Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Robert Mitchell (1851–1929)

by J. H. Love

This article was published:

View Previous Version

Robert Mitchell (1851-1929), by unknown photographer

Robert Mitchell (1851-1929), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B55778

Robert Mitchell (1851-1929), clergyman, was born on 12 January 1851 at Meigle, Perth, Scotland, son of Robert Mitchell and his wife Agnes, née Stewart, and younger brother of Thomas Mitchell. His parents arrived in Adelaide with four children in 1855. Robert was educated at Salt Creek School and John Whinham's North Adelaide Grammar School. He began studying for the ministry under Rev. James Roddich in 1868, while working on his father's rented farm near Mount Pleasant. He was sent to Clare in February 1872 and on 20 August became the first Presbyterian to be ordained in South Australia. On 22 August in the Flinders Street Presbyterian Church, Adelaide, Mitchell married Mary Fraser.

His pastoral work at Clare included setting up outlying preaching stations and conducting missions to shearers. In 1882 he established a congregation at Port Augusta. With money given by the Clare people he bought a printing press which he used for Church purposes. When the northern railway was built, he extended his ministry up the line, sending advance notices which he printed. Seeing the need to regularize this work, he and Rev. W. F. Main organized the Smith of Dunesk Mission, named after Mrs Henrietta Smith of Dunesk, Scotland, who had given the Free Church of Scotland an endowment for its South Australian work.

Mitchell became the mission's first agent in October 1894. From his base at Beltana he travelled by buggy and train through an area of about 30,000 sq. miles (77,700 km²) administering the usual religious services and medicines and first aid, even setting broken limbs and extracting teeth; he repaired his own house and occasionally helped others with theirs. During this period he was accompanied by one of his daughters, while his wife and other children lived at Gawler.

Mitchell had been moderator of the Presbyterian Church of South Australia in 1889-90. In 1899 he moved to Goodwood in Adelaide where he was convener of the Smith of Dunesk Mission committee and formed a new church at Hawthorn. A tall, gaunt man with a ragged white moustache, he rode his bicycle on pastoral calls, even when they extended to Morphett Vale. The Mitchell Memorial Church at Goodwood was named after him. After retirement from Goodwood in 1922 he ministered for three years to the Morphett Vale congregation and, at 78, served another ten months as Smith of Dunesk missioner. He died at Goodwood on 28 February 1929, survived by his wife, son and three daughters and was buried in Payneham cemetery.

Although his term as Smith of Dunesk missioner had been his shortest pastorate, it was his most influential. He was not the first clergyman to travel north of Port Augusta, nor was he the only one in his time. But he conceived and carried out a full-time, permanent, itinerant ministry. From this mission, following Mitchell's example of combining ecclesiastical duties with medical and dental treatment, Rev. John Flynn developed the Australian Inland Mission and the (Royal) Flying Doctor Service of Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • Goodwood Presbyterian Church. Souvenir of Jubilee of Rev. Robert Mitchell (Adel, 1922)
  • J. R. Fiddian, Robert Mitchell of the Inland (Melb, 1931)
  • Farm, Stock, Station Journal, 10 Feb 1905
  • Uniting Church in South Australia Historical Society, Newsletter, no 7, Feb 1980
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 9 Mar 1929
  • Observer (Adelaide), 9 Mar 1929
  • Mitchell papers and other records, SRG 123 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

J. H. Love, 'Mitchell, Robert (1851–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 6 December 2023.

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, 2006-2023

Robert Mitchell (1851-1929), by unknown photographer

Robert Mitchell (1851-1929), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B55778

Life Summary [details]


12 January, 1851
Meigle, Perthshire, Scotland


28 February, 1929 (aged 78)
Goodwood, Adelaide, South Australia, 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.