Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Alexander Campbell (1812–1891)

by Terri McCormack

This article was published:

Alexander Campbell (1812-1891), businessman and politician, was born on 12 May 1812 at Relugas, near Forres, Scotland, son of Donald Campbell, lessee of a large farm near Kingussie, Inverness-shire, and his wife Janet, née Ralph. Alexander was educated at Kingussie, Grantown-on-Spey and at the Commercial Academy of Perth, and then spent four years in the employ of a Perth solicitor. In November 1837 he sailed in the Earl of Harewood 'to seek his fortune', and arrived in Sydney on 24 February 1838. He soon entered Grose & Street, merchants and shipowners, and stayed there until starting his own business in 1840. By 1842 he was a partner in Campbell, Hill & Co. which was expanded in 1843 to include James Nelson Smith, and became Smith, Campbell & Co., merchants and commission agents, the Australian representatives of the London house of Duncan, Dunbar & Sons. Campbell retired from this firm in 1856.

Meanwhile he had found a place in the commercial life of the colony. In 1843-44 he was a director of the Sydney Banking Co. and a proprietor of the Bank of Australia, both of which ceased operations in 1843. Until 1844 and again later he was a director and shareholder of the Australian General Assurance Co. In February 1844 he was appointed a justice of the peace. In 1851 Campbell was on the provisional committee of the Sydney Exchange. He was chairman of the board in 1853 when the foundation stone of the Sydney Stock Exchange building was laid. Later he was chairman several times and remained a director until 1891. He was an early supporter of the Australian Mutual Provident Society from 1858, and served as a director for many years. In 1869 Campbell founded the Mercantile Bank of Sydney and was managing director until it was formed into a joint-stock company in 1873 and soon afterwards incorporated by a private Act. Another venture was his managership of the Sydney branch of the Agra and Masterman's Bank in 1863-67. Throughout his commercial career Campbell was a respected member of the Chamber of Commerce.

Campbell first ventured into politics in February 1855 as a merchants' candidate for the Sydney Hamlets. He supported an extended franchise, National education and unassisted immigration but was defeated by the more experienced Stuart Donaldson. In January 1860 Campbell stood for East Sydney; he believed Sydney needed a mercantile representative in parliament and advocated abolition of state aid for religion, an elective upper house, taxation proportional to means and reduction of import duties on essential commodities. On the current issue of the land laws he advocated amendments with security of tenure for pastoral tenants and immunity from free selectors. Although defeated, he was invited to represent the Williams on the north coast and was elected unopposed to the Legislative Assembly. He helped to defeat John Robertson's first land bill but after the assembly was dissolved in November 1860 did not seek re-election.

Campbell was appointed to the Legislative Council in October 1864 and retained his seat until July 1890 when ill health obliged him to resign. From August 1882 to January 1883 he was postmaster-general in the third Parkes ministry, and represented the government in the Legislative Council. He was a long-term associate of Parkes, often giving commercial and financial advice to his government, and supported him in his opposition to the Sudan contingent in 1885. Campbell died at his home in Woollahra on 8 November 1891; his body was found in an ornamental pool and the coroner's verdict was asphyxia from drowning.

Campbell was married first on 1 July 1842 in Sydney to Maria Martin, who bore him one son and three daughters; second, on 6 October 1857 at Tain, Ross-shire, Scotland, to Sarah Robertson Murray, by whom he had four sons and four daughters; third, on 8 January 1873 at Sydney, to Harriette Hunt who had no issue.

From his arrival in Sydney Campbell was a member of the Church of England; he believed that the Roman Catholic influence in politics must be destroyed 'if this fine Colony is to maintain its institutions on lines of Protestant Ascendancy'. His commercial acumen gave him the means to acquire valuable property in Pitt Street, at Woollahra where about 1860 he built a fine home, Rosemont, and at Moss Vale; he also had pastoral interests on the Darling Downs and on the Namoi and Barwon Rivers. As a well-known Sydney citizen he shared in many commercial undertakings and used his financial experience in the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council. He was prepared to give the working classes such liberties as did not affect the revenue. He was a vital member of Sydney's mercantile world and a shrewd businessman whose main concern both in private and in public was the advancement of the colony's commerce and trade.

Select Bibliography

  • A.M.P. Society, Reports (Syd, 1850-90)
  • Mercantile Bank of Sydney, Reports (Syd, 1884-88)
  • W. F. Morrison, The Aldine History of New South Wales, vol 2 (Syd, 1888)
  • A.M.P. Society, Diamond Jubilee, 1849-1909 (Syd, 1909)
  • W. J. Lyons, ‘Notes on the History of the Royal Exchange of Sydney’, Bulletin of the Business Archives Council of Australia, Nov 1956, pp 1-15
  • W. J. Lyons, ‘Prominent Business Figures of Sydney in the 1850's’, Bulletin of the Business Archives Council of Australia, May 1957, pp 1-11
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Jan, 10 Feb 1843, Feb-Oct 1844, Feb 1855, 14-17 Jan 1860, 19, 20 Oct 1864, 28 Apr 1880, Aug-Sept 1882, 9, 10 Nov 1891
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 17 Feb 1855
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 9, 10 Nov 1891
  • manuscript catalogue under Alexander Campbell (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Terri McCormack, 'Campbell, Alexander (1812–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 19 July 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]


12 May, 1812
Relugas, Elginshire, Scotland


8 November, 1891 (aged 79)
Woollahra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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