Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Dixon Campbell Denovan (1829–1906)

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William Dixon Campbell Denovan (1829-1906), miner, reformer, politician and public servant, was born on 20 December 1829 in Edinburgh, son of Francis Garden Denovan, shipbroker and sometime consul at Copenhagen, and his wife Margaret. He was educated at Inverarity, Forfarshire (Angus), and Dundee. At 18 he started his own school, hoping thereby to study at the University of Edinburgh and enter the Presbyterian ministry, but ill health made him abandon the project.

Denovan migrated in the Mobile to Melbourne in 1852 and in February 1853 went to Bendigo where his mother joined him. He became a miner and as a radical republican was soon prominent in the anti-licence movement, serving on its deputations, speaking at mass meetings which he helped to organize and drafting petitions for abolition of the licence tax. He also advocated the forcible ejection of Chinese miners but later canvassed for removal of their oppressive residence licence tax. By 1854 his zeal for reform had won him prominence as a goldfields leader and election as a diggers' representative at the Gold Fields Commission. His evidence explained the spread of poverty as individual miners were replaced by monopolistic companies, emphasized the diggers' right to representation in the Legislative Council and the need to unlock the land for smallholders. In 1855 he was elected to the first local mining court at Bendigo but soon moved to Ballarat where he was associated with the Times and Star and in 1856 began his own weekly, the Nation and Advertiser; it was short lived and he returned to Bendigo. He became a gold buyer for the Bank of Victoria but was burnt out in 1857. He then helped to found the Land League and became its honorary secretary, as usual following mining pursuits in his spare time.

After much persuasion Denovan accepted nomination in 1861 for Sandhurst in the Victorian Legislative Assembly. He headed the poll and the mining community paid his election expenses and provided an annual honorarium. In the assembly he generally supported the Heales ministry, and helped to secure grants for discoverers of gold and for surveying the Coliban channel to supply Bendigo and Castlemaine with water, but complained that parliament was no place for a poor man jealous of his independence and resigned in 1862. For about two years he edited the Bendigo Evening News and became a sharebroker in 1867 and a founder of the local stock exchange. In the next decade he won and lost a small fortune in mining speculation. He was given a purse of 307 sovereigns at his election to the City Council in 1877 and served with distinction as town clerk in 1877-92.

For years Denovan was honorary secretary of the Bendigo Liberal Association and remained a radical. In every crisis he was a willing public speaker, writing his speeches but delivering them oracularly without notes. He anticipated Henry George as an advocate of single tax with the State as sole landlord. By 1862 he had won renown as a spiritualist and in 1871 he formed the Bendigo Energetic Circle of free thinkers. His 700-page Evidences of Spiritualism: Lectures, Addresses, and Record of the Spiritual Phenomena, Culled from the Writings of Eminent Authors, Mediums, Magazines, and Newspapers Connected With the Great Spiritual Movement of My Time; With Copious Memoranda of My Own Investigations and Experiences as to the Truth of These Things (Melbourne, 1882) was probably then the best summary of the beliefs of Australian spiritualists. He contributed to many newspapers and as 'Dixon Campbell' wrote 'The Heir of Crayford Abbey', published in the Australian Journal, February 1887. He was also a prominent Freemason. After his mother died in 1888 he visited Britain. In retirement he continued his interests in mining and spiritualism until he died at Bendigo, aged 76 and unmarried, on 13 July 1906.

Select Bibliography

  • Demonax (D. Cameron), The Mysteries and Miseries of Scripopolis (Melbourne, 1872)
  • H. M. Humphreys (ed), Men of the Time in Australia: Victorian Series (Melbourne, 1878)
  • W. B. Kimberly, Bendigo and Vicinity (Melbourne, 1895)
  • G. Mackay, Annals of Bendigo, 1892-1909 (Bendigo, 1916)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melbourne, 1963)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1854-55, vol 2 (A76), 1862-63, vol 3 (10)
  • Age (Melbourne), 11 June 1875
  • Harbinger of Light, 1 Oct 1904.

Citation details

'Denovan, William Dixon Campbell (1829–1906)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 18 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Campbell, Dixon

20 December, 1829
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


13 July, 1906 (aged 76)
Bendigo, Victoria, Australia

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