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Ninian Melville (1843–1897)

by Bruce E. Mansfield

This article was published:

Ninian Melville (1843-1897), by unknown photographer

Ninian Melville (1843-1897), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 09464

Ninian Melville (1843-1897), cabinet maker, undertaker and politician, was born on 29 December 1843 in Sydney, son of Ninian Melville and his wife Catherine, née Hayes. His father came from Aberdeen and was sentenced on 20 April 1833 at the Perth Court of Justiciary to seven years transportation for stealing clothes; he reached Sydney in the Fairlie in February 1834, received a ticket-of-leave in 1838 and set up as a cabinet maker in the 1840s. Educated in Sydney, young Melville was apprenticed to the cabinet makers, John Hill & Sons. Early interested in public affairs he spoke with his father from platforms in the Domain. In 1862 he married Martha Heaton who died in September 1865.

After competition from foreign furniture had destroyed the Melvilles' business they organized the unemployed in 1866 to demand a protective tariff. In evidence before W. J. Macleay's select committee on the unemployed young Melville boasted that 'the whole of the unemployed movement lies in my hands'. In 1867 he went to Melbourne and worked as an undertaker at Brunswick and cabinet maker at Richmond. He tried in vain for election to the Legislative Assembly as a radical candidate. At Hawthorn on 29 December 1868 he married Mary Brooks.

Melville returned to Sydney about 1874 and plied his trade in Newtown. Defeated for East Sydney in the general elections of October 1877, he was chairman of the Working Men's Defence Association and failed to unite it with the Free Selectors' Association in a programme of protection, political reform and opposition to assisted immigration. In May 1880 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Northumberland and held the seat until 1894. In 1881-83 he was president of the Protection and Political Reform League. In the first edition of Songs from the Mountains in December 1880 Henry Kendall had included 'The Song of Ninian Melville', presenting him as the epitome of democratic politics (which the poet detested) and of 'that immense impostor that they call the “working man”'. Kendall also accused him of making a name by attacking religion, despite Melville's demands for sabbatarian and temperance legislation.

Melville was also connected with the Orange movement and as a Freemason was worshipful master of the Southern Cross Lodge. An alderman of Newtown from 1879, he was elected mayor in 1882. In 1883 he became whip for Alexander Stuart's ministry. In November 1885 a select committee inquired into Melville's receipt of £25 from a bottle manufacturer for allegedly winning concessions from a member of the government. Melville claimed that it was a business debt connected with his agency in Wallsend and in February 1886 the committee reported that the allegations were not proven. In that year he made the Speaker's chair.

In the heated elections of 1887 Henry Parkes denounced him as 'the veriest charlatan that ever lived'. He was secretary to the parliamentary protectionist party and with E. W. O'Sullivan organized its election campaigns. G. R. Dibbs offered Melville a portfolio in January 1889 but he preferred to serve the party and the country in other ways. In April 1889 he was elected chairman of committees and in troubled times showed himself more than the excitable partisan. His brushes were usually with the wilder members of his own side. In 1892 he was sued without success in the Supreme Court by J. M. Toohey for £2000 for forcible ejection from the House.

Melville welcomed the return of the first Labor members to parliament in 1891 but soon condemned their refusal to support protection. Redistribution forced him to contest the new seat of Waratah in the 1894 elections but he was defeated by a Labor candidate. In financial difficulties from 1886 when his friends at Lambton paid his debts, he missed his parliamentary salary and pressure from the Mont de Piété in 1894 sent him bankrupt in October with debts of £1800. His estate was released in January 1895. An alderman of Ashfield and Summer Hill in 1895-97, he was mayor in 1896.

Although a member of temperance orders, 'Ninny' with his large pipe and long black coat and topper was often seen in public houses telling audacious stories. He died suddenly on 26 June 1897 at his home, Northumbria, Summer Hill, and was buried according to Primitive Methodist and Good Templar rites in the Balmain cemetery. He was survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • Ex-M.L.A., Our Present Parliament, What it is Worth (Syd, c1886)
  • W. Chubb, Jubilee Souvenir of the Municipality of Newtown, 1862-1912 (Syd, 1912)
  • T. T. Reed (ed), The Political Works of Henry Kendall (Adel, 1966)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1866, 5, 631, 1885, 2nd S, 1, 33, 115, 1885-86, 1, 60, 68, 79, 120, 2, 138, 1887-88, 1, 335
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1880-94
  • New South Wales Law Reports, 1892
  • B. Atkins, ‘Antecedents of the N.S.W. Protection Party, 1881-1891’, JRAHS, 44 (1958)
  • Australasian, 28 Aug 1886, 11 June 1892
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 June 1897.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bruce E. Mansfield, 'Melville, Ninian (1843–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Ninian Melville (1843-1897), by unknown photographer

Ninian Melville (1843-1897), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 09464

Life Summary [details]


29 December, 1843
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


26 June, 1897 (aged 53)
Summer Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.