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Charles Jardine Don (1820–1866)

by S. Merrifield

This article was published:

Charles Jardine Don (1820-1866), by Samuel Calvert, 1866

Charles Jardine Don (1820-1866), by Samuel Calvert, 1866

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN27/10/66/12

Charles Jardine Don (1820-1866), stonemason and politician, was born on 12 June 1820 at Cupar-Angus, Forfarshire (Angus), Scotland, son of William Don and his wife Jeanette, née Rattery. His father, a stonemason, was an elder of the Relief Church, a branch of the United Presbyterians, but broke with them and joined the Church of Scotland. Don was educated at the village school and at 12 worked as a learner handloom weaver for ½d. a yard. At 17 he was apprenticed to his father and joined a mutual improvement society in which he learnt public speaking and, much to the disquiet of his teachers, developed his taste for radical writers, notably Tom Paine, John Cartwright and William Cobbett. As a journeyman he toured the main towns of Scotland speaking constantly. In 1842 he took part in the Chartist agitation and gained notoriety as a street orator particularly at the Market Cross, Edinburgh. In 1846 in Edinburgh he married Mary Louden, a Catholic, and in 1847-52 he lived in Glasgow, prominent in debating societies and as a student of Adam Smith. In 1853, attracted by the goldfields, he decided to migrate and arrived in Melbourne in the Asia with his wife and the younger of his two daughters.

Don went to the Ballarat diggings and returned to Melbourne to find his wife had died. At St Francis's Catholic Church, Melbourne, in 1855 he married Ellen Curtin. Meanwhile he had joined the Stonemasons' Union, becoming chairman in 1858, and was prominent as a leader of the movement for the eight-hour day; in 1857 he became secretary of the United Trades Association and in 1858 vice-president of the Victorian Eight Hours Labor League. After the Eureka stockade in 1854 and responsible government in 1856, Don had gravitated to politics, agitating on land and fiscal policy as well as industrial conditions. As 'the leading advocate of the working classes' he spoke almost nightly with Moses Gray at the Eastern Market. The democratic pressure they and others wielded soon became a potent political influence. Don failed to win the Melbourne seat but in July 1857 became a delegate to a convention in protest against the conservative land bill of the Haines ministry; the convention held sixteen meetings, petitioned the Legislative Assembly and helped to defeat the bill in the Legislative Council. Don's activism continued with torchlight processions and revolutionary music and placards. In 1859 he won Collingwood and claimed to be the first of his class represented in 'any legislature within the British Empire'. Don was a vigorous member, speaking often and moving for an eight-hour clause in government contracts and for other progressive proposals. To E. Whitty, a leading English journalist, he had 'a cultured face … and dresses away from his class', and seemed 'a cross between a poet and a pirate; Byron and his corsair', who unleashed 'the fury and frenzy of Feargus O'Connorism, of the most exaggerated kind'.

Don was not a successful politician; his working-class ardour went against the grain of colonial politics, even though he contributed to the mildly radical tone that the Victorian assembly acquired. His inability to adapt to the give and take of a parliamentarian was aggravated by his need to earn a living. At one stage he worked on Parliament House by day as a mason and in it by night as a member. His health began to fail and he began to drink heavily. An admirer of (Sir) Charles Gavan Duffy, he offended his supporters by approving of Duffy's land bill in 1861; although Don finally voted against it he gradually lost electoral support and was unseated in 1864. He had failed as a hotel-keeper in Fitzroy in 1862, and his worsening health forced him into premature retirement in which his severe financial difficulties were barely relieved by his friends. At Collingwood on 27 September 1866 he died of pulmonary consumption, survived by a daughter of his first marriage and a son. He was buried in the Presbyterian section of the Melbourne cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Hamilton, The Combat and the Victory (Melb, 1866)
  • S. Merrifield, ‘Charles Jardine Don (1820-1866)’, Recorder (Melbourne Branch, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History), Aug 1966, pp 6-12
  • Australasian, 29 Sept 1866
  • Illustrated Melbourne Post, Oct 1866.

Citation details

S. Merrifield, 'Don, Charles Jardine (1820–1866)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 26 May 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

Charles Jardine Don (1820-1866), by Samuel Calvert, 1866

Charles Jardine Don (1820-1866), by Samuel Calvert, 1866

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN27/10/66/12

Life Summary [details]


12 June, 1820
Coupar Angus, Perthshire, Scotland


27 September, 1866 (aged 46)
Collingwood, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death


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