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Colin Campbell (1817–1903)

by G. R. Quaife

This article was published:

Colin Campbell (1817-1903), pastoralist, politician, educationist and cleric, was born on 21 January 1817 in Glasgow, Scotland, the sixth son of Alexander Campbell (d.1817), of Hallyards, Peeblesshire, and member of the family firm which was the largest and wealthiest of the West Indian sugar companies in Glasgow, and his wife Barbara, daughter of Archibald Campbell, laird of Jura. After distinguishing himself at the Edinburgh Academy in 1825-32, he entered Exeter College, Oxford (B.A., 1838). Although shy himself, through his brother John James of Balliol he moved in the same circles as Matthew Arnold, A. P. Stanley and others.

He was admitted to the Inner Temple in April 1835 but before completing his terms was enticed into pastoral adventures by his somewhat restless brother Alexander who had fallen victim to 'Major Mitchell's Australia fever'. Colin and Alexander sailed in the Appolline and arrived in Hobart Town on 12 March 1839. They had a capital of £8000, and bought a few thousand sheep, crossed Bass Strait and wintered under canvas a few miles north-east of Melbourne. In 1840 they explored beyond the limits of settlement and chose 48,000 acres (19,425 ha) near Mount Cole where, after minor conflict with local Aboriginals and aggressive overlanders, they established a profitable run. The young graduate adjusted quickly to squatting and developed considerable skill as a horseman, but the embryonic intellectual and political life of the district increasingly attracted his attention. An active debater, he took the public platform in 1846 to oppose the renewal of transportation. In March 1848 he edited the Observer which survived for eight months, and in June 1849 the Australia Felix Monthly Magazine which ceased publication after its third issue. In that year the brothers subdivided the Mount Cole property and Colin renamed his western share Buangor.

In 1851 on the separation of Victoria from New South Wales Campbell refused nomination to the Legislative Council on principle, and turned his attention to education. He became a school inspector and secretary in succession to Hugh Childers of the Denominational Schools Board. In 1853 he defended the role of the churches in education in a pamphlet, Remarks on National Education, a defence made necessary by George Rusden's propaganda in favour of the non-sectarian National system. He also published The Effects of Popular Education in Promoting Temperance and Social Improvement (Melbourne, 1853). Campbell advocated the early establishment of a local university and in 1853 was appointed to its inaugural council, serving briefly as its first secretary.

Campbell opposed the extreme claims of his fellow squatters and was defeated in the pastoral constituency of Polwarth in the 1853 Legislative Council election. However, with the modification of squatter demands and growing political apathy he was elected in 1854. As an elected member and government official he disagreed violently with Governor Sir Charles Hotham about his loyalty and in consequence temporarily vacated his position as secretary of the Denominational Schools Board. He had left Buangor in the care of managers, and was living at Gardiner (Malvern). In 1856 he stood for the Melbourne City Council, and his election for Polwarth to the new Legislative Assembly was warmly supported by the Argus despite its strong opposition to Denominational education. He shared fully in most important debates and sat on many committees, but his academic, individual and inflexible approach did not achieve the results expected by his constituents. In 1859 he was defeated and resigned from the Denominational Schools Board in protest against (Sir) John O'Shanassy's political interference. He retired to Buangor and devoted his time to writing and lecturing. He published two pamphlets in 1861: The Land Question and The Squatting Question Considered with a View to its Settlement. In 1862 he was elected to the Ararat Roads Board and remained a member for a year after it became the Shire of Ararat. In 1864 he sold Buangor and stood unsuccessfully for the Legislative Assembly seat of Ararat. In 1867 his unpopular stand on the constitutional crisis led to another electoral setback in South Grant, but he had some solace in being selected by the Anglicans of Ararat as their representative at the Church Assembly. He was rejected in 1868 and 1871 for the Crowlands seat but his persistence was rewarded in 1874. In that year he regained possession of Buangor and as a local member took great pride in the opening of the railway line to Buangor township in March 1875. In 1876 he became secretary of the Free Trade League and in 1877 forsook Crowlands to oppose the notorious Thomas Bent in Brighton but was overwhelmingly defeated.

Campbell had long been prominent in the affairs of the Church of England. In September 1848 he was a speaker at the foundation meeting of the Diocesan Society in Melbourne and at Ararat he served as a lay preacher. In 1877 he applied to Bishop Samuel Thornton of Ballarat for entry into holy orders; he was made deacon in September 1878 and ordained priest next June. He served at Ararat in 1878, and in 1879 at Ballan where he was also a member of the Diocesan Council and School Board. He served at All Saints, Ballarat, in 1879-86, and Talbot in 1886-89. He then visited Scotland and returned to Victoria in 1890. He devoted his last years to writing and lecturing on his lifelong interests in religion and education, especially the provision of religious instruction in secular schools.

In a pragmatic and changing environment Campbell showed inflexible principle with a genuine, if often unrealistic, concern for the state of society. A sincere and humane champion of many causes, he refused to 'run with the tide of public opinion in order to support manhood suffrage', but reacted fervently against the attempts of other Conservatives to exploit popular ignorance. He believed that education was the mainstay of the social system and that it 'must be based on religious principles', yet he lived to see 'secular' education officially endorsed. A consistent defender of property and squatter rights, he spurned the opportunist machinations of other pastoral politicians. In the 1840s, in contrast with general apathy if not callousness, Campbell took a deep interest in the culture and welfare of the Aboriginals, educating them and employing them on his property. In the late 1850s he stood out against the anti-Chinese hysteria. In the 1890s, in an environment steeped in sectarianism, he took up the cause of Christian reunion based on the premise that the Anglican Church was ideal for this purpose. As a Conservative of strong conviction who refused to compromise, Campbell proved ineffective as a politician; and in positing his ethical code appeared to contemporaries 'in constant fits of abstraction, as if Atlas's burden was on his shoulders'. As pillar after pillar of the society he envisaged crumbled before him, his actions and opinions reflected his overriding conviction that there was 'a crisis in the world … of which God only knows the end'. He published 'That They all May be One', A Plea for 'Reunion' (1895), Henry George and his Remedies (1895), A History of Public Education in Victoria (1896) and The Education Question … and the Roman Catholic Claims (1898).

On 15 January 1851 at Christ Church, Geelong, in a ceremony conducted by Bishop Charles Perry, he married Frances Elliott Macwhirter. She was born in Edinburgh in 1827, studied medicine unofficially with her brother, came to Australia in 1848 to ease an asthmatic condition and died in 1883. Her father, sometime physician to the viceroy of India, became president of the Royal College of Physicians at Edinburgh. In 1885 Campbell married Emily Ashby Shieffield at Brighton. He died on 28 November 1903 at his home, Gairloch, Riversdale Road, Hawthorn, survived by nine of his thirteen children.

Select Bibliography

  • J. B. Cooper, A History of Malvern (Melb, 1935)
  • L. L. Banfield, Like the Ark: The Story of Ararat (Melb, 1955)
  • P. L. Brown (ed), Clyde Company Papers, vol 5 (Lond, 1963)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 2 July 1869
  • J. T. Synan, Colin Campbell (M.Ed. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1968).

Citation details

G. R. Quaife, 'Campbell, Colin (1817–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 14 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]


21 January, 1817
Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland


28 November, 1903 (aged 86)
Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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