glasgow with James Patterson. The company launched nine ships and commenced two more before going bankrupt with debts of several thousand pounds. In May 1871 McCulloch left on the Loch Leven for Melbourne where eventually his cousin, Sir James McCulloch, premier of Victoria, gave him a job on Mount Gipps station in far western New South Wales.

By 1875 McCulloch had become manager of Mount Gipps. In August 1878 McCulloch became a Justice of the Peace and the following year was discharged from bankruptcy in Scotland. With Mount Gipps having an area of about 850,000 acres and up to 100,000 sheep, McCulloch actively fulfilled his role as a station manager in the West Darling region.

In September 1883 when Charles Rasp, a boundary rider on Mount Gipps, came to McCulloch to advise that he had pegged a block in the ‘broken hill’ paddock, McCulloch persuaded him to form a ‘syndicate of seven’ with other station workers. Initially they thought they had a mound of tin or perhaps lead but after months of digging shafts on the hot, dry hill, sending samples of ore by bullock train to Melbourne and Adelaide, expanding the syndicate to one of fourteen and consulting with the NSW Government geologist, they realised they had pegged a significant find of silver. Before realising this, McCulloch had played what was to become a famous game of euchre with Alfred Cox, a young Englishman, to determine the sale price (£120 or £150) for a one fourteenth share. Within six years it was estimated to be worth £1,250,000.

The syndicate of fourteen was formed into the Broken Hill Mining Company in early 1885. On 16 July 1885 two meetings took place at De Baun’s Hotel, Silverton both chaired by McCulloch. Firstly, the shareholders of the Broken Hill Mining Company resolved to issue themselves a thousand shares each, forming the purchase of the company by the Broken Hill Proprietary Company Ltd (BHP). The second meeting, that of BHP reported that in accordance with the prospectus issued in June, the 2,000 shares offered to the public had been allocated with the balance of 14,000 shares being held by the original syndicate, including McCulloch. McCulloch became a director and chair of the Local Board of Advice.  

Due to the vast quantity of silver at Broken Hill, the relatively high price obtained and good management by the company, BHP was able to issue monthly dividends in the order of a million pounds each year until 1892. With these dividends, director’s fees and sale of shares of subsidiary companies created by BHP, such as BHP Block 10 and British BHP, McCulloch became a wealthy man.

In 1887 McCulloch travelled to London with the company secretary, to help raise finance for British BHP and there purchased his first painting for a collection that was to grow to over four hundred. Outside of BHP, McCulloch became a shareholder in the Mount Gipps Pastoral and Mining Company when it was floated in 1888 and in the Yalcowinna Gold and Silver Mining Company No Liability. The latter was thought to be an exciting gold strike north of Broken Hill but by 1890 Yalcowinna was wound up. He also donated funds to the Broken Hill hospital, one of the few who became wealthy from Broken Hill to do so.

By 1890 McCulloch had moved to a substantial house at 191 McKean Street, North Fitzroy, Melbourne, but from June of that year until March 1892 he was in London with his housekeeper and future wife, Mary Agnes Maygar, and her son Alexander.  

McCulloch was acting chairman for BHP for much of the period of the 1892 strike at Broken Hill and its aftermath. While the price of silver had been high and BHP was establishing itself it was content with an hourly wages workforce and the workers accepted the dangerous conditions in the mines and unhealthy living conditions at Broken Hill. When the price of silver dropped and the mining companies sought to lower costs by moving to a contract system, a strike eventuated. McCulloch wrote lengthy statements on behalf of BHP which were read at meetings of the shareholders. It was a tense and sometimes violent time, with McCulloch convinced of the right of the company to run the mine as they pleased but also with skilled men on contract making more money than on wages and the company producing more at lower cost.

In early 1893 McCulloch sailed for London and within a short time had married Mary Agnes Maygar. McCulloch continued his business interests in Australia from London but his real interest was art. By 1900 he had purchased several hundred paintings and sculptures, initially using art dealers such as Arthur Tooth and David Croal Thomson and purchasing paintings displayed at the Royal Academy but later making direct contact with noted artists. Some of the paintings were hung in purpose built galleries in his magnificent town house at 184 Queen’s Gate, Kensington.

It was a modern art collection, comprised of British, American, French, German and other continental artists and including the most celebrated and successful artists of the period. The collection included works by Leighton, Albert Moore, Whistler, Bastien-Lepage, Clausen, La Thangue, John Singer Sargent, Henrietta Rae, Roybet and Millias to name a few. Many of the works were large gallery pieces which McCulloch lent for exhibition at public galleries throughout Britain, at the Chicago World Fair in 1893 and the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900. In 1904 McCulloch gifted a number of paintings to the City of Broken Hill, which led to the creation of the Broken Hill Art Gallery.

McCulloch’s greatest contribution to Australia was his pivotal role as the leader of the Syndicate of Seven following the pegging of ‘the broken hill’, his leadership in the floating of BHP as a public company and his continuing contribution as a director of BHP and its associated companies. The creation of such an industrial enterprise in the outback of western NSW at that time was a major achievement and helped trigger the industrial development of Australia.

McCulloch died on 12 December 1907 of cirrhosis of the liver at 184 Queen’s Gate, Kensington and was buried in Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey. His estate of £436,679 was bequeathed to his wife, who within a year had married James Coutts Michie, a Scottish artist McCulloch had employed to paint her portrait in 1897. Michie died in 1919 while Mary Agnes visited Adelaide and Broken Hill in 1925 and died in England in 1945. The exhibition of McCulloch’s collection at the Royal Academy in 1909 caused a controversy which tainted his reputation, being regarded by many as a pre-auction viewing. The Whistlers were sold to American buyers prior to the remainder of the collection being sold at Christie’s in 1911 and 1913. Oil paintings of McCulloch are in the Broken Hill Art Gallery and the Boston Athenaeum while the Art Gallery of South Australia has a pencil sketch.

Select Bibliography

  • L. McCallum, George McCulloch – Glasgow, Broken Hill & Kensington (Christchurch, 2015)
  • Glasgow Herald, 8 March 1871
  • National Records of Scotland, Bankruptcy records of McCulloch, Patterson & Co, 1871-1879
  • South Australian Register, 10 January 1873
  • B. Hardy, West of the Darling (Sydney 1969)
  • J. Hope, The Unincorporated Area of NSW Heritage Study (Sydney, 2006
  • Wilcannia Times (NSW), 12 September 1883
  • Broken Hill Mining Company Minute Book March-July 1885
  • G. Blainey, The Rise of Broken Hill (Melbourne, 1968)
  • Virtue & Co, Illustrated Catalogue of the McCulloch Collection (London, 1909)
  • Times (London), 24 May 1913

Original Publication

  • People Australia, February 2017

Additional Resources

Citation details

Lawrence McCallum, 'McCulloch, George (1848–1907)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/mcculloch-george-4074/text34523, accessed 24 July 2019.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012