Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Robert Campbell (1804–1859)

by C. E. T. Newman

This article was published:

Robert Campbell, by Edmund Thomas

Robert Campbell, by Edmund Thomas

National Library of Australia, 9900772

Robert Campbell (1804-1859), merchant, was born on 5 October 1804 at Campbell's Wharf, Sydney, second son of Robert Campbell and his wife Sophia, née Palmer. He sailed to England in the Hindostan in 1810, was educated at Pimlico, and returned to New South Wales in 1819.

In 1827 he became a partner in Campbell & Co. In 1829 he signed a petition to the British government requesting that free emigration to New South Wales be fostered, and transportation stopped. Early in the 1830s, to draw attention to this cause, he refused to sit as juryman on a panel which included emancipists, declaring that emancipists themselves should support his fight to stop the dumping of convicts in New South Wales. He at once became the leader of this campaign. In 1846 a parliamentary committee recommended that transportation, which had ceased in 1840, be revived. Robert Campbell organized a meeting of protest. His brother, Charles, made the principal speech and, after expressing alarm at the recommendation, moved that the meeting 'cannot conceive any circumstances under which such a measure would be desirable or justified'. As a result, a petition of dissent signed by some 6800 persons was presented to the Legislative Council and the British government. In spite of this, convicts arrived in 1849 in the Hashemy. Two large open-air meetings were held with Robert Campbell in the chair. They showed a large majority against transportation and ensured that no more convicts were sent to Sydney. In 1851 Robert was elected to the Legislative Council. In 1856 he resigned and was elected to the new Legislative Assembly; he became colonial treasurer, an office he held almost continuously until he died. His honesty of purpose and untiring industry were so patent that his absence from sittings was never questioned during his illness.

Campbell had become a Freemason at the age of 18, senior warden of his lodge at 19, and worshipful master before he was 21. In 1856 the Freemasons installed him as the first provincial Scottish grand master of the province of Australia.

In 1837 Campbell had been appointed to supervise the building of St Andrew's Cathedral and, also with the rector and the engineer, formed the committee which built the Garrison Church. In 1852 he gave The King's School funds to establish the Broughton and Forrest exhibitions to help students to go to English universities.

In 1835 he had married Annie Sophia, daughter of Edward Riley. He died at Duntroon in 1859. Shops in Sydney and Parramatta closed for the funeral. Some 8000 mourners, including the governor and suite, the chief justice, the speaker and members of parliament, and representatives of the university, The King's School, Freemasons, and all denominations, formed a procession to the family vault. He was a generous, hard-working, self-effacing man who dedicated his life to the service of his country.

At Bligh House which he built in Lower Fort Street, there is a portrait in oils by an unknown artist, and at the Mitchell Library a copy of a drawing (1859) by E. Thomas showing Campbell in Masonic regalia.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 3-7
  • F. Clancy, They Built a Nation (Syd, 1939)
  • (A. W. Morton), History of the Garrison Church (Syd, 1956)
  • C. Smith, ‘The Honorable Robert Campbell’, Freemason of New South Wales, 1 Oct 1953
  • Australian, 30 Oct 1837
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Oct 1846, 12, 19 June 1849, 9 Apr 1859.

Citation details

C. E. T. Newman, 'Campbell, Robert (1804–1859)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Robert Campbell, by Edmund Thomas

Robert Campbell, by Edmund Thomas

National Library of Australia, 9900772

Life Summary [details]


5 October, 1804
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


30 March, 1859 (aged 54)
Duntroon, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death

liver dysfunction

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Organisations
Political Activism