Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

Ellar McKellar McKinlay

Hunter Valley Medical Practitioner

Ellar McKellar McKinlay - State Library of South Australia

Ellar MacKellar McKinlay - State Library of South Australia

Ellar Mackellar McKinlay was the son of Dugald McKinlay, merchant, and his wife Catherine, nee McKellar. He arrived in Sydney from Greenock on the Portland on 7 February 1840. Cabin passenger on the Portland was Dr. Cadell.

Dr. McKinlay's two brothers John and Alexander McKinlay migrated to Australia in 1836.


In 1840 Dr. McKinlay's estate was robbed by bushrangers. Eighty years later a romanticised account of the robbery and treachery of the doctor's convict servants was published in the Dungog Chronicle. Some of Dr. McKinlay's nearby neighbours and friends are also mentioned.

The article begins -

'Dr. Ellar Mackellar McKinlay aforetime surgeon of one of His Majesty's Regiments of foot in India, found practice of medicine somewhat precarious in the Williams Valley in the year of grace, 1840. It had even been worse prior to this. So bad, in fact, that some years previously he had journeyed down to the Murray to throw in his lot with a brother, who afterwards became known to fame as 'Big John' McKinlay, the explorer. 'Big John' was, about that time, questing into the wilds in search of new pastoral country for his uncle, Mr. McKellar, founder of the squatting family of that name which owns many large runs in Australia to-day. But the doctor soon found the rough living on the untrodden expanses of the west intolerably irksome to his placid scholarly nature. He returned to Dungog after enduring it for a year, to take up the ends of an abandoned practice. Thus 1840 found him established in comfortable bachelor quarters that consisted of a rambling cedar slab house, built on the hillside past the northern end of the township and overlooking the smiling Williams River. He called his house 'The Hermitage' and his estate Mount McKinlay.

Cherished Possessions

Dr. McKinlay, as became one of gentle birth and high station, did not lack the grateful comfort of a service of chested plate in his home. A glittering array of solid silver adorned his sideboard and filled his cupboards. These priceless and fondly cherished possessions had come to him from his ancestral home in Scotland, the sole remaining evidence of a wealth and magnificence that dated back through the mists of Highland history to the birth of the clan.

With the pride of his race, the doctor was wont to boast to his friends of these treasures. He delighted in showing off the polished salvers, the slender spoons, the massive chased tankards, to such as Crawford Logan Brown, who had bought Cairnsmore ; to John D. Lord, who had formed a station at Underbank; to Vincent Dowling of Tilligra.

Magistrate Thomas Cook

But most of all, he revelled in displaying their magnificence to Captain Thomas Cook, magistrate of the district who lived a few miles further up the river in his big new plaster house at Auchentorlie. There was a deep friendship between the jovial doctor and the saturnine humourless soldier. Even the doctor's continual jesting at the other's expense did not ruffle the magistrate's temper.

One mellow summer evening in 1840, as the two friends sat on the wide verandah of 'The Hermitage' sipping the light Canary in the long stemmed silver goblets before them, Captain Cook referred to the treasures within.

'Tis a foolish thing, old friend' he said, 'to keep this wealth unguarded in your home. You are a mile from the village and the bushrangers have been very active of late. Tis but a fortnight since the rascals robbed the Union Inn at Brookfield, and only two of the gang were captured.

The doctor laughed boisterously.

'Let the scoundrels come' he said. 'They will meet a reception here that will astonish them. Both my assigned servants are faithful to me; and I will arm them for resistance at the first hint of danger'

'Be not too trustful of those men' warned the magistrate. 'Grimes was a desperate character when I came here seventeen years ago, and many a flogging I ordered him in those days. He has been a vicious and irreconcilable character for nigh on three decades. His reformation is but a few years old'

'I'd vouch for his honesty and courage before any bench of justices in the land' asserted Dr. McKinlay warmly. 'He has but one failing, and that is an over fondness for liquor.'

'If you will be advised by me' said Captain Cook preparing to depart, 'you will provide a safe hiding place for your plate until these bushrangers are brought to the gallows'

Thomas Buckingham, trusted overseer of assigned servants for Mr. J. J. Coar, of Wallaringa, although the holder of a ticket-of-leave, was free to come and go about the Williams and Paterson districts by reason of the pass granted him by Captain Thomas Cook. Buckingham, who had originally been transported for a choice bit of burgling, in the way of highway robbery in England, had recently embarked on a cautious career of more carefully planned bushranging about the Williams Valley. His method was to enmesh the companions of his nefarious enterprises in the toils of the law while he himself escaped un-suspected. He had been the master mind of the Union Inn robbery, mentioned by Captain Cook. No one, however, had the slightest inkling of the fact, save his two assistants who had been condemned to Norfolk Island.

Buckingham, like most of the free men and the bond in the district, had heard tales of the fabulous hoard of crested silver in 'The Hermitage.' It was a tempting bait for an enterprising bushranger. Its acquisition was one of the first things he had planned when he had embarked on his career of robbery. But he had been at a loss to resolve how a hold-up could be effected. Then came the day when the profane conversation of two tipsy assigned servants in the tap-room of Stephenson's bar, where he was lounging. - set his active brain to work. It happened on the morning after Captain Cook and the doctor had talked over the wine. Within half an hour he had inveigled the two half-drunken men to the bank of the river It was not long before their tongues were wagging and their worst impulses in possession of their minds. Joseph Grimes, the servant for whose devotion Dr. McKinlay was prepared to vouch, was soon conspiring with his fellow-servitor, Henry Gaunt, and a fair spoken stranger whose name they did not know, to rob 'The Hermitage' of its treasure. The plan of action formulated by Buckingham was simplicity itself. From Grimes and Gaunt he had learned of Dr. McKinlay's intended reception of bushrangers with a welcome of leaden, hail, fired by himself and the two servants whom he would arm. What Buckingham proposed was that the two convicts should, during that very night, raise an alarm of robbers, receive the muskets the doctor had prepared, and turn them on their master. For his part, he would be on the spot with horses to aid their escape and help carry away the booty.

Both Grimes and Gaunt were men of desperate character, the good opinion of the doctor notwithstanding. They had both suffered every variety of punishment the penal system provided. They had been flogged, they had been in the chain gangs, they had endured the agonising monotony of the treadmills, they had languished in the foetid darkness of the 'solitary' cells. The reformation of Grimes was the refinement of hypocrisy. That of Gaunt as insincere. They hailed the chance of becoming bushrangers with delight.

The Hold Up

Before Buckingham parted from them he made them swear the awful convict oath that they would be faithful to the death. As he prepared to leave to seek his horse to ride to Wallaringa for the mounts he was to furnish, handed a pistol to Grimes. 'Take this,' he said, 'in case the doctor does not hand you a musket. Menace him with it; use it if you must.' 'By God I will,' swore Grimes. Not long after midnight, Dr. McKinlay awakened to listen to the sound of creeping feet along the verandah of his home. Knowing that his two assigned servants, Grimes and Gaunt, had staggered to their hut at dark more than half tipsy, he suspected that one of them was creeping about the house in search of liquor. 'Who is there,' he demanded. 'Grimes, came the reply. 'Get up at once, doctor, there are men on horseback at the slip-rails. I think they are bushrangers.' The doctor leaped from his bed. Hastily pulling on his trousers and riding boots, he seized a musket from the rack above the fireplace and stepped through the doorway. 'Where are the scoundrels?' he whispered. 'Ah. I see them.' About a hundred yards below the house, clear in the moonlight was a horseman upright in the saddle. On either side of him were two saddled but riderless horses. The doctor cocked his musket. 'I can manage them alone.' he said, as he advanced to the edge of the verandah. On either side of him stood his two servants; Grimes clutching a shining pistol behind his back, and Gaunt holding a pick handle. As the doctor moved from the shadows Grimes spoke 'Hands up, or I'll shoot!' he shouted, and pointed the pistol at his master's head.

Dr. McKinlay's training had made his nerves things of steel. Almost as Grimes uttered the threat, the doctor had spun round and pulled the trigger of the musket he was holding loosely in his hands. Grimes fell with a scream. The bullet had penetrated his chest. His own weapon clattered, undischarged, along the verandah boards. But Gaunt, even before Grimes had spoken, had raised the pick handle for a blow. And he had struck almost as the doctor's finger had tightened on the trigger. The heavy hardwood crashed on his master's head as the gun roared out. His body fell limply across that of Grimes. Both lay silent, still.

At Gaunt's call, Buckingham - spurred swiftly up the hill. 'What's happened?' he asked anxiously. 'The doctor shot Joe; , but I split his skull with a pick handle,' he said in a voice husky with terror. 'For God's sake let us get away.' 'After we have got the silver,' said the bushranger sharply. 'Come, show me where it is.' Half an hour later the two were pressing their horses through the bush down the rugged slope of Cairnsmore Hill to follow the ridges round the top of Hanley's Creek. Gaunt's teeth were chattering with fear. The deed had unnerved him, hardened scoundrel though he was. Buckingham was in high spirits. Beside him trotted a horse, across the empty saddle of which were slung two bulging bags that jingled musically at every step. At the top of Pilcher's Mountain, where a gloomy chasm yawned beneath their feel, Buckingham halted. 'You take your horse to the big rock over there,' he said to Gaunt, 'and wait for me. This is the Jew boy's hiding place and I am the leader of the gang. You will get your share of the booty to-day.' And as he spoke, he carelessly waved a pistol at his unarmed companion. Gaunt rode into a patch of sombre scrub. Buckingham, dragging at the led horse, spurred swiftly in the opposite direction towards Wallaringa.

Dr. McKinlay was unconscious until the sharp raw air of the dawn revived him. He staggered to his feet, clasping his aching head. And realisation came to him as he saw Grimes lying outstretched on the boards. Skilfully, despite his own suffering; he examined the convict. He lived, though dangerously wounded. Deftly the surgeon rendered professional aid and then lifting the unconscious man, laid him on his own bed.

The Sequel

Gaunt was still waiting hard by on the big rock on the top of Pilcher's Mountain at mid-day when Capt. Cook, Chief Constable Thomas Abbott and Constable Parnell galloped towards him through the timber. As he recognised the anger-darkened face of the magistrate, his hands shot up above his head. You rascal, hissed Captain Cook, as he reined up, 'I'm in two minds to hang you from the branches of yon tree. Bind him, Parnell.' Gaunt could not tell where Dr. Mc Kinlay's silver was hidden. Forced by the menaces of his captors he told a rambling incoherent story of the Jew-boy who was to return and share the plunder with him. For days parties of armed men scoured the hills, but never a trace of the bushrangers or their booty did they find.

The day after Grimes and Gaunt had been sent to pay the penalty of, their crime, Captain Cook and Dr. McKinlay sat on the verandah of 'The Hermitage, sipping Canary wine from thick coarse glasses. 'You were right, Captain,' mused the surgeon. 'They were graceless, ungrateful rogues. And that old drinking cup that our family had cherished for over five centuries I will never see again.'

But he did, and not six months later, together with the rest of his treasured plate.

Dungog Chronicle 8 August 1924. (Select here to read a further account of the capture of Thomas Buckingham and recovery of the stolen silver)

Appointed Magistrate

In December 1844 Dr. McKinlay attended a dinner to farewell Vincent Dowling Esq. who was leaving the district for a time. The gentlemen of the district were 'anxious to testify their esteem and regard towards Mr. Dowling for his uniform integrity of purpose and urbanity of manner as a magistrate and private gentleman'. The dinner took place at Mason's Inn on Friday 13th December and the party comprised the elite of the district. Mr. Dowling proposed a toast to recently appointed Magistrates Crawford Brown, J.M. Andrew and Dr. McKinlay. Dr. McKinlay then responded, giving sincere thanks for the toast and offering a toast to Legislative Council representative Richard Windeyer whose talent, tact, candour and zeal Dr. McKinlay thought, were essential to the welfare of the colony.

Dr. McKinlay was sworn in as Magistrate in January 1845

Medical Duties

Missing from Vincent Dowling's farewell dinner was Matthew Chapman, settler from 'The Grange' who had been killed in an accident on his way home from Dungog five months previously. Dr. McKinlay had attended Matthew Chapman at the Dungog Inn however had been unable to save him and Chapman had died the following day.

He was also unable to save the 'amiable' seventeen year old daughter of William Crawford in Dungog in 1846. She had consumed a quantity of bluestone water and 'all that medical skill could do for the unfortunate sufferer was done', however without effect for she expired six hours later. Her death remained a mystery to those around her as she 'refused to the last to mention the cause of her committing so rash an act'. An enquiry into her death found she died from the effects of bluestone water taken whilst labouring under temporary insanity.

In November 1844 a difficult case presented itself to Dr. McKinlay when an intoxicated bullock-driver George Barnett was brought into Dungog from Mr. Dowling's farm. Barnett had been kicked by a bullock and knocked down and the wheel of the dray had then passed over his leg crushing it badly. Dr. McKinlay could not immediately ascertain the extent of the injuries as Barnett was very drunk and violent however on the following morning he found that amputation would be necessary. A messenger was immediately sent to Stroud to engage the assistance of another doctor to assist at the operation however the messenger returned without success and was immediately sent to seek the assistance of Dr. Park of Paterson who reached Dungog on Monday.

Dr. McKinlay and Dr. Park amputated the leg on Tuesday and although the 'haemorrhage was not violent', Barnett did not recover from the shock and died later that evening. At the inquest the medical men gave their opinion that death was caused by Barnett being intoxicated at the time of the accident and the jury found that he died from the shock he received by amputation of his leg, rendered necessary in consequence of the wheel of a loaded dray passing over it whilst he was in a state of intoxication. -

South Australia

In 1849 McKinlay decided to move from Dungog to a 'neighbouring colony'. At a ceremony at the Union Inn, the residents in the town presented him with a purse of gold containing seventy one sovereigns and a ring as a token of their esteem and respect. Dr. McKinlay had lived in Dungog for 9 years and the inhabitants of the district regretted losing his 'impartiality, honesty of purpose and independence as a Magistrate as well as his skill and indefatigable zeal as a physician and surgeon. In replying to the address presented to him, McKinley felt at a loss as to how to express his gratitude however assured them that wherever his lot was cast he would always fondly cherish a recollection of Dungog and Clarence town and of the kindness, hospitality and friendship of the people who lived there.

In December 1850 McKinlay informed the residents of Dungog that circumstances prevented him returning from Adelaide and begged to be released from his engagement to return, although he had been promised nearly 300 per annum upon his taking up his position in the district again. A public meeting was soon held and the townspeople resolved to advertise for a Medical practitioner to replace Dr. McKinlay.


Ellar McKellar McKinlay returned to Dungog in 1860. He died on 14 November 1889..........Dr. McKinlay, one of the pioneers of the Wilcannia district, and who had been a resident of Dungog, Williams River, for fifty years, died to-day from injuries received through falling down stairs. The deceased took a great interest in scientific matters, and was one of the greatest authorities in the colonies on the manners and customs of the aboriginals, and possessed a valuable collection of Australian curiosities. He was a brother of the well-known explorer of the same name. - S.A. Register 15 November 1889....Read his obituary here

Notes and Links

1). A Day in Early Dungog - Dungog Chronicle 25 September 1925

2). Explorer John McKinlay, brother of Ellar McKellar McKinlay - Australian Dictionary of Biography