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Kyte, Ambrose Henry Spencer (1822–1868)

by Geoff Browne

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Ambrose Henry Spencer Kyte (1822-1868), by Samuel Calvert, 1868

Ambrose Henry Spencer Kyte (1822-1868), by Samuel Calvert, 1868

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN07/12/68/12

Ambrose Henry Spencer Kyte (c.1822-1868), merchant, property investor and politician, was born at Nenagh, Tipperary, Ireland, son of Stephen Kyte and his wife Margaret, née Mitchell. Arriving in Melbourne in January 1840, Ambrose worked as a brewer's labourer. On 20 November 1842 at St James's Church of England he married Irish-born Sarah Ann Finnin. They had five children.

Unemployed in 1843 and with meagre earnings next year, Kyte saved enough during 1845 to open a hay and corn store in Bourke Street, later expanding into general merchandise and investing in urban properties. Among these was the Theatre Royal, where he was often seen leaning against an entrance column, estimating crowd numbers and the evening's receipts. By 1857 Kyte's annual rental income, estimated to have reached £15,000, was sufficient to enable him to retire from business. He became founding chairman (1859) of Melbourne's second private gas company, based at Collingwood and Fitzroy.

Dark-haired, thin-lipped and taciturn, Kyte was frugal and shrewd, taking pride in not 'making many mistakes, where money-making is the question'. He told of forcing payment from an unwilling debtor at pistol point, and of once having his arm set in plaster, so that he could disown a signature on a document he did not wish to honour. He avoided the religious quarrels that disfigured the early years of Port Phillip. Apparently secure in his wealth, and known for numerous acts of private generosity, Kyte turned to public philanthropy. He funded prizes for the advancement of agriculture, the encouragement of marksmanship, and the discovery of a goldfield near the Snowy River. His promise of £1000 towards the financing of the Burke and Wills expedition, provided the public subscribed another £2000, was crucial in bringing the enterprise to fruition. Although these benefactions were made anonymously, the identity of the donor was soon public knowledge, suggesting that Kyte enjoyed 'the double praise of liberality and of doing good by stealth'.

Kyte also had ambitions to participate directly in public life. In 1861 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly for East Melbourne as a Protectionist, campaigning for secular education, the further opening up of land for selectors, and 'a stiff tax on absentee proprietors'. He referred to squatters as 'greedy . . . hungry and undeserving men'. Defeated in 1865, Kyte was re-elected in 1866 at a by-election for Richmond. He contributed little to parliamentary debate, but behind the scenes he was said to have been a willing and active participant in the parliamentary corruption initiated by Hugh Glass. Despite his public views, Kyte disbursed funds raised by Glass and other squatters for the purpose of encouraging the passage of a bill to recompense the holders of land certificates. Glass later claimed to have had little knowledge of how Kyte spent the money given to him.

Struggling against financial reverses and said to be 'very much aggravated by nervous agitation', Kyte died intestate of pneumonia on 16 November 1868 at his Carlton home. He was buried in Melbourne general cemetery with Anglican rites. His wife, a son and two daughters survived him, inheriting real property valued at £10,000.

Subsequently a select committee inquiring into allegations that some parliamentarians had been bribed found Kyte a convenient scapegoat. The full extent of his culpability, however, could not be determined. The solicitor administering his estate declared that 'Mr Kyte's accounts were of the most complicated and intricate description anyone could conceive, kept entirely by himself; and it would be impossible for anyone to form the most distant notion of what his transactions were'.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Kiddle, Men of Yesterday (Melb, 1961)
  • C. E. Sayers, David Syme (Melb, 1965)
  • H. Love, The Golden Age of Australian Opera (Syd, 1981)
  • T. Bonyhady, Burke & Wills (Syd, 1991)
  • R. Wright, A People’s Counsel (Melb, 1992)
  • Report from the Select Committee on Complaints, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1869, vol 2, paper no D3
  • Age (Melbourne), 17 Nov 1868, p 2
  • Argus (Melbourne), 17 Nov 1868, p 5
  • Leader (Melbourne), 21 Nov 1868, p 912
  • Australasian, 21 Nov 1868, pp 657, 659
  • Truth (Melbourne), 30 June 1917, p 3.

Citation details

Geoff Browne, 'Kyte, Ambrose Henry Spencer (1822–1868)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kyte-ambrose-henry-spencer-13036/text23571, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 22 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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