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Robert Savage (1818–1888)

by Sally O'Neill

This article was published:

Robert Savage (1818-1888), agricultural writer and inventor, was born on 24 March 1818 at Cork, Ireland, son of Francis Savage, gentleman, and his wife Catherine, née Dring. Educated at The Seminary, Rutland Square, North Dublin, he entered Trinity College on 17 October 1834. Intended for the Church he was never ordained. Instead he sailed in the London and arrived in Hobart Town on 3 April 1839. In December he took sheep across Bass Strait to Portland and in 1840-45 occupied Nangeela on the Glenelg River north of Casterton, with H. E. P. Dana as a sleeping partner. In 1840 he was attacked by Aboriginals after he had caught them stealing sheep and shot one dead; in 1842 he wrote to Governor Gipps that it was the only time that he had ever seen 'the dead body of an Aboriginal' and added that he did not consider the state of society in his district 'in the least dreadful'. In 1848 he became clerk of Petty Sessions at the Grange (Hamilton) and in 1852 registrar of the Court of Requests for the police district of the Grange.

Remaining in touch with friends in the district, including the Winters of Murndal, Savage moved to Melbourne in the late 1850s and was agricultural writer for the Argus. His first wife Ann, née Wrentmore, whom he had married in Van Diemen's Land in May 1841, died at Hawthorn on 10 July 1860. After his marriage to Annie Sarah Dyer on 9 June 1864 he lived at St Kilda. About 1869 he took up farming at Northcote but lost money in a mining speculation in 1872 and was in financial difficulties. A member of the Land Tenure Reform League, in 1873 he wrote for it a closely argued pamphlet on Political Economy, which owed much to Ruskin; he also published a general discourse on agriculture in Victoria in the International Exhibition Essays, 1872-3. Associated with the National Agricultural Society of Victoria, in 1871 he was briefly its first honorary secretary.

In August 1874 Savage became inspector of stock and was made a commissioner of the Supreme Court for the Moama district. By October he had moved to Echuca, where he was still living in September 1876. He returned to Melbourne and in 1877 argued for land taxation in an article in the Melbourne Review on 'The Incidence of Taxation and Expenditure of Public Money'. In July 1880 he was made a temporary inspector of sheep and stock.

Savage's main interest lay in invention. In December 1846 his reaping machine, similar to Ridley's had been displayed in Melbourne. In March 1857 he invented improvements for stone-breaking machinery and 'a mode of working compound levers applicable to crushing, stamping, punching, and other purposes'. In 1858 he patented advances in methods of puddling and washing earth containing gold or other metals, and in October 1865 new types of cement and paint. In 1872 with J. Hicks he applied for a patent for a better sewing machine, and next year for 'improvements in reaping and binding machines'. From about 1874 he was working with F. Y. Wolseley and claimed a share in the invention of his shearing machine. Savage may have tested it with Wolseley in Walgett in 1876 and the two took out a patent in March 1877, but the machine failed and Wolseley continued to work on it without Savage. In 1881 Savage invented a torpedo which he hoped to sell to the Italian government. Patented in 1882, his Australian earth scoop and elevator went into production about 1884 and sold for £75. Next year he applied for a patent for his improved steam vacuum lift pump. Poor health impeded work on several projects including an electric shearing machine which he never completed; on 12 July 1888 he died of paralysis at South Melbourne. Survived by a daughter of his first marriage, by his second wife and a son and a daughter, he was buried in St Kilda cemetery with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Wheelhouse, Digging Stick to Rotary Hoe (Melb, 1966)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1861-62, 2 (D57)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 16 July 1888
  • Savage family papers, MS 1203 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Sally O'Neill, 'Savage, Robert (1818–1888)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


24 March, 1818
Cork, Cork, Ireland


12 July, 1888 (aged 70)
South Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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