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Benjamin Boothby (1831–1883)

by G. N. Hawker

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BOOTHBY BROTHERS: William Robinson (1829-1903), public servant, Benjamin (1831-1883), public servant and engineer, Josiah (1837-1916), public servant, and Thomas Wilde (1839-1885), pastoralist, were born in England, among the fifteen children of Benjamin Boothby and his wife Maria Bradbury, née Robinson. Before migrating to South Australia with the family in 1853, William, born on 26 September 1829, was educated at the University of London (B.A., 1850) and Benjamin, born on 18 February 1831, was articled to a London architect and surveyor.

William, the eldest son, entered the civil service as deputy-sheriff in December 1854 and in March 1856 was promoted sheriff, a post he held until 1903. He also served on the Court of Disputed Returns in 1854, as returning officer from 1856, marshall of the Vice-Admiralty Court from 1862, comptroller of the Labor Prison from 1869 and on the Supply and Tender Board from 1887. In these multiple positions he served with dignity and competence, investing them, particularly the office of sheriff, with great prestige. His most memorable work, despite his modest disclaimers, was in refining the provisions in the Electoral Act of 1856 for secret ballot, the so-called Australian ballot, which came into effect two weeks after a similar Victorian Act. His original contribution, made in the Electoral Act of 1858, was to provide for each elector to place an X against the name of his preferred candidate instead of crossing out unwanted names, and for the ballot paper to show 'no other matter or thing' apart from the names of candidates and on the back the returning officer's initials. This system was followed in many countries, notably in Britain after Boothby reported on it to the House of Commons in 1870. The 1858 Act also introduced new methods for transferring electors' names from one constituency to another and required local registrars to inform the electoral office of deaths so that rolls were kept up to date. From 1856 to 1903 Boothby superintended every parliamentary election in South Australia, drafted every Electoral Act, gave unshakeable evidence to every relevant inquiry and was the first of the federal electoral commissioners to complete his rolls and electorates for the Commonwealth; his proudest boast was that South Australian elections in his time had never been tainted with bribery or corruption. A federal electorate was named after him.

In prison administration Boothby enlarged prisons, abolished the barracks system, used prisoners on public works and drafted the Prisons Act of 1869-70. After his tour of European prisons in 1876-77, he effected other reforms, among them the introduction of olive-growing in prisons for the sale of oil. He was also prominent on several royal commissions, especially one in 1874-75 which recommended an expansion of the railways system, and was usually chairman of committees which investigated malpractices in the civil service. He published The Olive: Its Culture and Products in the South of France and Italy (Adelaide, 1878). By 1880 his most important work was done; later the memory of his earlier achievements led him to oppose preferential voting and to give only lukewarm support to penal reforms.

Boothby was an original member of the Council of the University of Adelaide, serving from 1874 to 1903. He was appointed C.M.G. in January 1893. In the 1850s he had been a captain in the Voluntary Artillery; he had played cricket for South Australia in 1854 and was long a member of the Adelaide Cricket Club. On 23 June 1863 he married Frances Elizabeth Lawrence; they had two sons, who both practised law in Victoria, and two daughters. He died at his home in North Adelaide on 12 July 1903.

Benjamin, the second son, was appointed a surveyor with the South Australian Central Road Board in 1854. He became manager of the waterworks in 1861 but, after a bitter dispute with the engineer over plans for a new reservoir, returned to the Road Board. In the economic recession of 1870 his office was abolished and he practised as an engineering consultant. In 1872-73 he superintended the construction of the Adelaide-Glenelg railway and managed it until he retired in 1879. He died at Glenelg on 13 August 1883. On 1 December 1859 he had married Mary Ann Warland; of their six sons, Hugo became deputy-registrar of probates.

Josiah, the seventh child, was born on 8 April 1837, became a clerk in the Chief Secretary's Office in 1853 and chief clerk in 1859. In 1860 he was appointed government statist and superintendent of the census. He became under-secretary in 1868 and in 1869 was elected an honorary corresponding member of the Statistical Society of London. In the 1870s he was widely credited with having done more than any other to introduce uniform census procedures throughout Australia. He was a trustee of the South Australian Savings Bank in 1869, chairman of the Board of Civil Service Examiners in 1874 and commissioner for the Intercolonial Exhibition in 1872. He became well known as a publicist by his production of annual statistical gazettes and his contributions to descriptive works on South Australia. In 1878 he was appointed executive commissioner for South Australia at the Paris Exhibition, and for his work was awarded the C.M.G. and the Cross of the Legion of Honour; then at his zenith he was regarded as the most powerful civil servant in the colony and perhaps only his brother, William Robinson, could command equal public esteem. However, in 1880 Josiah was found to have drawn personal expenses of £1500 on a warrant over his own signature at the Paris Exhibition and had not made it good by submitting one bearing his minister's signature. His claim that the expenditure had been necessary was arguable; his inability to produce receipts or to disprove extravagance led to grave inferences, and the government, faced with the first case of its kind in South Australia, reluctantly forced him to resign by threatening dismissal. In 1891 Josiah returned to the Chief Secretary's Department to superintend the census. He was retrenched in 1895 but reappointed in 1896. He owed his reinstatement to his statistical ability and possibly to his family connexions. He retired in 1907 and died at Glen Osmond on 12 June 1916. On 10 October 1861 he had married Susannah Hinds Lawrence (1834-1918); they had five daughters.

Thomas Wilde, the ninth child, was born on 9 December 1839, migrated with his family to South Australia in 1853 and later owned and managed a pastoral property in the south-east. He became a stock and station agent in Adelaide and in 1873 won a by-election for the Victoria seat in the House of Assembly. His parliamentary career was entirely undistinguished and he was not returned at the general election of 1875. He died at his mother's home in Glen Osmond on 19 June 1885. On 10 March 1864 he had married Mary Agnes (1843-1907), daughter of Edward Davis Hodding; of their three sons, Guy Newell (1867-1905) won fame overseas as a novelist.

Select Bibliography

  • P. M. Robinson and A. L. Spence, The Robinson Family of Bolsover (Chesterfield, 1937)
  • Votes and Proceedings (South Australia), 1880 (102)
  • Public Service Review (Adelaide), July 1903
  • Register (Adelaide), 14 Aug 1883, 20 June 1885
  • Observer (Adelaide), 22 Apr 1893
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 14 July 1903, 13 June 1916
  • W. G. McD. Partridge, Australian Electoral Methods: An Historical and Critical survey (M.A. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1947).

Citation details

G. N. Hawker, 'Boothby, Benjamin (1831–1883)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 22 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




13 August, 1883 (aged ~ 52)
Glenelg, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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