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Stanley Robert Mitchell (1881–1963)

by J. F. Lovering

This article was published:

Stanley Robert Mitchell (1881-1963), ethnologist, mineralogist, metallurgist and businessman, was born on 12 February 1881 at St Kilda, Melbourne, eldest of eight children of James Davidson Mitchell, a commercial traveller and amateur mineralogist from Scotland, and his Victorian-born wife Jane Frances, née Warren. Taken to the Centennial International Exhibition (1888), Stan was impressed by the display of Aboriginal artefacts and developed a lifelong interest in ethnology. His interest in minerals grew from accompanying his father on collecting trips around the basalt quarries near Melbourne. After attending Armadale State School, he was employed (from 1898) as a metallurgist and industrial chemist in a smelting works at Footscray. At South Yarra on 26 February 1906 he married with Methodist forms Beatrice Anna Pay (d.1922), a 22-year-old music teacher; they were to have two sons and two daughters. He studied at night at the Working Men's College, gained the 'Geologists' Expert's Certificate' in June 1911 and joined the part-time staff as junior assistant (1912) in the department of metallurgical geology and mineralogy; he was promoted assistant (1914) and instructor (1915).

In 1911 Mitchell had set up his own business as a gold-assayer. From the mid-1920s S. R. Mitchell & Co. Pty Ltd operated as a major refiner of precious metals. He also established (1930) the very profitable Mitchell's Abrasives Pty Ltd to manufacture sandpaper, using crushed glass from the nearby Abbotsford Brewery. A consultant to mining ventures in Australia and abroad, he was a member (from 1915) of the Australasian Institute of Mining Engineers (Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy) and a foundation member (1917) of the (Royal) Australian Chemical Institute. On 9 July 1924 at St Paul's Anglican Cathedral, Melbourne, he married 29-year-old Ila Victoria Davies; they were to have a son before being divorced in 1946. He married a 54-year-old widow Bessie Alice Annie Terry, née Crick, on 28 June 1946 at the Congregational Church, Davey Street, Hobart. His three sons joined the family business.

Mitchell built up major collections of minerals and rocks, and of Aboriginal artefacts which he housed in a special building at his Frankston home. He was honorary mineralogist (1931-63), honorary ethnologist (1949-63), and a trustee and treasurer (1945-54) of the National Museum of Victoria. In the 1930s and 1940s he belonged to a distinguished group of 'amateur' ethnologists and collectors who gathered around Sir Baldwin Spencer. They collected massive numbers of Aboriginal implements and championed the value of field-work over 'armchair theorists'. They believed that the raw geological material was the dominant factor in determining the forms of stone implements and that these forms had not changed from earliest times to the period of European contact. By the early 1960s such views had been largely superseded by growing evidence from the use of stratigraphy by professionally trained anthropologists to document cultural and environmental change. Mitchell wrote numerous articles on mineralogy, geology and Aboriginal artefacts. His major work, Stone-Age Craftsmen, published in 1949 to mixed reviews, was generally recognized as a pioneering effort.

President (1936-37) of the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria, Mitchell was co-founder of field naturalist clubs at Hawthorn and Frankston. In 1955 he was awarded the Australian Natural History medallion. He was also a founder (1934) and president (1940, 1942-43) of the Anthropological Society of Victoria. Late in life he grew increasingly deaf, but maintained an active interest in ethnology. Survived by his wife, sons and a daughter, he died on 22 March 1963 in East Melbourne and was cremated. His collection of minerals is held by the Museum of Victoria, his collection of artefacts by the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, and his unpublished manuscripts and correspondence by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Griffiths, Hunters and Collectors (Melb, 1996)
  • Victorian Naturalist, 73 (1956), p 1, 80 (1963), p 119
  • Royal Society of Victoria, Proceedings, 77 (1963), p 618
  • Artefact, 3 (1978)
  • J. Carter, S. R. Mitchell and Archaeology in Victoria (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1980)
  • private information.

Citation details

J. F. Lovering, 'Mitchell, Stanley Robert (1881–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


12 February, 1881
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


22 March, 1963 (aged 82)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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