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Barbour, Robert (1827–1895)

by Clarence Karr

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Robert Barbour (1827-1895), merchant, squatter and politician, was born in January 1827 at Beith, Ayrshire, Scotland, son of William Barbour, writer to the signet, and his wife Mary, née Kerr. After ten years of commercial experience in Glasgow he sailed for Victoria at 24 in search of gold. Unlike many other migrants who came in the 1850s, he never panned for gold. Instead in his first year of colonial life he became a soft-goods merchant in Melbourne and a squatter on the 12,000-acre (4856 ha) Bullengarook run near Gisborne. Before he sold his stores to the managers in 1858, he had established branches at Emerald Hill, Castlemaine, Maldon and Bendigo. In that year he married Catherine Pitty in Melbourne.

For the next two years Barbour contracted for bridges with the Victorian government. In 1860 on Mount Macedon he built his first sawmill, and for the next seventeen years devoted most of his time to producing red gum sleepers. When government contractors began to lay the railway to Echuca, Barbour sensed a business vacuum and moved his mill to the River Murray. With seven sawmills, five river steamers and seven barges to transport the timber to the railhead he soon earned the nickname of 'Redgum Barbour'. In 1870 he visited India and England in an attempt to extend his exports of timber. His ceaseless exploitation of red gum forests along the river prompted local squatters in New South Wales to persuade the government to declare the district a timber reserve. Never one to be outwitted, Barbour moved his nine children with their tutor and two of his employees across the river to New South Wales to live on the Baratta run of Henry Ricketson, who had been chiefly responsible for the declaration of the timber reserves. Under (Sir) John Robertson's Crown Lands Acts of 1861 Barbour selected 3652 acres (1478 ha), for most of them using his children as 'dummies'. The land included nearly nine miles (14 km) of timbered river frontage; it had been measured by Ricketson who hoped to buy it at a government auction. In 1875 Barbour surrendered his lease near Gisborne which had been over-run by selectors.

Partly because of the timber reserves and partly because of the beginning of a lengthy series of law suits for trespass and libel, Barbour sought election for the Murray seat in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. He cunningly secured sanction of his candidature from the four branches of the Murray District Selectors' Association but lost the election to the squatters' candidate, William Hay. In the 1877 election Barbour placed less emphasis on his own problems, sold his timber interests and won the seat. He was the first representative in the assembly whose campaign had been conducted by selectors' associations. Although defeated in 1880 he was returned in 1882-94. As a protectionist he opposed Henry Parkes and later supported both the (Sir) Alexander Stuart and (Sir) George Dibbs ministries. On 4 August 1895 he died suddenly at his home, Kelvin Grove, Summer Hill, Sydney, and was buried in the Presbyterian section of the Rookwood cemetery. He was survived by his wife and by four sons and five daughters of their twelve children.

Barbour's life was dominated by two traits, a restless and forceful pioneering spirit combined with much arrogance and shrewdness. These characteristics enabled him to prosper in business. His speculation in land and timber continued throughout his life. A dislike of criticism bred in him almost a compulsion to fight back with a lawsuit, and earned him the title 'Litigious Barbour'.

In 1879 while Henry George was finishing Progress and Poverty, Barbour published The Land Question; it was one of the first pleas in New South Wales for leasing as a solution to the problems of land administration, and he continued to expound it until his death. He was an able speaker and had ceaseless energy and indomitable pluck; as a selectors' representative he could have become the organizer and leader of a parliamentary country party. Instead he was expelled from the colony's first such party in 1894 allegedly for underhanded transactions as a land agent. However, in his long association with the selectors he did much to prepare them for the eventual formation of their permanent organization, the Farmers and Settlers' Association. At the foundation conference at Cootamundra in 1893 Barbour, with his white hair, looked like a well-fed, serene bishop, but younger men conducted the business. His restlessness and arrogance had not equipped him to lead. Some disliked his egotism, others doubted his sincerity or suspected his land transactions. But his genial and warm-hearted treatment of his electors helped him for over fifteen years to stay in parliament where he supported land and other liberal reforms. In many ways his career was typical of those who came to Victoria in the 1850s for gold and then moved as established capitalists to the Riverina.

Select Bibliography

  • R. V. Billis and A. S. Kenyon, Pastoral Pioneers of Port Phillip (Melb, 1932)
  • G. L. Buxton, The Riverina 1861-1891 (Melb, 1967)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1870-95
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1880-94
  • Riverine Herald, 1866-95
  • Deniliquin Chronicle, 1870-95
  • Pastoral Times, 1870-95
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1870-95
  • Town and Country Journal, 26 Oct 1878.

Citation details

Clarence Karr, 'Barbour, Robert (1827–1895)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/barbour-robert-2931/text4241, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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