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Sir Thomas Cockburn-Campbell (1845–1892)

by O. K. Battye

This article was published:

Sir Thomas Cockburn-Campbell (1845-1892), journalist and legislator, was born on 18 April 1845 at Exeter, England, the second son of Sir Alexander Cockburn-Campbell, second baronet, and his second wife Grace, née Spence. Educated in England and at Heidelberg, he travelled widely on the Continent, spoke French fluently and is said to have read more French than English books. At 19 he migrated to Queensland where he worked for six months as a chainman with the Gregory brothers, and later with contract surveyors. Hindered by sickness from qualifying as a surveyor by examination he went in the late 1860s to Western Australia where he began farming near Mount Barker on a property he called Langton Park, after a Scottish village. On 16 May 1870 he married Lucy Ann Trimmer of Pootenup, near Cranbrook.

In 1871, on the death of his elder brother Alexander Cockburn-Campbell, Thomas succeeded to the baronetcy and was nominated by Governor (Sir) Frederick Weld to the part-elective Legislative Council. Soon afterwards he won by election the Plantagenet seat, of which Albany was the main centre. He became chairman of committees in 1875. He was then a frequent contributor to the Western Australian Times and wrote also for several English and European periodicals. In 1879 he gave up farming and settled in Perth on becoming nominal half-owner of the newspaper with Charles Harper who had provided the purchase money. By an agreement Cockburn-Campbell was to receive £300 a year as managing editor and half the proceeds, paying Harper 7 per cent on half the capital until he could repay it. Under the new régime the paper entered a period of lively progress. Renamed The West Australian, it increased its size in 1880, began to appear three times instead of twice weekly in 1883, and became a daily in 1885.

Cockburn-Campbell's predecessor as editor, William Henry Hullock, had campaigned strenuously for responsible government, causing serious concern among conservative colonists who were content with Downing Street rule. Though he was regarded as one of this old-guard élite of the colony, Cockburn-Campbell realized that self-government must eventually come; he was not opposed to it, but feared the pressure that might bring it before the colony was developed enough to stand on its own feet. When he became editor he therefore aimed at stemming public agitation for the reform, arguing that self-government for a mere 28,000 people in such a huge area was premature. He was proved right when responsible government was granted in 1890 on far better terms than the British government would have allowed in the early days of the reform movement. In the final stages he was one of its most ardent advocates. In 1889 he was chosen to go to London with Governor Sir Frederick Broome and (Sir) Stephen Henry Parker (1846-1927) to argue the colony's case before a select committee of the House of Commons. The success of this mission was attributed largely to the impression Cockburn-Campbell made on the committee, and the colonists were so pleased that on his return several constituencies wanted him to represent them.

Cockburn-Campbell had given up the editorship of the West Australian in 1887 because of ill health, but he continued as an active political writer for four years. After responsible government was proclaimed in 1890 he was appointed by Governor Sir William Robinson to the new nominated Legislative Council and was elected its first president. He had also been offered the Speakership of the Legislative Assembly, but declined it. The new post meant the end of his journalistic career and on his retirement from political writing the West Australian described him as 'one of the ablest, most diligent, most capable and most statesmanlike of the political writers of this colony'. His health was now causing him constant worry and he made no secret of the big sleeping draughts he often took. He was found unconscious in the Legislative Council building on the evening of 27 September 1892, and died soon afterwards. The coroner found that he died from an overdose of chlorodyne taken to induce sleep, 'he well knowing the risk he was taking of its killing him'. His widow died on 27 July 1926, survived by two sons and two of their four daughters.

Serious and reserved, Cockburn-Campbell had few close friends but won repute for his kindness and charity and encouragement and help to young people. He was a patron of the arts, especially music, president of the Perth Amateur Operatic Society and in leisure time a minor composer. His career as both journalist and legislator was marked by solid conservatism rather than by adventure or innovation, but throughout his public life he earned the sincere if rather detached respect of the colonists.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 2 (Adel, 1913)
  • J. S. Battye, Western Australia (Oxford, 1924)
  • G. C. Bolton, Alexander Forrest (Melb, 1958)
  • F. R. Mercer, The Life of Charles Harper (Perth, 1958).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

O. K. Battye, 'Cockburn-Campbell, Sir Thomas (1845–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 19 May 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]


18 April, 1845
Exeter, Devon, England


27 September, 1892 (aged 47)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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