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Peter Dodds McCormick and Advance Australia Fair


Peter Dodds McCormick (1834?–October 30, 1916), a Scottish-born schoolteacher, was the composer of the Australian national anthem “Advance Australia Fair.”  Born around 1834 the son of a seaman Peter McCormick and his wife Janet, née Dodds, of Port Glasgow, Scotland, McCormick completed his apprenticeship to a joiner, then migrated, reaching Sydney which at that time was the principal city of the British colony of New South Wales in Sydney on  February 21, 1855. Details of his earlier years, prior to his arrival in Australia, are shadowy. He spent most of his life employed by the NSW Education Department. In 1863 he attended Fort Street Model School for a month before being appointed teacher-in-charge at St. Marys National School.  On July 16, he married Emily Boucher, who became sewing teacher at her husband’s schools. They taught at schools closer to Sydney in 1865 but she died in March 1866, and on December 22 he married Emma Elizabeth Dening.  He went on to teach at the Presbyterian denominational school in the Sydney suburb of Woolloomooloo in 1867. He then moved to Dowling Plunkett Street Public School in 1878 where he remained until he retired in 1885.

McCormick was heavily involved in the Scottish Presbyterian Church and was active in a number of community and benevolent organizations, serving as an elder of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Woolloomooloo, and later of the Grahame Memorial Church at Waverley.  He began his involvement with Sydney’s St. Stephen’s Church as a stonemason, working on the now demolished Phillip Street Church where Martin Place now stands. The minister, Hugh Darling, was so impressed with his singing on the job he asked him to join the choir. McCormick’s musical ability led him to becoming the precentor of the Presbyterian Church of NSW, which gave him the opportunity to conduct very large massed choirs. He was also convenor of the Presbyterian Church Assembly’s Committee on Psalmody.  Also a talented composer, he published around 30 patriotic and Scottish songs, some of which became very popular. Included in his collected works was “Advance Australia Fair,” which was first performed in public by Andrew Fairfax at the St Andrew’s Day concert of the Highland Society on November 30, 1878.

McCormick conducted very large choirs such as the 10,000 children and 1000 teachers at the 1880 Robert Raikes Sunday school centenary demonstration, and 15,000 schoolchildren at the laying of the foundation stone of Queen Victoria’s statue.  In 1896 he published a moral tale, Four School Mates.  “Advance Australia Fair” became quite a popular patriotic song. The Sydney Morning Herald described the music as bold and stirring, and the words “decidedly patriotic” – it was “likely to become a popular favourite”. Later under the pseudonym Amicus (which means ‘friend’ in Latin), McCormick had the music and four verses published by W. H. Paling & Co. Ltd.  The song quickly gained popularity and an amended version was sung by a choir of 10,000 at the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia on January 1, 1901. In 1907, the New South Wales Government awarded McCormick £100 for his patriotic composition which he registered for copyright in 1915.

In a letter to R. B. Fuller Esq., dated August 1, 1913, McCormick described the circumstances that inspired him to pen the lyrics of his famous song, saying, “One night I attended a great concert in the Exhibition Building, when all the National Anthems of the world were to be sung by a large choir with band accompaniment. This was very nicely done, but I felt very aggravated that there was not one note for Australia. On the way home in a bus, I concocted the first verse of my song and when I got home I set it to music.”  He continued to give religious instruction in public schools until 1916.   McCormick died on October 30, 1916, at his home in the Sydney suburb of Waverley and he was buried at Rookwood Cemetery. He had no children and was survived by his second wife Emma. After his death sporadic attempts were made to have ‘Advance Australia Fair’ proclaimed Australia’s national anthem.  The song was performed by massed bands at the Federal capital celebrations in Canberra in 1927. In 1977, in a countrywide public opinion poll to choose a national tune, “Advance Australia Fair” won out over three other contenders, including “Waltzing Matilda.” Some of the original words, however, were altered.  In 1984 it was formally declared the Australian national anthem, replacing ‘God Save the Queen.’

My collection includes the following works by Peter Dodds McCormick:

Advance Australia Fair.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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