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Albert Maclaren - an impressive priest 

by Dr Lyall Ford 

Albert Alexander Maclaren is best known as the heroic priest who assisted with the rescue of 158 survivors when the Quetta sank off Albany Island near the tip of Cape York in 1890.

With 134 deaths, it was one of Australia’s worst maritime disasters.  

However, a few years earlier, parishioners of the Holy Trinity Church at Mackay hailed him as their hero for undertaking a different kind of rescue mission.

Mr Maclaren was born on the Isle of Wight in February 1853 and completed his schooling in southern England followed by three years at a Missionary Training College.








Reverend Albert Alexander Maclaren and the Holy Trinity Church Mackay.

In 1877 he answered a call by Bishop Hale from the Anglican Church in Brisbane for men to work in his diocese, and left England in November.

Four months later, the bishop consecrated him as a deacon and immediately sent him to Mackay as the temporary rector.

Mackay was a notoriously ‘difficult’ parish. There had been no priest for nine months during 1876–77, and the next rector had died in service in February 1878.

Two weeks later, the gable end of the seven-year-old church collapsed during heavy rain, leaving the already run-down parish with no church, no rector and a debt of £200. 

Mackay historian, JH (Jack) Williams, later described Maclaren’s tenure from 1878 to 1883 as a Golden Age for the church in Mackay.

He gave a stirring address at his first sermon in the Oddfellows’ Hall saying that they had starved out one man, broken another man’s heart, and driven another man away, but they would not drive him away. 

He was full of fun and possessed persuasive begging powers for the needs of the church, so immediately set about assessing and rectifying the problems.

A few weeks later the Bishop ordained him as a priest.

For the next five years his congregation resisted any suggestions by him or the bishop that it was time to move on.

In the first year he established a building fund which paid off the debt and raised £1,700 to build a new church.

He personally superintended the construction, and the finished building was opened in November 1879.

He next raised funds for a Sunday school building which was completed in four months and then built a rectory next to it where sick parishioners from the country were welcomed and cared for.

He also purchased land on the north side and built a small church there.

At Walkerston an old termite-ridden schoolhouse served as a church but he considered it important to build a new church because 2,000 South Sea Islanders resided on the surrounding plantations.

He found it difficult to convince the rich planters that it was their duty to contribute towards teaching the Islanders about Christianity.

He travelled to Nebo four times a year to preach and baptise children and in mid-1881 extended the trip to the newly discovered gold field at Mount Britton.

In May 1882 he undertook a long trip, first to St Lawrence, with its population of 200, which had not been visited by any clergyman for over three years.

He conducted three full services there on the Sunday, baptised 27 children, and formed a new Sunday School.

Three days later he headed over the range to Nebo via Killarney Station, Collaroy and Tierawoomba.

He conducted a service at Nebo on that Sunday and the next day rode to Mount Britton.

That night he conducted a service in the studio of photographers Reckitt & Mills followed by a meeting to discuss the acquisition of a provisional school there.

On the Monday he inspected various mines including the Edith Mary where the creek on which it was situated was named Parsons Gully to commemorate his visit.

The following evening, he participated in a hugely successful gathering in the same studio where songs, readings and recitations were presented.

He returned to Nebo to attend a children’s picnic with 200 children, then headed back to Mackay via Eton, where he arranged to hold a monthly meeting.

In 1883, he resigned amidst the protests of his parishioners. They accumulated £250 to present to him as a parting gift, but he refused to accept it.

Soon after he left, the two new churches he had planned for Walkerston and Mandurana came to fruition, with Dame Nellie Melba contributing to the cost of the latter.

In January 1887, after three years at West Maitland, he moved to Newcastle from where he accompanied the bishop and his wife to England.

During 1888 he completed an English University degree at Durham University, sponsored by one of his old Mackay parishioners.

In October, his offer to lead a proposed Anglican mission to the south-eastern portion of New Guinea, which had just become a crown colony, was accepted and he departed immediately for Australia.

After fund raising for three months, he left on a preliminary four-day visit to New Guinea in February 1890.

The London Missionary Society had established a headquarters in Port Moresby in 1874. There he met their missionary and the Governor, Sir William Macgregor, with whom he discussed possible locations to establish an Anglican Mission.

He met several local people and learnt about the many dangers including the prevalence of fever.

At Thursday Island (TI) on his trip back to Cooktown and Townsville a dramatic shipping disaster interrupted his plans. 

On Friday, February 28, 1890, RMS Quetta was on its twelfth trip from Australia to England, heading for TI, when it struck an unchartered rock near Albany Island in the middle of the shipping channel.

It sank in three minutes sending 134 of its 292 passengers and crew to their deaths.

Nearly 100 of the survivors reached Little Adolphus Island clinging to the lifeboats, and the next morning a wire was sent from Somerset on the mainland to TI for assistance.

The small steamer Albatross departed immediately with the captain, a doctor and Rev Maclaren on board.

They attended to the shipwrecked people and spent the next three days searching for and rescuing survivors from the ocean, including May Lacy of St Helen’s Station near Mackay.

Rev Maclaren read the Anglican service over the scene of the wreck. When the Albatross returned to TI he supplied full details to the press.

Author Frances M Synge later wrote, ‘Maclaren earned public thanks for what he had done, and his memory will long be gratefully enshrined in sorrowing hearts for his love and care for their dear ones in those terrible days.’

He immediately set about raising funds to build a Quetta Memorial Church on TI; it became operational in November 1893.







All Souls' Cathedral, Quetta Memorial, Thursday Island.

Meanwhile, a parsonage was completed in 1891 and the first rector appointed.

Rev Maclaren returned to Port Moresby in May 1890.

The Anglican Church was allocated a section of the north-eastern coast and he accompanied the Governor for three months familiarising himself with the area and its people and choosing possible sites to build. 

Then, after eleven months of fundraising at churches in Australia, he returned to New Guinea in July 1891, for a three-year sojourn.

His diary shows that in the next six months he encountered some extreme difficulties in his efforts to gain the trust of the local people.

He eventually purchased an elevated site for a Mission house at Bartle Bay paying the owners ten tomahawks, ten big knives, ten small knives, 25 pipes, 30 pounds of tobacco, five shirts, a piece of Turkey red and some beads.

He also paid the locals to build a native house and the ‘big house’.  

















Reverend Maclaren's house at Dogura, New Guinea.





















​The altar in the first chapel  Doogura at Bartle Bay.
















Reverend AA Maclaren and native people at Gooenough Bay, PNG.


He suffered seasickness everywhere he travelled, and his health suffered, mainly because he could not tolerate quinine. On Christmas Day 1891 he fell seriously ill with fever and the next day was put on the Merrie England for Cooktown.

He unexpectedly passed away on the journey and was buried at the Cooktown cemetery.

He had reached only 38 years of age but was loved and respected by everyone he encountered, having made a huge impact on the lives of hundreds.

References:        Frances M Synge: Albert Maclaren, A Pioneer Missionary in New Guinea

                              Lyall Ford: Against the Odds, The Life and Times of Frederick Stanley Williams Snr

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