Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Charles Smith Wilkinson (1843–1891)

by Michael Hoare

This article was published:

Charles Smith Wilkinson (1843-1891), geologist, was born on 22 August 1843 at Potterspury, Northamptonshire, England, fourth son of David Wilkinson, a civil engineer associated with George Stephenson, and his wife Elizabeth, née Bliss. He was educated at Elby near Stroud, Gloucestershire, until his family migrated to Melbourne, arriving in the Marlborough in November 1852. Charles attended Rev. T. P. Fenner's Collegiate School, Prahran, and in December 1859 began work with the Victorian Geological Survey under Alfred Selwyn, becoming in 1861 field assistant to Richard Daintree. In 1863 he accompanied Reginald Murray to the Otway Ranges and became field geologist in 1866. That year he contributed an important paper on the formation and deposition of gold nuggets in drift to the Royal Society of Victoria, of which he was a member. In February 1868 while working with Selwyn in the Grampians, he became acutely ill with a lung inflammation and returned to Melbourne where he resigned from the survey.

Wilkinson moved to Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, to take up pastoral pursuits, but occasionally did some private surveying. In October 1870 in evidence before the gold fields royal commission he warned against dividing the interests and claims of geology and mining, and argued for a department of mines. After passing his surveyor's licence on 16 August 1871 he worked in the Surveyor-General's Department, then as a geological surveyor from 16 July 1874 in the Department of Lands until he became geological surveyor in charge in the Department of Mines in 1875.

In 1874 Wilkinson began the systematic geological survey of New South Wales. In 1876 he reported on the specimens collected by (Sir) William Macleay's expedition to New Guinea, and later announced the discovery of Miocene fossils and described the gold specimens found by Andrew Goldie and William George Lawes in New Guinea. Although much of his work was the routine survey of coal and goldfields, Wilkinson brought to his department the diligence and dedication of his old master Selwyn. From October 1882 to March 1883 he acted as chief mining surveyor. He persuaded the government to support the search for subterranean water in the western districts, giving detailed hydrological evidence in August 1884 before the royal commission on the conservation of water. He travelled widely throughout New South Wales as a member of the Prospecting Board from 1888, gaining an intimate knowledge of its mineralogical and palaeontological wealth.

In 1882 Wilkinson was joined by (Sir) Tannatt William Edgeworth David, to whom he delegated much responsibility. He brought together the extensive collection for the Mining and Geological Museum, Sydney, and served on every major New South Wales exhibition commission from 1875; in 1890 he visited London as the colony's representative at the International Exhibition of Mining and Metallurgy. He contributed notes on the geology to the two departmental editions of Mineral Products of New South Wales … (1882 and 1887), launched and gained contributors for the first Memoirs of the New South Wales Geological Survey, and in 1889 started its Records to provide more scope for research publications and exchanges. An 'unostentatious but enthusiastic' worker, he won great respect among scientific contemporaries and colleagues both as a geologist and chief.

Despite long absences from Sydney Wilkinson was active in the colony's corporate scientific life: a member of the local Royal Society from 1874, he was its president in 1887-88; a member of the Linnean Society of New South Wales from 1880 and president in 1883-84, he contributed five papers on anthropology, geology and the general progress of colonial science. He was elected a fellow of the Geological Society, London, in 1876, the Linnean Society of London in 1881 and the Victoria Institute, London, in 1885 and was a member of the New South Wales branch of the Geographical Society of Australasia. He made over ninety contributions to science in lectures, articles, maps and official reports. A member of the Engineering Association of New South Wales, Wilkinson also served on the Board of Technical Education and as a trustee of the Australian Museum. He lectured widely on religion and science, defending Charles Darwin as 'one of the greatest apostles of Truth'.

Wilkinson died of carcinoma at Burwood, Sydney, on 26 August 1891 and was buried in the Anglican cemetery at Enfield. He was survived by his wife Eliza Jane, née Leitch, whom he had married at Berry Jerry station, Wagga Wagga, on 4 May 1887, and by their two sons. His estate was valued for probate at £3338. Sir Frederick McCoy commemorated his Victorian work in the fossils Squaladon wilkinsoni and Trigonograptus wilkinsoni; his palaeontological investigations in New South Wales were acknowledged in one new genus and four new species of fossils bearing his name. His brother Robert Bliss (1838-1928), grazier and stock and station agent, represented Balranald in the Legislative Assembly in 1880-94.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1868, 2 (15)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1871-72, 2, 305
  • Engineering Assn of New South Wales, Proceedings, 6 (1890-91)
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 16 (1891)
  • Mining Journal (London), 17 Oct 1891
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 26 (1892)
  • E. J. Dunn and D. J. Mahony, ‘Biographical sketch of the founders of the Geological Survey of Victoria’, Victorian Geological Survey, Bulletin, 23 (1910)
  • Town and Country Journal, 16 Feb 1889, 29 Aug, 5 Sept 1891
  • Australasian, 13 Sept 1890, 29 Aug 1891.

Citation details

Michael Hoare, 'Wilkinson, Charles Smith (1843–1891)', 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

Life Summary [details]


22 August, 1843
Potterspury, Northamptonshire, England


26 August, 1891 (aged 48)
Burwood, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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