Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Smith, Robert Burdett (1837–1895)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Robert Burdett Smith (1837-1895), solicitor and politician, was born on 25 August 1837 in Sydney, baptized Robert Lloyd, twin son of John Lloyd Smith and his wife Mary Ann, née Salmon. John, a native of Northumberland, had been convicted of horse-stealing at Edinburgh on 8 January 1830 and sentenced to be transported for seven years, arriving in Sydney in the York on 7 February 1831. Mary Ann, whom he had married with the governor's permission on 2 February 1835, had come free to the colony in the Princess Victoria on 4 February 1834. With his brother-in-law Thomas Armitage Salmon and later on his own, John traded as a carcass butcher in 1838-43; but on 11 April, bankrupt, he was convicted in Port Phillip of forgery and sentenced to transportation for the term of his natural life.

Robert was educated at W. T. Cape's school, studied classics and literature under Dr D. A. McKean and J. Sheridan Moore and in 1858 was articled to William Roberts of Goulburn. As Robert Burdett Smith he was admitted as solicitor and attorney of the Supreme Court in October 1863; he took chambers in King Street where his practice flourished. In 1868 he spoke at a meeting of sympathy for the Duke of Edinburgh, shot by H. J. O'Farrell. In 1869 he failed to win the Hastings seat in the Legislative Assembly but next year he was declared elected by the Elections and Qualifications Committee that unseated Horace Dean. He began as a supporter of Sir James Martin but became an independent and in 1877 refused office under (Sir) Henry Parkes. Successful in obtaining public works for his electorate, he was able to have the seat divided by the 1880 Electoral Act, and won the part named the Macleay. A prominent advocate of law reform, he worked to simplify equity practice and procedure, and obtained improvements to bankruptcy and probate law. To 'Flaneur' in the Freeman's Journal, 13 March 1886, he had 'not an abnormal amount of wit in himself, but he is often the cause of enough wit in others'. The Bulletin credited him with 'high professional and political status' and 'well merited pre-eminence'. Known as a 'true straight and honourable man' he was said to be 'very fond of associating himself with' the squatting class. By 1871 he had pastoral interests in the Albert and Darling districts. With J. F. Burns he speculated in land in the outer Sydney suburb, Hornsby. In 1885 he supported W. B. Dalley's dispatch of the Sudan Contingent and published his speeches on the matter. Later that year he declined Sir John Robertson's offer of a seat in the cabinet as representative of the government in the Legislative Council.

A commissioner for the Sydney (1879), Melbourne (1880), Amsterdam (1883) and Calcutta (1883) exhibitions, Smith visited Europe as representative commissioner for New South Wales to the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in 1886. In London he became a fellow of the Royal Colonial Institute and a member of the Imperial Federation League. That year the Elections and Qualifications Committee dismissed allegations of bribery and corruption by a defeated political opponent, O. O. Dangar. In 1887 Smith was a commissioner for the Adelaide Jubilee International Exhibition and a member of the royal commission for centennial celebrations. Executive commissioner for New South Wales at the 1888 Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne, he again visited Europe in 1889 as royal commissioner for Victoria to the Paris Universal Exhibition. He later claimed that his visits to Europe changed him from a free trader to a moderate protectionist. Ill health forced him to resign from the assembly in 1889 and next year he was appointed to the Legislative Council and created C.M.G. In 1891-92 he was a commissioner for the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893.

Smith had helped start the Australian Patriotic Association in 1868 and later was its president for two years. As secretary of the Captain Cook Statue Committee he was largely responsible for the erection of the statue in Hyde Park in 1879. A magistrate from 1878, in 1882 he became a director of Sydney Hospital. For six years he was an examiner in law for admission of attorneys and solicitors. A bachelor, he was a member of the Athenaeum, Reform and Australian clubs; in 1883 he was a founder of the local branch of the Geographical Society of Australasia and was elected to the Royal Society of New South Wales. After a lingering illness, he died of heart and kidney disease on 2 July 1895 in his home in Macquarie Street, Sydney, and was buried at St Peter's Anglican Church, Cooks River. He left the residue of his estate, sworn for probate at £33,891, to his sister Emily. Reticent about his convict ancestry, he was a patriotic native-born Australian whose career illustrates the mobility of New South Wales society in the mid-nineteenth century. Smithtown, on the Macleay, is named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Digby (ed), Australian Men of Mark, vol 2, no 4 (Syd, 1889)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1870-71, 1, 445, 1885-86, 2, 63, 4, 763, 1888-89, 3, 1199, 1889, 6, 601
  • Port Phillip Herald, 4, 11 Apr 1843
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Mar 1868, 6 Apr 1886, 5 July 1895
  • Bulletin, 13 Mar 1880
  • Macleay Argus, 20 Mar 1886, 10 July 1895
  • Town and Country Journal, 30 Apr 1887, 10 May 1890, 6 July 1895
  • Cumberland Argus, 18 Dec 1897
  • R. Parsons, Lawyers in the New South Wales Parliament, 1870-1890 (Ph.D. thesis, Macquarie University, 1972)
  • list of free passengers, 1834 and manuscript catalogue (State Library of New South Wales)
  • convict indents and permissions to marry (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Smith, Robert Burdett (1837–1895)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-robert-burdett-4613/text7593, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 27 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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