Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Joseph Dalgarno Melvin (1852–1909)

by Peter Corris

This article was published:

Joseph Dalgarno Melvin (1852-1909), journalist, was born on 15 August 1852 at Banff, Banffshire, Scotland, son of John Melvin, shore master, and his wife Isabella, née Gossip. Both sides of the family had connexions with trade and the sea. Joe was educated at Banff Academy where he showed aptitude as both a scholar and sportsman. Aged 12, he rescued a schoolfellow from the Moray Firth and became a local hero. On leaving school he worked in the local post and telegraph office, studied shorthand and aimed at a career in journalism. He joined the staff of the Moray Advertiser and later the Perth Advertiser. In 1875 Melvin's father returned from a long spell in Australia to arrange for his family to follow him to Melbourne where he later became a partner in Parsons Bros & Co., food and grain merchants. Active in the Congregational Church, Melvin senior also achieved some reputation as a lecturer on religion and science and as a magic lanternist.

Joseph Melvin worked on the Argus in the late 1870s, gaining a name for initiative. At the siege of the hotel at Glenrowan in 1880 he was in the thick of things: he helped to move the wounded Ned Kelly indoors, was one of the first to interview him and 'scooped' other papers with his quickly wired reports on the Kellys' last stand. In 1885 Melvin secured a passage (by bribery or by posing as a crewman) aboard the Iberia which was transporting colonial troops to the Sudan. He was accredited as a war correspondent and sent back lively reports to the Melbourne Daily Telegraph and the Bulletin. Subsequently he seems to have engaged chiefly in political reporting. His pamphlet The Victorian Electors' Guide to Questions and Candidates was published in 1892.

In mid-1892 Melvin set off on the assignment for which he is best known—a report on the Pacific Islands labour trade. He joined the Helena as supercargo and witnessed a typical recruiting voyage to the Solomon Islands. His vivid account, serialized in the Argus, provides one of the best first-hand descriptions of the trade. Melvin acquitted the recruiters of kidnapping, convinced that the islanders engaged in the business willingly and cannily. He wrote: 'No kidnapping, force, fraud, misrepresentation or cajoling was resorted to', a judgement broadly endorsed by recent historians.

In the 1890s Melvin worked as a parliamentary and political reporter for various newspapers and was appointed to the Victorian Hansard staff in 1905. Poor health, however, curtailed his activities. He had married Margaret Ann Booth on 30 November 1885 at St John's Church of England, Brisbane; they were childless and after her death in 1908 Melvin's own health deteriorated rapidly. A chronic sufferer from rheumatism, which his adventures perhaps aggravated, and other complaints, he died on 26 June 1909 at Surrey Hills, Melbourne. He left an estate valued for probate at £49, and was buried in Boroondara cemetery. His funeral was attended by many pressmen including the Age's proprietor and the editor of the Herald. Obituaries in metropolitan and provincial newspapers testified to his high personal and professional standing.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Gordon, An Eyewitness History of Australia (Adel, 1976)
  • J. D. Melvin, The Cruise of the Helena, P. R. Corris ed (Melb, 1977)
  • Bulletin, 21 Mar 1885
  • Argus (Melbourne), 26, 28 June 1909
  • Age (Melbourne), 28 June 1909
  • Ballarat Courier, 29 June 1909.

Citation details

Peter Corris, 'Melvin, Joseph Dalgarno (1852–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 August, 1852
Banff, Banffshire, Scotland


26 June, 1909 (aged 56)
Surrey Hills, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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