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Philip John MacMahon (1857–1911)

by Peter Holzworth

Philip MacMahon, by Poulsen Studios, c.1900

Philip MacMahon, by Poulsen Studios, c.1900

State Library of Queensland, 94328

Philip MacMahon was born in Dublin on the 13th of December 1857.  Thirty one years later, he became Curator of the Botanic Gardens in Brisbane and in 1905 the Director of Forests, Queensland.  The following quote from Harrison summarises his early career in horticulture in Britain and his moves to India and Australia.

By the time he was eighteen years of age, he had obtained technical education from private tutors as well as having travelled extensively on the Continent.  Developing a love for horticulture, an obsession shared by his father and grandfather, he was invited to England by Francis Dickson, head of the great nursery firm of Dickson and Sons.  There MacMahon attracted the attention of Sir Joseph Hooker, director of the Royal Gardens, Kew, where he accepted a studentship.  Next he was offered the curatorship of the Botanic Gardens, Hull in Yorkshire where he stayed for five years, probably being the youngest curator ever appointed within Britain at that time.

At the age of 24 he accepted a tropical agricultural position in India but developed serious health problems.  In July 1888, therefore, he sailed to Australia, to Melbourne where he worked as a journalist for Fitchett of the Daily Telegraph honing skills evident in his later report-writing.  The next year MacMahon met a ministerial party from Queensland, visiting Mildura with the Hon. Hume Black.  In Melbourne he was introduced to Sir Thomas McIlwraith with the result that an offer was made to organise a forestry department in Queensland.

The Blue Book confirms his appointment on the 24th of April 1889.[1]

The Blue Book was the book of personnel records in the Department of Public Lands, Brisbane and Sir Thomas McIlwraith was Premier of Queensland at that time.

Five months later, on the 6th of September 1889, the Queensland Legislative Assembly carried a motion in the House to create inter alia a Department of Forestry. No action immediately ensued.  In fact, ‘the Queensland government decided not to proceed with the project so MacMahon accepted the position of Director (Curator) of the Botanic Gardens’.[2]

Early Forestry Matters
Although the establishment of a Department of Forestry languished, the setting up of some form of forestry administration and accompanying conservancy had at least gained high level recognition and approval in Parliament and in 1890, at the request of government, a number of reports were prepared.  Commissioners involved in recommending on the reports included P. McLean, Under-Secretary for Agriculture, P. MacMahon, Curator of the Botanic Gardens, A. McDowall, Inspector of Surveys and former District Surveyor at Maryborough, F. Byerley, Mining Surveyor Rockhampton, C.H. Barton, school teacher of Maryborough and G.L. Board, Land Commissioner at Gympie.

The Commissioners recommended a plan of forest management, emphasising forest conservancy, regeneration and extension of forests into treeless areas.  They also advocated the setting aside of five types of forest reserves.

It was left to MacMahon (aged 32) to espouse the utilitarian view of forests in the wash-up of that 1890 meeting, a decade before the inauguration of the first Forestry administration and some fifteen years before MacMahon himself became Director of Forests in Queensland:

The basis of conservancy in Queensland for some years to come, and indeed its backbone for all time, must be the management of sufficient portions of her natural forests in such a way as, while allowing them to be used for the purposes of life, will secure a perpetual succession of mature, healthy and marketable timber … It cannot be too clearly known that over-reservation is in its effects nearly as bad as no reservation at all.  When a tree reaches a certain stage good forestry requires that it be cut; so that the idea is not to lock these forests up.[3]

This is an impressive statement, coming from a young Irish botanist who had been in the country only two years.  Surely he was moved by the arguments of committee members such as Archibald McDowall, a keen advocate of forest conservancy; and Board, the Land Commissioner who favoured forest reservation.

MacMahon as Curator of the Botanic Gardens
MacMahon, in his annual reports as Curator of the Botanic Gardens, wrote of improvements, propagating, seeds, Arbor Day, walking paths, floods (a big problem in the early 1890s) and a host of other matters including that of his residence.  The young Curator became a prolific correspondent with botanists both local and world-wide, including those of Kew Gardens where he had served his apprenticeship; requesting seeds and plants and offering to exchange such material.  He prepared numerous reports and a paper on soils for the National Agricultural and Industrial Association Show of 21-23 August 1889.  The paper was subsequently reprinted and distributed throughout Jamaica.  He also compiled numerous articles for the Queensland Agricultural Journal in subsequent years.[4]

In regard to domestic matters, he wrote in 1890:

On my arrival here and on several subsequent occasions I had the honour to direct attention to the utterly unsanitary condition of the residence in the Gardens; I furnished the cottage at considerable expense and attempted to live in it; but I soon became so ill that I was compelled to consult a medical gentleman who attributed my illness to the unhealthy damp state of the building and ordered my instant removal.[5]

In the floods of 1893, he lost his residence, books and furniture and reported that two years later he had ‘received no compensation of any kind’.[6]  He gave horticultural classes and in his 1893 Annual Report mentioned that ‘my severe illness recently led to the midsummer recess of the classes being a little longer than usual’.

Reference again to health problems!  These classes involved ‘one hundred girls and one hundred boys’ and each child was taught field horticulture.

MacMahon seems to have loved this aspect of his work and its rewards because he noted:

An interesting feature in connection with these classes is that some of the children have taken to expending their pocket money in seedlings, etc. to cultivate at home, and applications are made for information as to the best plants to buy.[7]

He didn’t take kindly to the patronising description of his position in 1893 by the Director of the Royal Gardens, Kew as ‘head gardener’ and responded in kind, redressing the situation in quite stiff terms.[8]

Philip MacMahon worked conscientiously and efficiently as Curator of the Brisbane Botanic Gardens from 1889 to 1905.  During his term of office in this position, his early involvement as a Commissioner reporting on forestry issues had given way to management matters botanical.  Yet in 1900 he was interested in the fact that a Forestry Branch was to be created in the Department of Public Lands and an Inspector of Forests appointed.  He, along with several others – including George Leonard Board, with whom he had worked in committee – applied for the position.

Controversial Appointment Involving MacMahon
The appointment of Inspector of Forests was one not without controversy.  George Leonard Board was generally lauded for his experience and capability in the country centres where he had held office as Land Commissioner.  He was seen as a hard-working civil servant of courteous disposition who made decisions on land matters ‘without fear or favour’.[9]

MacMahon also had supporters (as well as detractors).  The Public Service Board originally favoured MacMahon for the position, a move that the then Queensland Minister for Agriculture, the Hon. J.V. Chataway strongly disagreed with.  Chataway owned the Mackay Mercury and acted as Brisbane correspondent to his own newspaper – or ‘rag’ as it was described by a journalist of a rival press.  On the 12th of May, three days after the appointment of Board, Minister Chataway wrote a letter to his paper.

The Board went, not for the other Board, but for the Curator of the Botanical Gardens – a very strange choice considering recent events, but it seems that Mr. M’Mahon claims a special knowledge of forestry, and writes on the subject.  Even were this knowledge of practical value, there was surely enough in recent events to condemn the proposed appointment, yet so thoroughly did the applicant rely on the recommendation of the P.S.B., that he considered himself as good as appointed.

The Minister went on to write:

Fortunately a strong Minister can dare, in the interests of the public, to neglect such a recommendation.  The matter is sure to be thrashed out in Parliament by Mr. M’Mahon’s friends, that is to say, by those who will make him cry “Save me from my friends” before it is over.

Immediately below this letter to the Mercury is the following text, obviously from a reporter either in sympathy with the Minister’s stance or, more likely, in fear of reprisals from the said Minister if a contrary viewpoint were printed.

The “strong Minister” who “dared” was J.V. CHATAWAY himself, and the Board he defied was especially appointed by Parliament to make non-political appointments.  The threat at the tail-end of the extract is worthy of its author; and if the Q. Opposition do not batter the life out of the incompetent and arrogant PHILP (sic) clique with Minister CHATAWAY’S own brick – well, the Q. Parliament must be hopelessly depraved.[10]

The middle course was perhaps steered by the Brisbane Courier which was of the view that the final choice for the position of Inspector of Forests was based on securing ‘a man conversant not only with the timber lands of the colony, but with all the conditions under which the lands are held or worked, rather than a scientist’.[11]

The Public Service Board, appointed by Parliament to make non-political appointments, although initially favouring MacMahon, was forced to appoint George Leonard Board.  In trying to make a non-political decision, the Board had fallen foul of the government, the Minister for Agriculture, the Minister for Lands and the country press, at least.  The Mail (May 1990) in Bundaberg aggressively stated that ‘the P.S.B. were (sic) decidedly eccentric on this interesting occasion – it is to be hoped they are not often taken that way – and wanted to give the appointment to one who seems to have done nothing of late calculated to enforce his claim.’[12]

Board won the day and was appointed Inspector of Forests on the 16th of May 1900 at a salary of £500 per annum.  The first office of Forestry went to a land administrator, not a scientist!

MacMahon as Director of Forests
MacMahon succeeded Board as Director of Forests on the 2nd of November 1905.  In that same year he published (as Director of Government Botanic Gardens, Brisbane) an impressive book entitled The Merchantable Timbers of Queensland (Australia) subtitled:  ‘With Special Reference to their Uses for Railway Sleepers, Railway Carriage and Wagon Building, Engineering Works’.  It was authorised by the Hon. Digby Frank Denham, M.L.A. and Secretary for Agriculture.  The book of sixty eight pages had text, plates, maps, tables and illustrated microscope sections of wood.  It was a comprehensive ‘science of the day’ work.  He acknowledged the contribution of engineers and botanists.  The book was written to describe the timber and forests of Queensland in order to further the State’s export of railway timbers, especially sleepers, to South Africa and India.  It was a remarkable achievement for someone with a background in botany, not forestry or engineering.  The John Oxley Library has a copy of this work in its rare book collection.  DPI Forestry library also has a copy.

MacMahon served a term of just over five years.  On taking office from Board he continued to press for increased forest reservation:

A much larger proportion of the forest revenue should be devoted to forest conservancy and management … and what would I do with it (increased revenue)?  Well looking at the figures I have just quoted it seems like asking a starving man what he would do with a ‘bath bun’.[13]

Note:  A ‘bath bun’ is a sweet, spicy bun containing dried fruit.

But how was he to manage such forests, with only a tiny workforce?  He mentions in his 1906 Annual Report that ‘the assistance of four District Forest Inspectors and a junior clerk is not enough to enable one to do the work necessitated in the control of three and a half million acres of extremely valuable public estate, scattered over an immense area …’[14]  The following year he suggested that smart young country Queenslanders could be given special education in the new Forestry Branch and thus become good foresters.

The heavy logging of the State’s forests for hoop pine and other timbers was still in progress and MacMahon found this lamentable:

In fifty years hence probably there will be no pine in Queensland save in pleasure grounds; cedar will be a memory, and hardwood of the present quality and dimensions will be unobtainable.[15]

But his administration by 1908 was not committed to a large scale plantation programme - a future form of insurance against forest depletion – though it had been considered.  It was felt that money was better spent on natural forest improvement.  There was also the threat of insect and fungal pests in plantations.  But in the 1910 Annual Report of the Department of Public Lands (dated the 31st of July 1911, three months after MacMahon’s death), the Under Secretary of the Department was moved to write that ‘it seems not improbable that Queenslanders will soon be using exotic imported pine or local pine plantation grown timber’.[16] It is likely that Director MacMahon – who died before writing his report – would previously have expressed such sentiments to the Under Secretary.

Director of Forests, Philip MacMahon died of dengue fever on an inspection of Fraser Island on the 14th of April 1911.

He had worked hard to further the aims of the organisation.  He foresaw the ‘new’ plantation forestry; he began surveying the limit and quality of his forest assets and he furthered the acquisition of forested lands.  The national importance of forestry was continually stressed and he saw forestry in an international context.

MacMahon – Some Personal Details
MacMahon was a rather small, dapper man. He was a good horseman and it was a requirement of the times that you had to handle yourself well on a horse to get a job that would entail a lot of riding.[17]  This was rather like the requirements of Forestry later in the century that one needed ‘to be able to drive a motor vehicle and read a compass’ to fill an overseer’s position.

MacMahon’s obituary mentions his keen interest in scientific horticulture, his poetic temperament, lively imagination and ready tongue. It goes on to say that he was ‘an Irishman possessed of considerable personal charm, and when he entered Kew as a journeyman gardener in 1881 he quickly came to the front as a speaker and writer’.

He was put on a rather exalted pedestal during those early years:

At that time the Mutual Improvement Society at Kew was a debating body of no mean order.  I have heard discussions at the society’s meetings that would have done credit to societies of much greater pretensions.  James Hartland, John Deacon, Bernard Shaw, William Kennedy, Augustine Brenchly, George Marchant, Frank Ross, Michael Barker, John Hall, John Fraser, Harry Witty, and Philip MacMahon were some of the promising young men of that period who made a good impression whilst at Kew, and have kept up their heads since.  Whatever was in hand, work or play, business or pleasure, these men put their backs into it, and Philip MacMahon was one of the leaders.[18]

The Bernard Shaw referred to was indeed George Bernard Shaw, Irish dramatist, critic and novelist. MacMahon’s obituary further mentions:  ‘He appears to have done good work in the forestry department and was about to realise his hopes for an extension of his sphere of usefulness.’

Philip MacMahon, Director of Forests, Queensland, 1905-1911, had indeed done good work for Forestry.

– Annual Reports of Department of Public Lands:  1893, 1895 and 1906 – 1910.  Brisbane.
– J. Harrison, 1994: ‘An Irish Horticulturalist in Queensland: the Philip MacMahon Story’.  Presented at the Royal Historical Society Conference, 6th of August 1994.  Brisbane, p 31
– Obituary, The Gardeners’ Chronicle, p 358, June 3, 1911.
J. Powell, 1998: People and Trees – A Thematic History of South East Queensland with Particular Reference to Forested Areas, 1823-1997.  Queensland and Commonwealth Governments’ report.  Brisbane.
– Reports of Curator, Brisbane Botanic Gardens:  1861-1895.
– Australian Tropiculturist and Stockbreeder.  Copies from 1885-1900.  Microfilm.  State Library.  Brisbane.
– Brisbane Courier, 1900.

My thanks to Jennifer Harrison for her assistance in providing photographic material for this paper and for her useful comments on MacMahon.

Thanks are also due to Kathy Ross, librarian at the Mount Cootha Gardens’ library in Brisbane for providing information on MacMahon; and to staff at the State Library, Brisbane for help in accessing suitable microfilm.

Original Publication

This person appears as a part of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplement. [View Article]

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Holzworth, 'MacMahon, Philip John (1857–1911)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 13 June 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Philip MacMahon, by Poulsen Studios, c.1900

Philip MacMahon, by Poulsen Studios, c.1900

State Library of Queensland, 94328

Life Summary [details]


13 December, 1857
Sandyford, Dublin, Ireland


12 April, 1911 (aged 53)
Maryborough, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

dengue fever

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.