MATHESON, Sir Alexander Perceval (1861–1929)
Senator for Western Australia, 1901–06 (Free Trade)

Alexander Matheson, merchant and developer, was born in Mayfair, London, on 6 February 1861, the eldest son of Sir Alexander Matheson, a Member of Parliament who was created a Baronet in 1882, and his third wife, Eleanor, née Perceval. Eleanor was a granddaughter of Spencer Perceval, the British Prime Minister assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons in 1812. The young Alexander was educated at Harrow and before embarking on a career spent two years travelling, in the course of which he met Eleanor Money, the daughter of an English clergyman. The couple married at New Gisborne, near Bendigo in Victoria, on 18 October 1884.

Following his marriage, Matheson entered the world of commerce, and in 1894 migrated to the Western Australian goldfields, where he established the Mutual Stores Company. From this base, he managed a network of branches in smaller goldfields towns and provided finance for the development of mines. As Alexander Matheson and Company, he advertised in Kalgoorlie as an attorney for the London and Western Australian Investment Company, the London and Western Australian Exploration Company, and other mining ventures. He also let offices and rooms in Kalgoorlie.[1]

The dapper Matheson seems to have been a popular figure. In June 1897, he was elected to the Legislative Council at a by-election as one of three members for the recently created North-East Province, running as an ‘advanced democrat’. During his campaign speech in May in Kanowna, Matheson had pressed popular political buttons. He spoke of the need to revise mining laws and to appoint a royal commission made up of ‘practical men’. He mentioned eliminating taxes on food and liberalising the franchise in both houses of the Western Australian Parliament. He referred to the need for regional schools of mines and the unfairness of Western Australian land policy to those on the goldfields. He topped the poll.

Soon afterwards, Sir John Forrest appointed him one of Western Australia’s representatives on the Federal Council of Australasia. Matheson was an enthusiastic federalist who in 1900 became president of the Eastern Goldfields Reform League, a body which actively campaigned for separation of the goldfields from Western Australia so that this area might become part of the emerging Australian Commonwealth even if the colony as a whole did not. In 1899, he became a member of the joint select committee which examined the Constitution Bill as drafted by the 1898 federal convention. Matheson, an executive committee member of the West Australian Federal League, gave a paper in 1899 to the Fremantle Literary Institute on Federation as it affected Western Australia.[2]

On becoming a parliamentarian, Matheson was joined in Perth by his wife and children—probably in 1899. They lived in style and became members of the Government House set. Now a developer, in 1896 he had purchased much of the land which today makes up the Perth suburb of Applecross, subsequently subdividing and selling off three-quarters of it. A number of Applecross street names commemorate his Scots heritage, the site of his family home being now known as Matheson Road. In 1899, he was selling property in St George’s Terrace to English buyers, and unashamedly supporting the introduction of trams in central Perth as a way of increasing property values. He also ventured into an apparently unsuccessful ferry service.[3]

When Federation was achieved, Matheson resigned from the Legislative Council and successfully ran for the Senate as a candidate for the Australian Free Trade and Liberal Association, although before being confirmed in his seat he had to survive the Senate’s first disputed return, brought by Henry Saunders. The matter came before the Senate’s newly appointed standing committee of elections and qualifications. It was dismissed on technical grounds as Saunders had not lodged his petition in conformity with the Western Australian Electoral Act of 1899, which (pending Commonwealth electoral legislation) governed federal electoral matters. The allegation—that Matheson had offered bribes to electors and to J. W. Croft, secretary of the Political Labor Party in Perth, in return for electoral support—was therefore never dealt with.

Matheson, who was granted leave of absence on 2 August 1901 for the remainder of the parliamentary session, did not speak in the Senate from June (when the petition was first referred to the committee) until November when the matter was finally settled. Senators were discomfited and confused by the issues surrounding the case. Correspondence from Matheson to one committee member, Senator Symon, claimed that Senator Ewing, who was married to Saunders’ niece, was keen to have the case heard in the Western Australian Supreme Court in order to save Saunders the cost of bringing witnesses from Perth to Melbourne. The possibility that Saunders had not submitted his petition to the Senate in time because of his being unaware of the relevant legal requirement was scotched by evidence given to the committee by the Clerk, Edwin Blackmore, on 15 August 1901.[4]

Like most members of the first Parliament, Matheson favoured a White Australia and this came through strongly in his speech on the Address-in-Reply on 22 May 1901.In addition to opposing coloured migration and the use of Kanaka labour, he disparaged Senator Walker, who had acknowledged the prior occupation of Australia by the Aborigines. Matheson stated: ‘He fails to recognise that we have taken this country from the blacks, and made it a white man’s country, and intend to keep it a white man’s country, so that there is no earthly use in the honorable gentleman saying that 100 years ago this was a black man’s country’. When Walker responded that there were still 100 000 Aborigines, Matheson replied: ‘We are aware of that fact, and it is very regrettable, and the only consolation we have is that they are gradually dying out’.

Consistent with this attitude, Matheson in 1902 moved in debate on the Commonwealth Franchise Bill that no ‘aboriginal native of Australia, Asia, Africa or the islands of the Pacific, or persons of the half blood shall be entitled to have his name placed on an electoral roll unless so entitled under section 41 of the Constitution’. Later, in 1903, Matheson supported rebates for sugar growers who were using white labour only, and in 1905 took an active part in the Immigration Restriction Amendment Bill debate, supporting an English language test, but eventually accepting that the test should be in any European language.

Matheson, who had claimed sympathy with the Labor Party, supported industrial arbitration and the extension of the franchise to women, though he did not support proportional representation. He spoke frequently on the schedule to the Customs Tariff Bill. He was a staunch advocate of a trans-Australian railway (seeing it as part of the defence scheme which had been the basis of Federation) and became very friendly with one of the great champions of that cause, King O’Malley. In 1903, he argued that Parliament should be able to disallow regulations at any time rather than within a specified number of days after they were tabled, since he could see ‘no reason why Parliament should limit its own powers’, but his colleagues disagreed. During the second Parliament, he was assiduous in attending to his parliamentary duties, speaking frequently on a range of issues, especially on defence matters. He was an advocate of increased spending for Australia’s defence forces. He did not stand for election in 1906, wound up his Australian affairs, and returned to England.[5]

The later part of Matheson’s life was in many ways unhappy. All three of his sons were killed in action in World War I; unsuccessful speculation ended his business career; and his marriage broke up, probably terminating in divorce in 1925. Shortly after succeeding to the baronetcy in 1920, he moved to New Zealand, where he was for a period a correspondent for The Times. When plans to marry again in Wellington fell through, he relocated to Monaco in 1927, but died on 6 August 1929 in a London nursing home. His four daughters, Margaret Anna (Nancy), Norah, Muriel and Eleanor, survived him. This wandering Englishman was buried in Putney Vale Cemetery.

Matheson’s daughter Eleanor (Nell) remembered her father as a charming man whom she adored.[6]


Brian de Garis

[1] H. J. Gibbney, ‘Matheson, Sir Alexander Perceval’, ADB, vol. 10; Morning Herald (Perth), 2 April 1901, p. 6; Twentieth Century Impressions of Western Australia, P. W. H. Thiel, Perth, 1901, pp. 47, 50; Kalgoorlie Miner, 8 July 1897, p. 1, 25 May 1897, p. 5.

[2] Kalgoorlie Miner, 24 May 1897, p. 4; British Australasian (London), 19 January 1899, pp. 96-97; John Bastin, The West Australian Federation Movement: A Study in Pressure Groups, MA thesis, University of Melbourne, 1952, pp. 44, 49, 79, 84; John Kirwan, ‘How Western Australia Joined the Commonwealth’, Western Australian Historical Society Journal and Proceedings, vol. 4, part 2, 1950, pp. 4-25; John Bastin, ‘The West Australian Separation for Federation Movement’, Australian Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 1, March 1955, pp. 81, 82, 87; WAPP, Report of the joint select committee to consider the draft of a bill to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia, 1899; Alec. Matheson, Federation as it Affects Western Australia, Perth Printing Works, 1899, Pam., NLA.

[3] Malcolm Uren, The City of Melville: From Bushland to Expanding Metropolis, Melville City Council, 1975, pp. 10–11, 16-20; WAPP, Report of the select committee of the Legislative Assembly upon the City of Perth Tramways Act Amendment Bill, 1899.

[4] SMH, 2 April 1901, p. 5; Kalgoorlie Miner, 16 March 1901, p. 7; G. S. Reid and Martyn Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament 1901-1988, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1989, pp. 106-109; CPD, 27 June 1901, p. 1670, 12 July 1901, p. 2481, 2 August 1901, pp. 3465–3472, 6 November 1901, pp. 6860–6861, 16 May 1902, p. 12630; CPP, Reports of the committee of elections and qualifications upon the petition ofHenry John Saunders, 12 July, 3 October, 11 October 1901; Letter, Matheson to Senator Sir Josiah Symon, 4 June 1901, Symon Papers, MS 1736, NLA.

[5] CPD, 22 May 1901, pp. 146-153, 10 April 1902, pp. 11580, 25 June 1903, pp. 1387–1388, 12 December 1905, pp. 6697–6698, 21 October 1904, pp. 5909-5914,28 February 1902, pp. 10518-10527, 22 May 1901, pp. 148–149, 9 May 1902, p. 12455–12463, 10 September 1903, p. 4914, 11 September 1903, p. 4974, 1 October 1903, pp. 5635-5636, 1 December 1904, pp. 7701-7715, 16 November 1905, pp. 5270-5274, 22 November 1905, pp. 5556-5573.

[6] The Times, 8 August 1929, pp. 1, 12; Herald (Melbourne), 8 August 1929, p. 10; Argus (Melbourne), 9 August 1929, p. 6; Kalgoorlie Miner, 16 August 1929, p. 1; John Kirwan, ‘The First Commonwealth Parliament’, Early Days: Journal and Proceedings Western Australian Historical Society, vol. 8, December 1946, p. 15; Notes of a conversation between Eleanor Harvey and Sally O’Neill, Matheson file, ADB, ANU.


This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 1, 1901-1929, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Vic., 2000, pp. 344-347.

MATHESON, Sir Alexander Perceval (1861-1929)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1901–06

Western Australian Parliament

Member of the Legislative Council, North-East Province, 1897–1901

Senate Committee Service

Library Committee, 1903–06