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Robert Campbell (1789–1851)

by Margaret Steven

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Robert Campbell junior (1789-1851), merchant, entrepreneur and pastoralist, was born on 8 February 1789 at Greenock, Scotland, the eldest son of William Campbell, writer and town clerk of Greenock and Jean Morrison, and tenth of the line of the cadet branch of Duntroon Campbells and titular laird of Ashfield. At boarding school he, on his own testimony, 'acquired some knowledge of the Classics', and was later apprenticed to a surgeon in Greenock for two years. In 1805 his uncle, Robert Campbell senior assisted him to return with him to New South Wales to become a clerk in the mercantile house of Campbell & Co. at Sydney, where they arrived in the Albion in August 1806.

In 1807 when he was helping his uncle as Naval Officer, he was successfully sued by John Macarthur in October for illegal seizure of property arising from the official recovery of the controversial spirit still illegally imported in the Dart by John Macarthur and Garnham Blaxcell. In 1811 Campbell senior's influence procured him the official post of assistant Naval Officer which yielded 'an handsome Addition to his income besides various occasions of improving his circumstances and Supporting and extending his Credit in the colony'. While in his uncle's counting house Campbell engaged in occasional commercial speculations, and asserted that by 1810 he had acquired some £1000 'by Speculations in Trade and by fair dealings in the Colony'. In March 1811 he set up Edward Lambe in a shop in Hunter Street to retail goods supplied to him for a half share of the profit. In August 1813 the Hunter Street property was leased out, and Campbell advertised that in future his business would be conducted from his own home in Bligh Street, which he had bought in 1810 and which he made over by deed of gift to Margaret Murrell in August 1811. In July 1812 at St John's, Parramatta, he married colonial-born Margaret Murrell (b.1795) by whom he had four sons and two daughters.

As an importer and retailer of general goods with extensive interests in the colonial fisheries Robert Campbell junior became a prominent member of Sydney's commercial life. He stated that his successful trading and dealing between 1811 and 1813 had amounted to between £20,000 and £30,000 sterling. His business was sufficiently strong to survive the commercial reverses of the 1810s, though in 1817 his store and office at Bligh Street were advertised for letting, and his farm of 470 acres (190 ha) on the Parramatta Road with its garden, house, outbuildings and stables had been advertised for sale or letting two years earlier.

Convivial and charming, with the flair of a bon viveur, Campbell displayed a sentimental and romantic temperament. Horse-racing was an abiding passion, and he was one of the first in the colony to participate in this sport, contriving even in his lean years to support good horseflesh. His stables in Bligh Street were well known to his contemporaries and for some years housed the famous Persian stallion Hector (now recognized as the foundation of Australian bloodstock) before he was sold to Campbell's friend D'Arcy Wentworth. Another of his horses, Speedy, enjoyed much success on the newly-established Sydney turf in 1819-21, while others achieved occasional victories. Campbell's dash and personality, however, were the outward manifestations of the acumen and keen instincts of a successful entrepreneur. He tendered for the building of a bank on his land at Bligh Street, and Bigge's report dealt with his complicated connexion with the Bank of New South Wales. In 1826 a report by the bank's board of inquiry revealed that Robert Campbell (who owed 87,157 dollars) together with Robert Cooper and Raine & Ramsay were liable for an amount equivalent to half the assets of the bank. Campbell was a director of the bank from 1830 to 1851 and president in 1843-51. When a second Chamber of Commerce was instituted in 1837 he joined its committee. In 1835 his business was extended by partnership with James Milson, and the firm became Campbell & Co., general merchants. In 1837 Campbell's request for a land grant had been upheld by the Land Board which recommended that he receive 1172 acres (474 ha) to complete the maximum grant of 2560 acres (1036 ha), which Governor Sir Ralph Darling only permitted him to rent and which he accordingly failed to select. Campbell applied again in 1834 but was refused by Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke. In 1833 Bourke cited him as one of those 'persons of property and respectability' who supported the extension of trial by jury in the colony. His name was one of twenty-five in a list submitted in 1835 for the selection of twelve nominees of the Legislative Council. An active Freemason, in 1825 he was worshipful master of the Australian Social Lodge No. 260.

Campbell retired to England before the firm, affected in 1841 by the depression, had to write off £10,000 in bad debts. By 1844 Campbell & Co. was in liquidation, with its affairs in the hands of trustees. The partnership recovered, however, and after the increased demand for wool led to the opening up of new country, financed landholding and bought wool in the Moreton Bay District. Campbell, who called himself 'senior' after the death of his uncle in 1846, and his son Robert 'Tertius' (1811-1887) prospered as gold buyers in the 1850s. Some of this capital was diverted to New Zealand where the Campbells took up land interests in the 1860s. Campbell died at Sydney on 5 October 1851 and was buried in Waverley cemetery. He left a large personal fortune and his property at Bligh Street later became the Union Club.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 6-12, 17-20
  • R. H. Goddard, The Life and Times of James Milson (Melb, 1955)
  • Sydney Gazette, 28 Nov 1812, 24, 31 July, 6 Nov 1813, 29 Jan 1814, 25 Feb 1815, 20 Jan 1816, 15 Mar 1817, 5 June 1819, 16 Sept 1820, 18 Aug 1821
  • Australian, 3, 10 Nov 1825
  • Votes and Proceedings (New South Wales), 1824-34, part 2, p 191
  • manuscript catalogue under Robert Campbell (State Library of New South Wales).

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Citation details

Margaret Steven, 'Campbell, Robert (1789–1851)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 16 July 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

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Campbell junior, Robert

8 February, 1789
Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland


5 October, 1851 (aged 62)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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