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Mitchell, David (1829–1916)

by Joan Campbell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

David Mitchell, published in Illustrated Australian News, 1880

David Mitchell, published in Illustrated Australian News, 1880

State Library of Victoria, 49349872

David Mitchell (1829-1916), builder, contractor and businessman, was born on 16 February 1829 in Forfarshire, Scotland, son of William Mitchell, tenant farmer, and his wife Anne. In 1846 he was apprenticed to a master mason and on completing his indenture sailed from Liverpool on 6 April 1852 in the Anna, arriving at Melbourne on 24 July.

Mitchell worked as a mason and saved money to build a shanty on a lot in Burnley Street, Richmond. Next year he visited Bendigo and near-by goldfields but returned to set up as a building contractor at his Richmond site, which became the centre of his business operations. In 1856 he married Isabella (b.1833), daughter of James Dow, an engineer at Langlands Iron Foundry, and built a new home, Doonside, to replace his shanty.

The next forty-five years saw his active and successful participation in a variety of business ventures. Work had been started in 1850 on rebuilding St Patrick's Cathedral, Eastern Hill, and in April 1856 Mitchell won the tender for the masonry work for £7760. By mid-1858 he had completed this work on the first stage of the building but it was then decided to demolish the existing structure and to start again with W. W. Wardell as architect.

By 1859 Mitchell had a factory for steam-made and pressed bricks at Burnley Street. In 1874 he became a shareholder in the Melbourne Builders' Lime and Cement Co., formed to break the monopoly of the Geelong limeburners. By 1878 he had bought Cave Hill farm at Lilydale and began working its limestone deposits, later also handling the distribution. In 1888 his extensive workshops at Richmond were destroyed by fire. He rebuilt the works and added two new ventures, the production of 'Adamant' plaster and in 1890, with R. D. Langley as a partner, a Portland cement factory at Burnley using materials from Lilydale.

In 1890 Mitchell formed a company to mine a channel and tunnel on the Yarra River at Pound Bend, Warrandyte, and employed gangs of Chinese to work three miles (4.8 km) of riverbed for gold. By 1894 he had cheese, butter, bacon, ham and soap factories at Cave Hill, housing them in a complex of well-designed brick buildings. In 1888 his dairy had operated the colony's first mechanical milking device. By 1900 he owned vineyards and wineries at Yeringberg, Coldstream and St Hubert's. He acquired several large stations in various districts, including the Bethanga estate on the upper Murray, Jancourt in the Western District, Gooramadda, Dueran, Barjarg and Colbinabbin, most of which were subdivided and sold.

Among his many large structures Mitchell built the Menzies Hotel in William Street (1857), the Paterson, Laing & Bruce warehouse, Flinders Lane (1871), Scots Church, Collins Street (1873-74), the Presbyterian Ladies' College, East Melbourne (1874), Prell's Buildings (1887), the Masonic Hall, Collins Street (1888), the Equitable Insurance Building (1893), the National Bank and the New Zealand Loan Co.'s wool and grain warehouses at Kensington. His grandest venture was the Exhibition Building, which employed 400 men and was opened in 1880. He retired from building in 1899 and concentrated on his other business interests.

Mitchell had given support to the eight-hour movement in 1856 but was not very active in public affairs. He was a member of the Council of the (Royal) Agricultural Society and of the Builders' and Contractors' Association. As a Presbyterian he was a long-time member of Scots Church choir. His musical interests included playing the violin at home and encouraging the talents of his daughter Helen, later Dame Nellie Melba, but even when she became world famous his natural reticence prevented him from openly praising her singing. Predeceased by his wife in 1881, he died on 25 March 1916. Of his ten children, he was survived by Frank, Charles and Ernest, Dame Nellie who travelled extensively after 1886, and three married daughters living in Melbourne.

A portrait is held by the David Mitchell Estate Ltd., and another by Hugh Ramsay is in the Castlemaine Art Gallery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • Illustrated Australian News, 9 Oct 1880
  • Argus (Melbourne), 19 Oct 1888, 27 Mar 1916
  • Australasian, 9 May 1903
  • Age (Melbourne), 27 Mar 1916
  • J. Mitchell, David Mitchell, Builder, 1852-1899 (B.Arch. thesis, Architecture Library, University of Melbourne, 1968).

Citation details

Joan Campbell, 'Mitchell, David (1829–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mitchell-david-4209/text6779, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 18 August 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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