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Charles Kemp (1813–1864)

by G. J. Abbott

This article was published:

Charles Kemp (1813-1864), journalist, politician and businessman, was born on 2 June 1813 in London, the eldest son of Simon Kemp, and his wife Mary Ann, née Cox. He came to Australia with his family in 1825. They settled at Port Stephens where his father was employed by the Australian Agricultural Co., becoming mayor of Newcastle in 1866.

In 1831 Charles Kemp moved to Sydney, where he was first employed in a carpenter's shop but soon became interested in journalism. He contributed to the Monitor and in 1838, when the Legislative Council first allowed strangers to witness and report its proceedings, he was engaged by F. M. Stokes, owner of the Sydney Herald, as its first parliamentary reporter. In November 1838 Kemp married Stella Christie of Sydney.

In March 1841 Kemp and John Fairfax took over the publication of the Sydney Herald, which was then the only daily in New South Wales, and next September they entered into partnership to buy the newspaper with long-term credit from Stokes as vendor. In this partnership the duties were divided, with Fairfax supervising the administrative and technical details while Kemp looked after the literary aspects.

By early 1847 the partners had liquidated their debt to Stokes. Kemp, who had already been actively associated with the formation and operation of the Mutual Fire Insurance Association and the Sydney Fire Insurance Co., now began to increase his business activities by engaging in underwriting, and buying real estate and shares. In September 1853, 'having amassed a comfortable fortune, and being desirous of retiring' from the Herald, he arranged to sell his interest to his partner so that he could turn his full attention to politics and business.

He contested the by-election held in 1854 in the city of Sydney constituency for the seat in the Legislative Council left vacant by William Charles Wentworth's departure for England, but was soundly beaten by Henry Parkes. This was his third unsuccessful election, for he had previously contested polls at Newcastle and Maneroo. Political fortune continued to frown until at last he won a by-election for Liverpool Plains in April 1860. Even then his career in the Legislative Assembly was short lived, for parliament was dissolved in November. He was appointed next year to the Legislative Council.

Kemp was one of the original directors, and for a time chairman, of the Sydney Railway Co. and of the Hunter River Railway Co. He remained a director of both companies till they were taken over by the government, and was appointed in January 1855 as one of the three railway commissioners provided for in the Railways Act 1854 to supervise the operation of the government railways. He resigned this position in February 1856 owing to his imminent departure for England. Kemp was away from Australia for about two years, during which time he visited Great Britain, France, Spain, Germany and Belgium, with his wife and his adopted daughter, Anne Boyle.

On his return Kemp expanded his business activities, and by 1860 was deputy-chairman of the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney and chairman in 1863-64, a director of the Australian Steam Navigation Co. and chairman in 1862-64, and a trustee of the New South Wales Savings' Bank. In 1863 he became chairman of the United Fire and Life Insurance Co. of Sydney, which had been established in 1862. He served on the committees of the Victoria and Union Clubs, and for many years as a magistrate of the city of Sydney. He was also one of the commissioners for the Exhibition of 1862 held in Sydney.

Kemp was one of the colony's leading Anglican laymen. He served on many church committees, both parochial and diocesan. He was for some time a churchwarden of Holy Trinity, Miller's Point, and later when he moved his home to Macquarie Street of St James's, King Street, then the principal Anglican church in Sydney. As a lay member of the Sydney Diocesan Committee, he took an active interest in the formation of new sees in New South Wales. He helped to found St Paul's, the Anglican college within the University of Sydney in 1854 and later became a fellow. From 1852, as a trustee of the estate of Thomas Moore who had left a substantial legacy to the Anglican Church for the education of young men for the ministry, Kemp was a party to the foundation in 1855 of Moore Theological College. In 1860-64 he was active in raising funds for building St Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney. After a long illness he died of dropsy on 25 August 1864.

Kemp's prominence derived primarily from his various business directorates during the 1850s and early 1860s. While he purported in these activities to advance public welfare by providing services required in a growing economy, he still expected to earn good rates of profit and did not hesitate on occasion to condone monopolistic or quasi-monopolistic practices. However, his business operations would appear to have been marked by more enthusiasm than acumen. In politics his success was less marked, one observer noting that 'Mr Kemp was rashly deemed averse to liberty'. To Henry Parkes, he was 'the personification of the “Herald” influence', a not inconsiderable influence, as Governor Sir George Gipps remarked, 'the Sydney Morning Herald — the self-styled Great Leviathan — the Alpha and Omega of the Sydney Press'. Kemp thus found little favour in the eyes of the 'Liberals and Democrats' who saw in him the 'most oleaginous parody on the great idea of Senator that has ever been perpetrated'.

Kemp rose from obscurity to eminence and influence. The pomposity and religiosity of his personal writings reveal his mind and spirit. Extreme concern with his own social status impelled his business enterprise, and simultaneously offered scope for his detractors; yet his religious convictions impelled a zeal for promoting the Anglican church which he saw not merely as a 'denomination … but as a branch of Christ's Holy Catholic Church here on earth'. Shrewdly assessed in his obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald, he 'realized an independence by his own prudence and industry, and, as he would have said, by the blessing of God'.

A portrait of Kemp is in the Mitchell Library, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • A Century of Journalism: The Sydney Morning Herald and its Record of Australian Life 1831-1931 (Syd, 1931)
  • G. H. Nadel, Australia's Colonial Culture (Melb, 1957)
  • C. Kemp diary, 1847-48, and papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

G. J. Abbott, 'Kemp, Charles (1813–1864)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 June, 1813
London, Middlesex, England


25 August, 1864 (aged 51)
New South Wales, Australia

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