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Campbell, John Thomas (1770–1830)

by R. F. Holder

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

John Thomas Campbell (1770?-1830), vice-regal secretary, was the eldest son of William Campbell, vicar of Newry, County Armagh, Ireland, and his wife Mary, née M'Cammon. Apparently Campbell and his brothers were educated at home by their father. He appears to have spent the years 1793-95 in the Bank of Ireland; his connexion with banking at the Cape of Good Hope remains obscure, in spite of Ellis Bent's description of him as 'head' of the Discount Bank and Governor Lachlan Macquarie's later statements about his part in its establishment.

Campbell's brother was curate at Caledon, County Tyrone, and Campbell himself seems to have enjoyed the patronage of the earl of Caledon, governor at the Cape, who recommended him to Macquarie when the latter called there in 1809. He joined the governor-designate's party, with an understanding that something would be done for him in New South Wales. Captain Henry Colden Antill noted that he 'had the appearance of being a gentlemanly well-informed man'. After they arrived in Sydney, on 1 January 1810 Macquarie appointed Campbell his secretary; Ellis Bent considered him 'very fit for the situation, which is very troublesome'. His salary was £282 10s., paid by the British government, to which Macquarie added £82 10s. from the colonial revenue as soon as authorized to do so in 1816. For eleven years he was Macquarie's chief assistant in the administration of the colony, his intimate friend and loyal supporter. Among other things Campbell strongly supported the governor in 1816 against Jeffery Hart Bent and in his prosecution of Captain Drake for ill treatment of prisoners in the Chapman in 1817.

Two incidents during the period of Campbell's secretaryship caused Macquarie considerable embarrassment. In 1811 Campbell severely wounded a military officer in a duel arising from a quarrel after the Sydney races. The famous 'Philo Free' letter, published on 4 January 1817 in the Sydney Gazette, of which he was official censor, caused much wider repercussions. This elaborately sarcastic review of the missionary activities of the 'Christian Mahomet' of the South Seas was obviously directed at Samuel Marsden who instituted a criminal charge against Campbell. He was found guilty of allowing the libel to appear, but no sentence was passed. Marsden then brought successful civil action and obtained £200 damages. Campbell, in his official apology sent to the Colonial Office by the governor, said that the 'hasty and inconsiderate Letter' was inspired by his indignation at Marsden's 'marked disrespect' to the governor's orders in not attending the meeting of Aboriginals at Parramatta a few days before. Undoubtedly this indignation had been growing for some time over the clergyman's open defiance of and devious attacks on the governor's authority and policy.

In 1819 Macquarie informed Downing Street that, with the concurrence of the judges, he had appointed Campbell provost-marshal when William Gore was suspended, Campbell assigning the salary attached to the post to Mrs Gore. In London Marsden's friends were pressing for Campbell's removal from every official position, but the Colonial Office contented itself with down-grading him by assuming that the secretaryship was now vacant and appointing Frederick Goulburn as colonial secretary. Macquarie had unsuccessfully sought this post for Campbell, who remained provost-marshal until that office was abolished and a sheriff appointed in 1825.

Goulburn arrived in Sydney in December 1820. His appointment was announced to the colony in a Government and General Order in which the governor devoted two paragraphs to the new colonial secretary and six to the virtues of his predecessor, his 'laborious and vigilant attention, his integrity … strict impartiality … the zeal and energy which he has manifested in carrying [the governor's] orders and wishes into prompt effect … his fidelity and attachment'. Though Wilberforce and others in London continued to prophesy his doom, Campbell was too experienced and capable a man to be overlooked in the colony. In 1824 Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane suggested his name for appointment to the new Legislative Council. In 1826 Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling made him a member of the Land Board, and of the Board for General Purposes constituted to reorganize the administrative offices of government. In April 1827, 'influenced by the opinion that is generally entertained of his integrity', Darling appointed him collector of customs as well, in place of John Piper, at a salary of £1200, but he resigned from this post in December. In 1829 he became a member of the newly extended Legislative Council where, according to the Monitor, 'it was to his eloquence and perseverance next to those of Chief Justice (Sir) Francis Forbes that the freed portion of our Community are indebted for that valuable privilege, the right to sit as Jurors in the Supreme Court of New South Wales'.

Campbell took a leading part in the founding of the Bank of New South Wales in 1816-17. As the first president of its board of directors he gave thorough attention daily to every detail of its organization and operations until it was well established. Although Macquarie, in his eagerness to present the bank's prospects in the best light, may have exaggerated the president's earlier experience as a banker, Campbell was obviously enthusiastic and competent. It was unfortunate that the expiry of his four-year term of office in 1821 coincided with the revelation of the defalcations of Francis Williams, and he was not re-elected to the board. Though always a staunch supporter of the bank and a prominent speaker at proprietors' meetings, he did not again seek a seat on the board until 1827, when he was re-elected. Influenced either by criticism of his holding the posts of bank director and collector of customs concurrently or by increasing ill health, Campbell resigned both offices before he had actually taken his seat. As a private citizen Campbell was a large landholder and a most efficient farmer and breeder of cattle and horses. In 1811 Macquarie granted him 1550 acres (627 ha) at Bringelly, and later he received a grant near Rooty Hill, which to Marsden's indignation he named Mount Philo. He was also a large stock-holder in southern New South Wales.

Campbell was Macquarie's closest associate and staunchest supporter throughout his governorship of New South Wales. It cannot be doubted that his support sprang from complete sympathy with the governor's policy as well as loyalty, and Macquarie was more fortunate than most of the colony's early governors in his administrative assistant. Campbell was one of the leading signatories of the colonists' petition for redress of grievances, which Macquarie supported in March 1819, and during the 1820s he was prominent in the movements for extension of the rights of the emancipists, the fight for civil liberties, and the demand for a legislative assembly. Reserved, frugal, and with a genuine dislike of ostentation, Campbell was not a popular politician, but his reputation for high principles and integrity was acknowledged by nearly all of his contemporaries. He reserved his strongest indignation for what he conceived to be hypocrisy and self-seeking, as in the case of his attacks on Marsden, Barron Field and his sycophants, and John Macarthur. As became a nephew of Samuel Johnson's 'Irish Dr Campbell', he had literary tastes, and his large collection of books was bequeathed to the Australian Subscription Library. Campbell died at Sydney on 7 January 1830.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 8-10, 12, 13
  • Sydney Gazette, 1 Nov 1817
  • manuscript catalogue under J. T. Campbell (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Bank of NSW, board book vol I (microfilm, State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

R. F. Holder, 'Campbell, John Thomas (1770–1830)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/campbell-john-thomas-1873/text2191, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 22 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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