Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Campbell, Archibald James (1853–1929)

by Allan McEvey

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Archibald James Campbell (1853-1929), ornithologist, was born on 18 February 1853 at Fitzroy, Victoria, eldest son of Archibald Campbell, who came to Australia in 1840, and his wife Catherine, née Pinkerton, both of Glasgow, Scotland. After education at a private school in Melbourne, Campbell entered the Victorian civil service in 1869, and by 1872 was a weigher in the Department of Trade and Customs; he retired from the Federal Customs Department in July 1914. His interest in nature was aroused in childhood at Werribee where he lived with his grandparents until the age of 10. His first love was egg-collecting, and his general interest in birds was further inspired by study of John Gould's works at the Public Library.

'A.J.', as he was familiarly known, was described as 'tall, somewhat lean, but suggesting energy and tireless activity, small shrewd eyes … with a decidedly humorous twinkle … a thick crop of stiff hair, face well covered with a moustache and beard, dressed always in rough surfaced tweed such as Scotchmen love'. He was for many years active in the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria. The most popular of his accounts, such as Scraps about Bird-Nesting, provide interesting descriptions of rural Melbourne environs. By 1896 his collection of eggs represented 500 species. Campbell initiated the first of several dinners which led to the formation in 1901 of the (Royal) Australasian Ornithologists' Union; he was president in 1909 and 1928 and co-editor of its journal, the Emu, for thirteen years.

In the 1890s he had contributed a series of articles on Australian birds to the Australasian and in 1905 was a founder of the Bird Observers' Club. In quest of eggs and bird-lore he travelled throughout Australia, often under rough conditions. He scientifically described and named over thirty Australian birds although only a few of these names have resisted synonymy. He published papers on eggs in the Southern Science Record, the Victorian Naturalist and the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria; one was read at the International Ornithological Congress at Budapest in 1891. These papers formed the basis for his major and still useful Nests and Eggs of Australian Birds (1900), in an edition of 600 copies published in both one and two volumes. His pioneer collection, made when custom divided sets of eggs for exchange rather than preserved them as full clutches, is now held in the National Museum of Victoria.

Campbell was elected a colonial member of the British and an honorary fellow of the American ornithologists' unions. He was a keen conservationist, showing concern for disappearing species, and a pioneer bird-photographer (having photographed Lesser Noddies as early as 1889). A lover of acacias, he was founder in 1899 of the Victorian Wattle Club (later League). His descriptive nature-writing was hampered sometimes by studied literary striving, but in less self-conscious moments he showed a youthful sense of fun and an innocent colonial vigour that evokes a freshness of bush scene and experience. He was a member of the board of management of Toorak Presbyterian Church, a tenor in its choir, and an elder of Box Hill Presbyterian Church.

Campbell had married a teacher, Elizabeth Melrose Anderson (d.1915), at South Yarra on 11 March 1879; they had five children. By his second marriage to Blanche Ida Rose Duncan, a trained nurse, at Toorak on 27 March 1916, he had one son. He died at Box Hill on 11 September 1929 and was buried in St Kilda cemetery.

His eldest son Archibald George (1880-1954) was born at South Brighton on 2 May 1880. Educated at Armadale State School and the Working Men's College, he was a student at the School of Horticulture, Burnley, in 1895-98. After three years of orchard-work at Rutherglen he returned to Burnley to lecture. Later he became an orchardist at Pomonal and then from 1913 at Kilsyth.

Archie Campbell had absorbed an interest in birds from his father and he early began field trips in and beyond Victoria. His extensive list of ornithological publications, some important in their time, show attention particularly to distribution, migration and ecology. He was a fellow of the R.A.O.U., an honorary associate in ornithology at the National Museum, and lectured in nature study to the Workers' Educational Association. Deeply interested also in geology, botany and nature appreciation, he filled many notebooks, now preserved at the National Museum. A pocket full of raisins or oatmeal, a water-flask and an overcoat sufficed him for a day or two walking in the Mallee. He was ahead of his time in conservation. In later life a tall, austere, white-haired man, taciturn and ostensibly dourly studious, Campbell was at heart a deeply religious and somewhat mystic romantic, as his manuscript verses and philosophical writing on nature show.

He had married Amy Dethridge on 29 June 1907 in the Australian Church, Melbourne; the eldest of their four sons was killed in World War II. On 19 July 1954 Campbell was accidentally drowned in Dandenong Creek, near Bayswater. He was buried in the Methodist section of Lilydale cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • W. J. Sowden, Outline History of the Wattle Blossom Celebration in Australia (Adel, 1913)
  • H. M. Whittell, The Literature of Australian Birds (Perth, 1954)
  • D. L. Serventy and H. M. Whittell, Birds of Western Australia, 4th edn (Perth, 1967)
  • South Australian Ornithologist, Oct 1929
  • Australian Zoologist, 5 (1930)
  • Emu (Melbourne), Jan 1930, Oct 1954
  • Age (Melbourne), 12 Sept 1929
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 Sept 1929
  • Sun-News Pictorial (Melbourne), 12 Sept 1929
  • Royal Australasian Ornithologists' Union records (State Library of Victoria)
  • ornithology archival and manuscript collection (Museum Victoria)
  • family papers (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Allan McEvey, 'Campbell, Archibald James (1853–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 22 October 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2016