Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Frederick Alexander Campbell (1849–1930)

by S. Murray-Smith

This article was published:

Frederick Alexander Campbell (1849-1930), engineer and educationist, was born on 27 November 1849 at Melrose, Scotland, son of Rev. Alexander James Campbell, Free Church minister, and his wife Mary Turner Wedderburn, née Heriot-Maitland, granddaughter of the earl of Lauderdale. In 1859 Alexander accepted a call to Brighton, Victoria. On arrival, however, he was appointed to St George's, Geelong, and was active in establishing Geelong College and the Presbyterian Theological Hall.

Frederick was a foundation student at Geelong College. Matriculating in 1871, he reflected his father's missionary interests by travelling in the Pacific. On his return he published A Year in the New Hebrides, Loyalty Islands, and New Caledonia (Melbourne, 1872). Among a collection of plants that he brought back was a new species of Pittosporum, which (Sir) Ferdinand Mueller named after him.

Campbell enrolled at the University of Melbourne in 1875, and graduated with the Certificate of Engineer in 1879 (M.C.E., 1898). On 1 July 1879 he was appointed assistant engineer to the railways branch of the New South Wales Department of Public Works, and was based at Tamworth, Glen Innes, Bolivia and Deepwater before his services were dispensed with in May 1886. In Brisbane on 16 April 1884 he married Mary Pitts. During these years he published in the Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria—of which he became a council-member in 1893-1900—several papers on the properties of Australian timbers and on the effects of wind pressures on the stability of structures.

In March 1887 Campbell was appointed secretary and director of the Working Men's College in Melbourne (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology). His father's long association with Francis Ormond may have assisted his claims. Always a pragmatist where technical education was concerned, Campbell canvassed widely for support for the new institution. He was no doubt aware that his appointment had aroused the ire of the Trades Hall, whose candidate D. Bennet was not selected. In an initiative rare in Australian education, Campbell offered to teach students what they wanted to be taught. The college initially succeeded beyond expectations: there were 2000 students within two years. Its trade classes were an interesting innovation, for they broke with the received wisdom that technical education should not concern itself with workshop training.

In the 1890s Campbell faced two major problems. Government subsidies were abolished and replaced by capitation grants, with a disastrous effect for some years on enrolments, subjects taught and morale. His second problem, the unpreparedness of many of the students for any form of technical college work, was partially solved in 1898 by the inauguration of full-time preparatory classes. Another important innovation was the establishment of full-time, three-year diploma courses in 1899.

The royal commission into technical education in 1899-1901 did little either to reform the technical schools of Victoria or to improve their position. Campbell continued to write and agitate for the development of training in the skilled trades, and for technical colleges to take over apprentice-training functions previously carried out by the master. His closing years at the college were clouded by bitter internal disputes. A government board of inquiry in 1910-11 exonerated him and praised his services, but Campbell's position vis-a-vis his council was of extreme difficulty. He retired in ill health in 1913.

Campbell lived in active retirement for many years. In 1921 he was decorated by the Belgian government for his war-work, and he advised on the vocational training of returned soldiers. He was an active churchman, following his wife's Anglican persuasion, a keen and successful golfer, and an amateur artist of merit. He read in history and the arts, was a knowledgeable gardener and numbered among his friends Frederick McCubbin and Sir John MacFarland. He had published Some Facts, Opinions, and Conclusions about Technical Education (1898), Education and Industry in Victoria (1907), and The Working Men's College in the Making 1897-1913 (1925).

Predeceased by his wife, Campbell died on 13 February 1930. He was buried in Boroondara cemetery and was survived by a son.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1911, 1st S, 2 (14)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 7 Mar 1887, 14 Feb 1930
  • Age (Melbourne), 14 Feb 1930
  • S. Murray-Smith, A History of Technical Education in Australia (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1966).

Citation details

S. Murray-Smith, 'Campbell, Frederick Alexander (1849–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 15 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]


27 November, 1849
Melrose, Scottish Borders, Scotland


13 February, 1930 (aged 80)

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