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Richard Hind Cambage (1859–1928)

by W. G. McMinn

This article was published:

Richard Hind Cambage (1859-1928), surveyor and botanist, was born on 7 November 1859 at Applegarth near Milton, New South Wales, second son of Yorkshire-born John (Fisher) Cambage, blacksmith and later farmer, and his second wife Emma Ann, née Jones. His father had reached Sydney on 5 July 1835 in the Marquis of Huntley, sentenced to seven years for housebreaking. Richard was educated at the Ulladulla Public School, was a pupil-teacher there and at 18 began training as a surveyor; in 1880 he helped to survey National Park. On 11 July 1881 at the Elizabeth Street registry office, Sydney, he married Fanny Skillman (d.1897), daughter of the headteacher at Ulladulla.

Licensed as a surveyor in June 1882, Cambage became a draftsman in the Department of Lands and on 16 February 1885 transferred to the Department of Mines as a mining surveyor. He covered much of the colony on his field trips and became expert in bushcraft, with 'an intuitive sense of direction', but his professional duties became increasingly concentrated on coalmining. In 1900 he carried out a difficult and dangerous survey of abandoned Newcastle workings running under the harbour and sea-bed. While investigating the old Balmain tunnels in Sydney he managed the remarkable feat of transferring his azimuth from the surface to a point 2920 ft (890 m) below sea-level in a single operation. Promoted chief mining surveyor in 1902, he investigated the site of an explosion in the Mount Kembla mine which had killed 95 men: his evidence to the royal commission on the disaster led to the reversal of the coroner's verdict that the miners had died of carbon-monoxide poisoning.

Cambage was a member of the board of examiners for licensed surveyors in 1903-18, and a foundation fellow of the Institution of Surveyors, New South Wales, of which he was president in 1907-09; he also lectured on surveying at Sydney Technical College in 1909-15. On 1 January 1916 he became under-secretary and warden of the Department of Mines and from next March was superintendent of explosives. He also chaired several boards in the public service.

A keen childhood interest in plants, birds and animals of his native district, where there were pockets of sub-tropical rainforest, blossomed during his years in the field. He made plant collections in 1880-90 for Dr William Woolls who gave him botanical lessons, and his observations formed the basis of two significant contributions to Australian botanical study. Cambage studied systematically the relationship of various Australian genera to their environment, and particularly the importance of the chemical composition of the parent rocks in the distribution of Eucalyptus species. If neither completely original nor definitive, his work in this area was remarkably perceptive. He also made a sophisticated analysis of the physiology and morphology of the widely varied Australian species of the genus Acacia, which involved years of experiment with seedlings in his garden and greenhouse. He published extensively in the journals of the local Royal and Linnean societies, often with his friend J. H. Maiden. Acacia cambagei, the 'gidgea' of the Darling River, and Eucalyptus cambageana, the 'Coowarra Box', were named after him.

A fellow of the Linnean Society of London from 1904, Cambage was very active in many local learned societies and was 'a renowned peacemaker'. He was a council-member of the local Linnean Society from 1906 (president in 1924), honorary secretary of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1914-22 and 1925-28 (president in 1912 and 1923), president of the Wild Life Preservation Society of Australia in 1913 and of the State branch of the Australian Forest League in 1928, a council-member of the Australian Wattle League from 1909, and an elective trustee of the Australian Museum, Sydney, from 1925. As founding honorary secretary of the Australian National Research Council in 1919-26, he organized the Second Pan Pacific Science Congress held in Melbourne and Sydney in 1923, and as president in 1926-28 he represented the Commonwealth at the third congress held in Japan in 1926. He attended the conference on reorganization of the Commonwealth Institute of Science and Industry in 1925. In 1928 he presided over the Hobart meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science. Cambage was also a foundation member in 1901 of the (Royal) Australian Historical Society and president in 1924. He enjoyed tracing the actual paths followed by some of the early explorers, including Barrallier's attempt to cross the Blue Mountains, which he described in papers for the society.

Cambage retired from the public service at the end of 1924 and next year was appointed C.B.E. He was an active Freemason, holding high office in the local lodges, and a keen follower of Test and Sheffield Shield cricket. On 28 November 1928 he died suddenly with angina pectoris at his Burwood home, and was buried in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery. He was survived by two daughters and two sons who had both served in World War I.

Select Bibliography

  • Public Service Journal (New South Wales), 15 Nov 1924
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 63 (1926)
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 54 (1929), 59 (1934), and for publications
  • Australia Museum Magazine, 3 (1929)
  • Australian Mining Standard, 6 Dec 1916, 6 Dec 1928
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 May 1923, 29 Nov 1928
  • Bulletin, 5 Dec 1928
  • Hunt Institute biographies (Australian Academy of Science Library)
  • private information.

Citation details

W. G. McMinn, 'Cambage, Richard Hind (1859–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 19 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


7 November, 1859
Milton, New South Wales, Australia


28 November, 1928 (aged 69)
Burwood, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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