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 Brough Smyth (1830–1889)

by Michael Hoare

This article was published:

Robert Brough Smyth (1830-1889), by George Gordon McCrae

Robert Brough Smyth (1830-1889), by George Gordon McCrae

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an6312205

Robert Brough Smyth (1830-1889), civil servant and mining engineer, was born on 18 February 1830 near Wallsend, Northumberland, England, son of Edward Smith, mining engineer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Brough, who was related to Robert B. and William Brough, well-known theatrical and miscellaneous writers. Educated at Whickham, Durham, he was instructed by his father and brothers in iron-making and mining techniques, finding some time to study chemistry, natural history and geology. He was employed in 1846 at the Derwent Iron Works and then as a clerk at the Consett Iron Works.

On 14 November 1852 Smyth arrived in Melbourne and went to the gold diggings, where he worked as a carter on the construction of roads at Sawpit Gully. Back in Melbourne, on 7 November 1853 he became a draftsman under the surveyor-general, Andrew Clarke, and soon was acting chief draftsman. In April 1855 he took over official meteorological observations in Melbourne, the results of which were published in three comprehensive parliamentary reports in 1856-58. As a practical and theoretical meteorologist Smyth achieved wide recognition in Australia and abroad. Professionally cautious and conservative, in 1858 he warned against premature theoretical speculation about Australian conditions 'when the data are so few'.

In 1855 Smyth began to correspond with Adam Sedgwick who secured his election as a fellow of the Geological Society of London and the publication of his first geological paper in the society's Quarterly Journal (1858), and commended him to (Sir) Frederick McCoy. He early secured the support of (Sir) Redmond Barry, and became the first secretary of the Board of Science in January 1858. Primarily responsible to the mining committee, he issued instructions to mining surveyors, compiled statistics and data to prevent the 'useless movements from place to place' of prospectors and obtained details of gold finds and types of digging machinery. In December 1860 he became secretary for mines at a salary of £750. His influence over official mining policy was unrivalled for more than a decade and he helped to standardize leasing regulations. In 1862 at a royal commission into the goldfields he demanded the 'doing away with all obstacles in the way of persons desiring to obtain land for mining', and trenchantly criticized A. R. C. Selwyn and the Government Geological Survey. Supported by McCoy, he favoured a more general geological and utilitarian survey of the colony. Some of his recommendations were adopted when the Mining Department was reorganized under a minister.

Smyth compiled numerous reports and wrote catalogues for exhibitions of minerals and fossils. In November 1869 he superintended the establishment of a museum of economic geology, mineralogy and mining and published in Melbourne The Gold Fields and Mineral Districts of Victoria … Covertly involved in the controversy that led to the disbanding of the Geological Survey in 1869, he became its director on its reinstatement in 1871; he increased its part in the search for and proving of economic mineral and coal deposits. In 1875 he became chief inspector of mines and published the geological reports on John Forrest's Western Australian exploration.

On 19 June 1860 Smyth had become honorary secretary to the Board for the Protection of Aborigines and in 1863 became a voting member. Zealous and determined, he assumed the role of chairman, which belonged ex officio to the chief secretary, and wielded great power, including the dubious dismissal of John Green, general inspector of Aborigines in 1861-75 with whom he had earlier collaborated. Smyth's compilation, The Aborigines of Victoria … (1878), arose from his efforts to gather information and artefacts of Victorian Aboriginal cultures at a time when their vestiges were fast disappearing. The work, still valuable though long since superseded, relied heavily upon others such as L. Fison, G. B. Halford, A. Howitt and J. Milligan.

Press reports and a petition from officers in the Mining Department accused Smyth of 'tyrannical and overbearing conduct', and in February 1876 a board of inquiry was constituted and heard evidence until April. McCoy defended 'one of the best heads of department he had ever known' but the board found the charges of 'excessive severity … in the main substantiated', and reported that Smyth had been irritable, lacking self-control and over-fastidious, but acknowledged his 'unremitting energy and zealous labours in the public service'. On 4 May Smyth resigned all public offices except his membership of the Aborigines' board.

In June 1878 the Indian government temporarily engaged Smyth to report on auriferous deposits at Wynaad in the Madras Presidency. On completion of the work in May 1880 he became a mining engineer with the Davala (Devalah) Moyar Gold Mining Co. At the end of the year he was in London, and when he visited Melbourne in 1881 he was reportedly earning £3000 a year. After his reports induced 'English capitalists to float companies and lose their money' in India he retired to Victoria, writing mining articles for the Argus. From February 1883 to March 1887 he was director of the Sandhurst (Bendigo) School of Mines at a salary of £600. In his last years he lectured widely on geology and ethnology; in 1889 he revived the controversy over the age of the Australian coal measures when he attacked in the Argus a report by R. A. F. Murray advocating the exploitation of the brown coal deposits in Gippsland.

Apart from his many official reports Smyth published several scientific papers in 1855-87, mainly on meteorology. He was an active member of the Philosophical (Royal) Society of Victoria and was secretary for four months in 1863. Elected a fellow of the Linnean Society of London in November 1874, he was a member and corresponding member of several European, United States of America and colonial learned societies. An agnostic, he was demanding and officious as an administrator but conscientious, shrewd and hard working. R. H. Horne called him 'the half-mad Bureaucrat … A damned Jack-in-Office — yet one of various attainments'.

Smyth died of cancer on 8 October 1889, aged 59, at his residence Medenia, High Street, Prahran, survived by his wife Emma Charlotte, née Hay, whom he had married on 15 August 1856 at St Paul's Church, Melbourne, and by a son and daughter. He was buried in St Kilda cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Etheridge and R. L. Jack, Catalogue of Works, Papers, Reports, and Maps on the Geology, Palaeontology, Mineralogy, etc. of the Australian Continent and Tasmania (Lond, 1881)
  • D. J. Mulvaney and J. Golson (eds), Aboriginal Man and Environment in Australia (Canberra, 1971)
  • M. E. Hoare, ‘Learned societies in Australia: the foundation years in Victoria, 1850-1860’, 1 (1967) no 2, and ‘“The half-mad bureaucrat”: Robert Brough Smyth’, 2 (1974) no 4, Australian Academy of Science, Records
  • Australasian, 14 Aug 1880, 12 Oct 1889
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 Feb–6 May 1876, 23, 25, 28 May, 6 June 1889
  • Bulletin, 21 Aug, 20 Nov 1880, 7 May 1881, 7 July 1883
  • R. B. Smyth papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Michael Hoare, 'Smyth, Robert Brough (1830–1889)', 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

Robert Brough Smyth (1830-1889), by George Gordon McCrae

Robert Brough Smyth (1830-1889), by George Gordon McCrae

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an6312205

Life Summary [details]


18 February, 1830
Wallsend, Northumberland, England


8 October, 1889 (aged 59)
Prahran, Melbourne, Victoria, 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.