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Charles Campbell (1840–1905)

by J. R. Poynter

This article was published:

Charles Campbell (1840-1905), merchant and pastoralist, was born on 14 January 1840 at Aberdeen, Scotland, son of Duncan Campbell, cattle driver, and his wife Catherine, née McLean. Charles migrated to the Victorian goldfields in 1858, working at Woodend as agent for a firm of carriers before moving to New Zealand, where he became a successful flour-miller at Dunedin. Returning to Melbourne in the late 1860s he entered the lime business, and prospered. On 5 June 1861 in Wesley Church, Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, he had married Mary Ellen Smith, who had been born at Berwick-upon-Tweed, England. They were to have four sons and six daughters.

In 1872 Campbell was approached by the farrier James Cuming, an Aberdonian friend of his youth, to join in buying an acid works at Yarraville formerly managed by Cuming's brother-in-law George Smith. Campbell put up £3300 of the £4000 required, and as senior partner of Cuming, Smith & Co. led the new firm's diversification into fertilisers in 1875. In 1872 he had skilfully negotiated agreements to protect the market when customers Alfred Felton and F. S. Grimwade, wholesale druggists, built an acid works in competition; later Campbell and Cuming worked with Felton and Grimwade setting up an acid works in New Zealand (which Smith ran from 1880) and forming in 1882 the Adelaide Chemical Works Co. Excellent managers, the partners re-invested profits, eschewed speculation and easily survived the 1890s depression. By 1897, when Felton Grimwade merged their acid works in a reconstructed Cuming, Smith & Co., the firms were a major force in Australia's chemical and fertiliser industries.

Campbell was also a founder of the successful Apollo Stearine Candle Co, and in 1888 joined Grimwade in founding the Royal Bank, the only Melbourne bank not to suspend payments in 1893. With James Service, C. E. Miller and others he established the Port Melbourne Sugar Co., which later merged with Colonial Sugar Refining Co., a major survivor when the sugar boom faltered. Becoming, like many Melbourne merchants, a pastoralist, he invested in the Malvern Hills Pastoral Co. of Queensland, and in 1884 formed an equal partnership with Felton to purchase Murray Downs, a station of some 97,000 acres (39,255 ha) near Swan Hill. The partners spent heavily on improvements, spreading much superphosphate—presumably of their own manufacture—and establishing the largest irrigated area of the time on the Murray. In 1889 the station sent 327 bales of wool down river to the railhead at Echuca, but wool prices fell in the 1890s and drought was a recurrent problem. Campbell helped to set up the Pastoralists' Association of Victoria and Southern Riverina, became its treasurer, and was thanked by its council for services (unspecified) during the great strike of 1891.

In 1885 Campbell had joined Felton in supporting Rev. Charles Strong, the charismatic preacher expelled from Scots Church, encouraging him to found another. Described by Felton as 'the ablest practical head that the confraternity can claim', Campbell helped to build Strong's new Australian Church, and in 1897 was one of four 'proprietors' who cleared the building of debt and rented it back to the Church. By then he had joined Scots Church, where a window was later installed in his memory.

In maturity Campbell was bearded, bald and genial, but keen-eyed; Felton always admired his 'stubborn strength'. His family was established in Wollahra, a mansion in East Melbourne, but spent much time at Murray Downs; one daughter married the station manager and in 1895 his son Alec drowned there, on his twenty-first birthday, a few months after the death of Cameron's oldest daughter.

In 1897 Campbell and Felton bought, for £85,300, another large property, Langi Kal Kal, near Beaufort. When Felton died in January 1904, Campbell bought out his share in both stations. Campbell died of pneumonia on 13 September 1905 at Wollahra. He was buried in Boroondara cemetery, Kew; in its obituary, the Pastoralists' Review called him 'one of the ablest business men in Melbourne'. His estate, sworn for probate at £233,000 in Victoria, £115,672 in New South Wales and £24,080 in South Australia, was left in trust for his widow, surviving children and grandchildren.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Croft, History of Murray Downs Station (Swan Hill, Vic, 1965)
  • J. R. Poynter, Russell Grimwade (Melb, 1967)
  • James Cuming: An Autobiography, edited by J. Lack after M. A. Cuming (Melb, 1987)
  • J. Lack, A History of Footscray (Melb, 1991)
  • J. R. Poynter, Mr Felton’s Bequests (Melb, 2003)
  • Pastoralists’ Review, 16 Oct 1905, p 627
  • Argus (Melbourne), 14 Sept 1905, p 5
  • Australasian, 16 Sept 1905
  • Felton Grimwade papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Cuming Smith papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Felton Bequest papers (State Library of Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. R. Poynter, 'Campbell, Charles (1840–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 23 May 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]


14 January, 1840
Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scotland


13 September, 1905 (aged 65)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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