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William Campbell (1810–1896)

by Frank Strahan

This article was published:

William Campbell (1810-1896), pastoralist, financier and politician, was born on 17 July 1810 at Aberfoyle, Perthshire, Scotland, son of the forester of the Duke of Montrose. He arrived at Sydney in December 1838. For four years he had been general manager of the Lochiel estates, sheep farms in Inverness-shire and Argyleshire, and he brought letters of introduction from the Colonial Office to Sir George Gipps and the Macarthurs of Camden. Within a week of arrival he was appointed superintendent of the Macarthurs' Richlands station near Goulburn. Seven years later he overlanded to Port Phillip with 150 merinos from the Camden stud flock.

Campbell searched unsuccessfully for a watered run on the outskirts of unoccupied country in the Port Phillip district, and failed to obtain a licence for land by the Wakool River. He then bought Tourall, a small run near Clunes station, which was held by his brother-in-law, Donald Cameron. In the next fifty years his horizons widened to include pastoral holdings, acquired on behalf of himself and relations, in Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland. Through sound management, improved stock breeding and talent for finance, Campbell became one of Australia's richest pastoralists. At least eighteen stations were involved, nine being held concurrently at the peak of his financial activities after the late 1870s. In addition Campbell financed other landholders, lending hundreds of thousands of pounds in return for mortgages over land, stock and wool. He was a large shareholder in Goldsbrough Mort & Co., and a director of the Australasian Agency and Banking Corporation Ltd which was incorporated in Victoria on 6 March 1877, used British and local money to finance pastoralists and accepted consignments of wool. His financial interests were not restricted to land. He was a large shareholder and a director of the Melbourne and Hobson's Bay United Railway Co., and had substantial investments in tramways, gas and meat chilling and freezing companies.

Early in 1850 Campbell had discovered gold on Donald Cameron's Clunes station. Fearing that gold mining would ruin pastoral land and would draw off the pastoral labour force, he did not announce his discovery until July 1851. He later claimed he was the original discoverer of gold in Victoria. A select committee of the Legislative Council of 1853-54 voted him a £1000 reward, but he was paid less than half that sum, and gave it all to the men who had helped in his discovery and to a number of hospitals and asylums. In 1856 he published The Discovery of Gold in Victoria.

Campbell was active in the separation movement. In November 1851 he was elected for Loddon to the first Victorian Legislative Council. He resigned at the end of the third session and left for England. He returned to Victoria in 1859 and in 1862 was elected to the council as member for North-West Province. Campbell was an ultra-Conservative in his fight to preserve established pastoral interests. In 1855 he published The Crown Lands of Australia in Glasgow. In this book he attacked Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe as a man 'blinded with the love of power', and a 'landjobber'. La Trobe had introduced regulations permitting township and agricultural reserves to be proclaimed on the lease-held lands of the squatters.

In September 1877 Victoria introduced a land tax on estates over 640 acres (259 ha) and valued at more than £2500. Campbell strongly opposed the legislation. Unsuccessful in appeals against assessments, he divided his Victorian estates among members of his family so as to exempt the land from the terms of the Act. 'I may retire to the old world, where communism is not so rank as it is here', he wrote to Sir William Macarthur in 1881. In 1882 he printed his Farewell Address to the Electors of the North-West Province, attacking the tax as the work of 'envious, impecunious, wicked demagogues', products of the 'evil changes' of payment of members, the abolition of property qualification for the Legislative Assembly and reduction of qualification for the council. The tax, he claimed, had depressed property values and frightened capital away from Victoria. 'I built here', he said, 'with the view of a permanent residence, but bad legislation has militated against my desire to see my descendants settle here'.

Campbell left for England in 1882. His paper, Postal Communication with the East; India in Six, and Australia in Sixteen Days (London, 1883), was read to the Royal Colonial Institute and advocated a railway north of Suez to India with linking lines in Singapore and north Australia, designed to bring Britain closer to the colonies and India. He issued a power of attorney over his Australian financial interests to James Graham, a Melbourne merchant, legislative councillor and fellow member of the Melbourne Club. Campbell kept in close touch, sending detailed observations and advice in weekly letters from London. Graham gave him excellent service. Campbell the expatriate made much money from Australia, judiciously transferring surplus funds to London. Yet the 'evil changes' continued. In 1884 he was angered by New South Wales land legislation, which lacked specific details on compensation and limited leases for the central division, where he had large holdings, to ten years. In 1890 he wrote of land, probate, and income taxes as 'socialistic iniquities'. In 1895 New South Wales introduced a land tax, and Campbell commented that 'the low franchise is at the bottom of the evil'. He added that trade unions had imposed on the Australian employer 'tyranny with a vengeance'.

Campbell was an Anglican. He died in London on 20 August 1896, predeceased by his wife Isabella Cameron, two sons and a daughter. A son, Allan, and three daughters survived him. A daughter, Jeannie, married Sir Samuel Wilson, and a son married a daughter of Sir George Bowen.

In common with such pastoralists as Niel Black—the men Margaret Kiddle has called 'Men of Yesterday'—William Campbell believed his lands were his by right of pioneering and hard work. He did little in politics except fight to preserve the interests of the old squattocracy, and in this he belonged to the past. However in knowledge of the pastoral industry and financial talent he was very much a man of the moment. 'I can meet all claims and have my Australian investments free of debt and am able to buy the station between Chasselton and Innaminka', he wrote in 1893, the time of great depression. His estate was probated at over £500,000.

Select Bibliography

  • Herald (Melbourne), 28 May 1861
  • J. E. Parnaby, The Economic and Political Development of Victoria, 1877-1881 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1951)
  • P. O'Donnell, William Campbell, Pastoralist and Financier (B.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1968)
  • Graham Bros & Co records (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Frank Strahan, 'Campbell, William (1810–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 23 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]


17 July, 1810
Aberfoyle, Perthshire, Scotland


20 August, 1896 (aged 86)
London, Middlesex, England

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