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Ebden, Charles Hotson (1811–1867)

by Geoffrey Serle

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

Charles Ebden, by Frederick Grosse, 1867

Charles Ebden, by Frederick Grosse, 1867

State Library of Victoria, IAN26/11/67/5

Charles Hotson Ebden (1811-1867), pastoralist, businessman and politician, was born at the Cape of Good Hope, second son of John Bardwell Ebden, a prominent merchant, banker and politician in the Cape Colony, and his wife Antoinetta Adriana, née Kirchmann. His elder brother, John Watts Ebden, became solicitor-general and a judge of the Cape Colony. Ebden was educated in England and at Carlsruhe.

In 1832, after several trips between the Cape and Australia, he settled in Sydney as a merchant. By early 1835 he had joined the pastoral movement to southern New South Wales and was on the limits of settlement at Tarcutta Creek. In the spring of 1835, before (Sir) Thomas Mitchell set out on his expedition, Ebden's stockman, William Wyse, formed two runs on the Murray: Mungabareena on the site of Albury and Bonegilla on the Port Phillip side of the river. Ebden's were hence the first stock to cross the Murray. Accounts of his subsequent movements vary. It seems that in December 1836 and January 1837 he reconnoitred to the south with his friend and manager, Charles Bonney, arriving in Melbourne a few days after John Gardiner and Joseph Hawdon, the first overlanders. He probably did not move his sheep from the Murray until March 1837. In May Ebden was observed near the Goulburn 'in a most strange costume, with a fur skin jacket and cap, his beard long … very different from the Mr E. in his tandem in George-street, Sydney … He has at present on the road about nine thousand sheep, thirty horses, and nine drays'. Such a scale of operations indicates that Ebden had considerable capital behind him. By August 1837 he had settled on the Campaspe river west of Mount Macedon in an area he named Carlsruhe. He was thus the first pastoralist in the Port Phillip district to settle north of the Dividing Range; he was joined six weeks later by Alexander Mollison, another overlander.

On 1 June 1837 Ebden had attended the first Melbourne land sale and had bought three half-acre (0.2 ha) lots on the north side of Collins Street, between Queen and William Streets, for £136. Two years later he sold them for more than £10,000. He sold Mungabareena in 1837 and Carlsruhe in 1840, retaining Bonegilla until 1851. From about 1840 Ebden lived in Melbourne, eventually in a mansion he built at the eastern end of Collins Street; he also built Black Rock House on Port Phillip Bay beyond Brighton.

Ebden was elected three times to the Legislative Council of New South Wales. At the first election in 1843, he topped the poll for the Port Phillip District, but resigned in 1844. In March 1848 he was again elected, but would not stand later in the year as he 'could no longer lend himself to the perpetration of what was only a farce'. However, in June 1850 he was returned as one of the last Port Phillip representatives. He was active in the separation and anti-transportation movements and the campaign to win the vote for pastoral tenants, helped William Westgarth to introduce German immigrants, was a founder of the Melbourne Hospital and the Benevolent Asylum, and at different times president and secretary of the Melbourne Club.

In 1851 Ebden was appointed auditor-general in the new Victorian government. However, he was not a member of the Executive Council and soon tired of defending policies which he had little part in making. He resigned in October 1852 when he was not promoted colonial treasurer; disapproval of the government's break with the squatters on land policy may also have affected his decision. Charles La Trobe was glad to be rid of him because of his 'peculiarities of temperament'.

In the early 1850s Ebden was active in buying and selling pastoral runs, and between 1854 and 1861 controlled nearly 500,000 acres (202,345 ha) in the Kerang region. However, he was associated with several commercial failures: he had been a promoter of the Port Phillip Bank, in 1853 was first chairman of directors of the ambitious Melbourne, Mount Alexander and Murray River Railway Co., and was later chairman of directors of the St Kilda and Brighton Railway Co. He was also promoter of the Victorian Fire and Marine Insurance Co., and a local director of the Bank of New South Wales.

Ebden visited England between 1854 and 1856. On his return he was closely associated with (Sir) John O'Shanassy in an attempt to form an opposition 'party' and was spoken of as a possible premier. However, he ran last in a large field in the first Legislative Assembly election for Melbourne where his conservative views were not appreciated. In March 1857 Ebden was returned for Brighton and from April 1857 to March 1858 was treasurer in the second Haines ministry. His negotiations with Baring's for a £7,000,000 railways loan reached an advanced stage, but the subsequent O'Shanassy ministry made other arrangements. Late in 1858 he was prominent in attempting to reconstruct the Haines 'party' and early in 1859 was a founder of the Constitutional Association. After the 1859 election he refused to join the Nicholson ministry on the ground that his alleged 'ultra-squatting beliefs' would jeopardize its land bill. Late in 1860 Ebden came to terms again with O'Shanassy, withdrew support from William Nicholson and, after refusing to attempt to form an administration, supported the creation of the Heales-Brooke ministry.

In May 1861 Ebden returned to London where for several years he was a semi-invalid with asthma. When he returned to Victoria in 1866 his health improved, but he died at the Melbourne Club on 28 October 1867. In 1847 or 1848 Ebden had married Tamar Harding. She survived him with one son and two daughters; to them he left his fortune of well over £100,000.

Ebden was something of a dandy who fancied himself as a Beau Brummell. He delighted in his reputation for oddity, and cultivated his moderate talent for epigrams and badinage. His remark that he feared he was becoming 'disgustingly rich' became famous. To a new chum who asked whether he was related to 'the great Mr Ebden', he replied: 'I am myself, sir, that happy individual'. In Gavan Duffy's eyes he 'demeaned himself as if he were descended from the Norman Conquerors'; the Argus described him as an 'empty and affected coxcomb'. But he was widely popular, and many regarded him as the very model of a gentleman. Behind the flippant manner was a serious-minded and conscientious man of affairs. He lacked sufficient eloquence and quickness of thought to be an outstanding parliamentarian, but was a clear and logical speaker who deserved his reputation as a sound financier. He was a leading member of the conservative, pre-gold, Anglican ruling class and the ablest political representative of the squatters of his time.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Walker, A Month in the Bush of Australia (Lond, 1838)
  • Garryowen (E. Finn), The Chronicles of Early Melbourne, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1888)
  • W. Westgarth, Personal Recollections of Early Melbourne and Victoria (Melb, 1888).

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Ebden, Charles Hotson (1811–1867)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ebden-charles-hotson-2018/text2479, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 31 July 2014.

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

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