Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Chambers, John (1815–1889)

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

This is a shared entry with James Chambers

John Chambers (1815-1889), by unknown photographer, c1870

John Chambers (1815-1889), by unknown photographer, c1870

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6912/C4

James Chambers (1811-1862), and John Chambers (1815-1889), horse dealers and pastoralists, were born at Ponders End, Middlesex, England. Orphaned early they learned to work hard as dealers in livestock and became well known in Long Sutton, Lincolnshire. With free passages as agricultural labourers, they sailed with their wives for South Australia, James (b.21 September 1811) in the Coromandel and John in the John Renwick.

On arrival early in 1837 James dived overboard before the anchor was dropped and raced other enthusiasts to the shore. He was also first to make 'a bullock-drawn vehicular contrivance' for carrying goods and luggage from Holdfast Bay to the newly-chosen site of Adelaide, where he bought an acre lot in the first land sale. He bought horses from Van Diemen's Land and, with headquarters at North Adelaide, was probably first to open a livery stable, to take mail contracts, to run passenger services and to keep a pack of hounds. Later he imported English coaches and had the first cab stand in Adelaide. With bullocks and wagons from Cape Colony he did much carrying for the government, moving survey parties and arranging Governor George Gawler's expeditions into the country. In 1852 he also organized and provided the horses and carts for the first gold escort from Mount Alexander to Adelaide. His nickname 'Greenhide' matched his tough resilience but not his unostentatious benevolence. John was reputed to have done the first ploughing in Adelaide on a section owned by Boyle Travers Finniss and to have built the first house with a fireplace, door and glass window. He also practised as a farrier and speculated as a dealer but overreached himself in 1851 and settled on 1200 acres (486 ha) at Cherry Gardens to run sheep.

In 1853 James sold his coaches and 350 horses for about £14,000 and visited England, cutting a fine figure at Long Sutton. He returned with horses, cattle and sheep of the best breeds and with John took up large pastoral leases in northern South Australia and at least one in New South Wales. In 1854-57 they dissolved their partnership and sold 1700 sq. miles (4403 km²) for £48,000, James retaining 270 sq. miles (699 km²) in the north. John took up leases on the River Murray where he ran cattle and bred horses in great numbers. He was a keen supporter of the turf and well known in sporting circles. Aged 74 he died at his home in Richmond on 26 September 1889, survived by his wife Mary (1812-1904), a son and four daughters.

In 1857 James Chambers and his friend William Finke found copper on one of his stations and, after a mining lease was granted, they formed the Great Northern Mining Co. and planned a railway from the mine to Port Augusta. In 1858 John Baker bought Finke's share and sold the mine in London for £36,000, but in his absence Chambers was offered over £40,000. In the long dispute that followed the mine was found to be overvalued. Governor Sir Richard MacDonnell reported: 'Chambers is in some degree an object of pity as well as censure, for whilst he has allowed himself to be used so vilely as the tool of another, he also reaps unjustly the obloquy resulting from Mr. Baker's machinations'.

Perhaps because of this scandal Chambers began to dream of finding a way across the continent for a telegraph link with Europe. For this reason as well as the discovery of new runs and mines, he outfitted John McDouall Stuart for five northern expeditions. His opposition to any government assistance was broken down for Stuart's last trip but before hearing the successful result he died at his home in North Adelaide on 7 August 1862. He was survived by his wife Katherine, two sons and three daughters; their names were scattered by Stuart from Lake Eyre to Chambers Bay in the Northern Territory.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (South Australia), 1858 (164), 1859 (108), 1860 (76, 105), 1861 (35), 1862 (14, 51), 1863 (97), 1867 (14)
  • Gentleman's Magazine, 13 (1862)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 4 Aug 1862, 7 Feb 1863, 14 Jan 1888, 5 Oct 1889, 12 Feb 1898.

Citation details

'Chambers, John (1815–1889)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/chambers-john-3338/text4785, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 1 November 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

John Chambers (1815-1889), by unknown photographer, c1870

John Chambers (1815-1889), by unknown photographer, c1870

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6912/C4

Life Summary [details]

Birth

1815
London, England

Death

1889

Cultural Heritage
Occupation