Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Benjamin Short (1833–1912)

by Walter Phillips

This article was published:

Benjamin Short, n.d.

Benjamin Short, n.d.

Benjamin Short (1833-1912), insurance salesman and lay evangelist, was born on 19 April 1833 in London, son of William Short, spice merchant, and his wife Elizabeth, née Smith. Apprenticed to a wheelwright, he later set up as a coachbuilder. He was also a life insurance agent and assisted in the evangelistic meetings of the London City Mission.

Short arrived in Sydney in March 1860 as an insurance agent and soon persuaded the Australian Mutual Provident Society to appoint him as its first canvasser. He combined his work with successful collecting for the Destitute Children's Asylum, Randwick, and quickly sold policies worth £138,000. In 1865 he worked country districts and in the 1870s lectured in New South Wales, Victoria and New Zealand on life insurance. Short applied the lay evangelist's art to his lectures. He was popular, with an easy and unpretentious style and his topics included 'Courtship and Marriage', 'Happy Homes' and 'Total Abstinence', illustrating the advantages of life insurance. In 1881 he returned to Sydney as chief metropolitan agent and was joined by his son Benjamin. He opened his office on Saturday nights for working men and often lectured to employees of large firms in the lunch hour. He retired to Bowral in 1886 having 'taken' some 12,000 'lives'.

Determined to be elected to the board of the A.M.P. Society, Short, after failing in 1887 and 1891, campaigned on a comprehensive reform platform. Elected in 1892, he achieved lower interest rates, the acceptance of female lives on equal terms with male and better terms for young lives. He retired in 1895 under the by-laws, was re-elected in May 1896 and a change of rules enabled him to remain a director until 1912.

Short, a free trader, was defeated for the Legislative Assembly seat of Petersham in 1894, but religion rather than politics was his dominant interest. With the help of J. H. Goodlet and others he founded the Sydney City Mission in 1862, was its joint secretary that year and secretary in 1863-68. Active in the Young Men's Christian Association, he also supported the British and Foreign Bible Society and overseas missions, especially in India. He helped to found Congregational churches in Ocean Street, Woollahra, in 1865 and later in Dunedin and Nelson, New Zealand.

In retirement Short concentrated on evangelistic work. He ordered a large and costly model of the Jewish tabernacle in the wilderness and lectured on it in Australia and in England on three visits. He often supplied vacant pulpits in Congregational churches and held annual religious conventions at his home, Fernside, Bowral. Unsophisticated and largely self-taught in theology, Short had limitations with informed congregations, but his style served him as well in offering salvation as in selling insurance.

In London on 22 July 1856 Short had married Elizabeth Thomas (d.1887) according to the rites of the countess of Huntingdon's connexion. He died of influenza at Petersham on 10 June 1912, survived by their two sons and seven daughters and by his second wife Elizabeth Jane Cantilo, née Rivers, whom he had married at Port Adelaide on 20 January 1890. Buried in the Congregational section of Rookwood cemetery, he left an estate valued for probate at £14,667.

Select Bibliography

  • L. H. Hoare, Presenting Ten Decades (Syd, 1962)
  • Bulletin, 18 Mar 1882
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 25 June 1894, 11 June 1912
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11 June 1912
  • Australian Christian World (Sydney), 21 June 1912
  • Congregationalist (Sydney), 1 July 1912
  • B. Dickey, Charity in New South Wales, 1850-1914 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1966)
  • AMP Society Archives (Sydney).

Citation details

Walter Phillips, 'Short, Benjamin (1833–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 21 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

Benjamin Short, n.d.

Benjamin Short, n.d.

Life Summary [details]


19 April, 1833
London, Middlesex, England


10 June, 1912 (aged 79)
Petersham, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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