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Alexander Cameron (1810–1881)

by Peter Rymill

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Alexander Cameron (1810-1881), overlander and pastoralist, was born on 18 August 1810 at Lochaber, Inverness-shire, Scotland, fourth of nine children of John Cameron, sawmiller, and his wife Margaret, née Fraser. Alexander attended school at Inverroy, near Ben Nevis, and worked as a shepherd before obtaining an assisted passage in the Boyne to Sydney. The healthy, literate, six feet (183 cm) tall, Highland Catholic stepped ashore on 2 January 1839 with 101 other enterprising Camerons. He immediately embarked on an epic, clan trek organized by his uncles—droving sheep to Port Phillip, following the wheel-ruts of (Sir) Thomas Mitchell's wagons three years earlier. One uncle Duncan Cameron (1800-1860) settled on the Glenroy run, now a Melbourne suburb, while another, Alexander 'Black Sandy' Cameron (1791-1858), advanced into Australia Felix to pioneer Mount Sturgeon Plains, near Dunkeld.

On 27 June 1843 Cameron married Margaret MacKillop in St Francis's Catholic Church, Melbourne. They were to have ten children. He continued to overland his sheep westwards to new pastures in South Australia where he was the first to apply, on 19 December 1845, for the forty-eight square-mile (124-km²) occupation licence surrounding the future site of Penola. This frontier venture, subsequently in partnership with his uncle 'Black Sandy', prospered, as did a lucrative sideline—shipping remounts to the Indian cavalry, prepared by a local horsebreaker and poet Adam Lindsay Gordon who 'received the greatest kindness' from Cameron while recovering from a violent kick to the groin.

Having built the original Royal Oak Hotel by 1848, Cameron encouraged his station tradesmen to establish their own businesses by purchasing eighty acres (32 ha) freehold on 4 April 1850, which he subdivided to found the private township of Penola. In 1852 he initiated the Penola races, renowned for their Highland balls, and would drive through the township to the racecourse, once 'with a piper in full blast and ribbons flying' to the great astonishment and excitement of his nostalgic kinsmen. Full-bearded, handsome and commanding in stature, but with a curiously falsetto voice and a strong Highland accent, he was remembered as 'a sterling fellow . . . like the Highland chief both in person and hospitality'.

The Camerons' 18-year-old niece Mary MacKillop joined the growing family as governess in 1860. In 1863 Cameron's wife Margaret died, as did his eldest daughter in childbirth. Selling Penola station next year, he expanded his pastoral holdings on Mount Sturgeon Plains, in Victoria, and at Avoca Forest, near St Arnaud. On 14 February 1867 at Duck Ponds, Geelong, with Catholic rites, he married 23-year-old Ellen Keogh; they lived in Melbourne at Moreland Hall, Coburg. Cameron died there on 2 September 1881 and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. His wife, their three daughters and four of their five sons, and one son and five daughters of his first marriage survived him. He left a net estate of £72,000 that included over 22,000 freehold acres (9000 ha) and 53,000 sheep. Known to his contemporaries as 'King' Cameron, he has been commemorated as the founder of Penola by a life-sized bronze statue by John Dowie, erected by public subscription in the main street beside his Royal Oak Hotel.

Select Bibliography

  • Pastoral Pioneers of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1925)
  • V. Feehan, Alexander Cameron--King of Penola--A Biographical Sketch (Melb, 1980)
  • P. Rymill, The Founders (Penola, SA, 1995)
  • W. Milne, Notes of a Journey from Adelaide to the South Eastern District of SA, January 1863 (manuscript, State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

Peter Rymill, 'Cameron, Alexander (1810–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Cameron, King

18 August, 1810
Lochaber, Inverness-shire, Scotland


2 September, 1881 (aged 71)
Coburg, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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