McCaughey, Sir Samuel (1835–1919), pastoralist, entrepreneur, and philanthropist in Australia, was born 30 June 1835 in Tullynewey, near Ballymena, Co. Antrim, eldest son and second child of Francis McCaughey, tenant of a large farm, and Eliza McCaughey (née Wilson), who later had two more sons and six more daughters. His father also had a prosperous linen business; his mother's family was equally well-to-do, and her brothers included (Sir) Samuel Wilson (qv), John, Alexander, and Charles Wilson, pioneers of sheep production in Australia. As eldest son, Samuel McCaughey was raised to inherit the family business and, after attending school locally, was trained in accounting in the linen trade. However, his attention was turned to the possibilities of life in Australia by news from his Wilson uncles, and in early 1856 he left for Melbourne, arriving in April 1856. He walked 200 miles (320 km) to his uncle Charles's station in the Wimmera in Victoria; the experience of the country thus gained was as valuable as the money saved. He began working as a station hand, was quickly promoted to overseer, then manager, and in 1859, when Charles Wilson returned to Ireland on a visit, McCaughey was left in complete charge of a property of 120,000 acres. He introduced fencing on a large scale, and made other improvements. In 1860 two of his uncles helped him buy a property in the Riverina district; he had originally two partners, one of whom was a cousin, but when they lost confidence in the venture, because of the lack of water, McCaughey bought them out, and began to put his ambitious plans into effect. He borrowed money, was able to improve the water supply, and stocked the place with sheep; by 1872, he owned 137,000 acres. He visited Ireland in 1871, and in 1874 brought his brother David out to assist him. McCaughey employed many men from Ireland, especially from Co. Antrim.
He came to be known as ‘the Sheep King’, partly because of his enormous flocks, but also because of his commitment to improving the breed of sheep in Australia; he wanted a larger sheep with better wool, and in 1860 began a careful breeding programme on his first property. He bought thousands of rams from all over Australia, and also imported stud animals from California and especially Vermont. On visits to America he selected around 500 of the finest Vermont stock; he is said to have paid £50,000 for American ewes and rams. Their progeny won so many prizes in Australian shows that for a few years he refrained from entering his own animals, to encourage other competitors. The merino sheep he bred had much finer wool, as well as much heavier fleeces, but when it became clear that the Vermont sheep were less suitable for the Australian climate, and their heavy welted fleeces lost popularity in the markets, he was prepared to introduce new strains. The American influence on the merino had, however, been so pervasive that it proved difficult to breed it out again.
In 1880 McCaughey bought the huge leasehold stations of his uncle Sir Samuel Wilson – 3,000,000 acres on the River Darling – and in 1881 bought Cooree. His brother David eventually owned this station, and his brother John also came to own large properties. Samuel McCaughey maximised returns from his land by subdividing it into more easily managed paddocks and by introducing heavy machinery, some of which he designed himself, to plough and reseed the grazing land, and to excavate the many miles of irrigation channels and dams which he built to hold and distribute water. He designed one shovel which he called ‘the Tumbling Tommy’. All his properties benefited from irrigation, but his contribution to the Griffith area of New South Wales was particularly important. He bought a property called North Yanco in 1899, and dug over 100 km of water channels; 40,000 acres were irrigated, lucerne could be cut five or six times a year, and potatoes and oats, and later rice, were also successful. McCaughey's initiative, backed by Hugh McKinney (1846–1930), a prominent water engineer in New South Wales, also from Co. Antrim, encouraged the government of New South Wales to undertake a vast irrigation project in the Murrumbidgee valley, where eventually thousands of farmers were able to settle.
On 11 April 1899 McCaughey was appointed by the governor, George Reid, to the New South Wales legislative council, in order to assist the passing of an important measure, the federation enabling bill, and McCaughey's expertise on the development of land was useful in the upper house. In his late seventies, he began selling off property. He was unmarried, and during the last years of his life he undertook major philanthropies, carrying on the tradition of his Wilson uncles. He contributed £10,000 to the Dreadnought fund in 1912, and £10,000 to Dr Barnardo's Homes, as well as large donations to the Red Cross and soldiers' charities. He was interested in aviation, and gave twenty planes to the AAF; he also encouraged the two young men who later founded QANTAS, the Australian airline. McCaughey's lifetime philanthropy and his unparalleled contributions to the development and prosperity of his adopted country received recognition when in the king's birthday honours list of June 1905 he was granted a knighthood. After his death his estate was valued at over £1,600,000, and by a carefully drawn-up will almost all of his fortune went to charities and to benefit the nation; large amounts of money were left to the Presbyterian Church in Australia, to schools, to hospitals, and to the Salvation Army. Over £500,000 went to Australian universities, and the widows and children of members of the Australian armed forces received an equivalent amount.
He died unmarried on 25 July 1919, after suffering for two years from nephritis and heart trouble, at his home in North Yanko, New South Wales, and was buried 26 July 1919 at St Stephen's presbyterian church, Sydney.