Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Charles Smith (1816–1897)

by H. E. Maude

This article was published:

Charles Smith (1816-1897), shipping merchant, was born at Kirriemuir, Forfarshire, Scotland, eldest son of John Smith of Kyeamba, and his first wife Elspit, née Milne. His father migrated to New South Wales in 1832 and became a grazier and a founder of the wine industry in the Riverina. Charles joined the merchant navy and served in the Baltic and West Indies. He reached New South Wales in 1836 and turned to whaling. In 1843-50 he was master of the colonial barque Woodlark. In 1850 he became manager of Flower, Salting & Co.'s whaling fleet.

Smith had first called at Butaritari in the Gilbert Islands in 1849; from his next voyage there he returned to Sydney in November 1850 with forty barrels of coconut oil and a hundred-weight (51 kg) of tortoise-shell. Until 1873 he was in partnership with Richard Randall of Butaritari; in 1851 he paid £750 for the schooner Supply and next year, as captain of the whaler Chieftain, he made his final voyage. After ventures with J. H. Challis, Smith acquired a wharf at Millers Point, soon known as Smith's Wharf, in the early 1850s and maintained a regular service to the Gilbert Islands. Later in the decade he competed with Robert Towns, who described him as that 'sweep of a neighbour' who 'sticks at nothing'. By 1863 with Alexander Macdonald he founded Macdonald, Smith & Co., general merchants.

In 1859-62 Smith was a member of the Pilot Board, Sydney, and in 1859-73 of the Steam Navigation Board. In the 1860s he served on the committees of the Sydney Sailors' Home and the Sydney Bethel Union, was a director of the Australian General Assurance Co., chairman of the Waratah Coal Co., an auditor of the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney and a founding councillor of St Andrew's College, University of Sydney. In 1864 he was a committee-man of the New South Wales Free Trade Association. In 1867-68 he was a member of a commission preparing for the naval reception of the Duke of Edinburgh, and in 1869 he sat on an imperial royal commission into alleged kidnapping of natives of the Loyalty Islands. He was a trustee of the Savings Bank of New South Wales and a local director of the Imperial Fire Insurance Co. of London in the 1870s. As president of the Chamber of Commerce in 1876-78 he advocated the connexion of the northern and southern railways. He was a director of the Bank of New South Wales in 1890-93 and 1894-97, a commissioner for the Calcutta Exhibition in 1883-84, and a trustee and committee-man of the Union Club.

Smith retired from active business in 1888 and, aged 80, died of embolism on 27 June 1897 at his home Goderich, King's Cross, Sydney; he was buried in the Presbyterian section of Rookwood cemetery. His first wife Elizabeth Ann, née Bennett, whom he had married at Parramatta on 2 March 1847, had predeceased him. He was survived by their two sons and by his second wife Marjory, née Houison, whom he had married on 10 August 1878, and their son and two daughters. His estate was valued for probate at £494,468. His elder daughter Winifred married (Sir) Leslie Wilson, governor of Queensland in 1932-46.

Select Bibliography

  • H. E. Maude, Of Islands and Men (Melb, 1968)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 June 1897.

Citation details

H. E. Maude, 'Smith, Charles (1816–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 18 April 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]


Kirriemuir, Forfarshire, Scotland


27 June, 1897 (aged ~ 81)
King's Cross, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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