Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

History revisited - J F Campbell: surveyor, botanist, historian

I first came across J F Campbell as an early writer on New England’s history. Between 1922 and 1937, he published twenty eight papers in the Royal Australian Historical Society Journal and Proceedings, many on New England topics. I would also find that from 1907, he published sixteen papers in the Institution of Surveyors’ New South Wales’ journal, The Surveyor, again many with New England connection.

Clearly, J F Campbell was quite prolific, but who was he? Searching, I found that a much later New England historian, John Atchison, had written extensively on Campbell’s life. Campbell was much more than just an historian.

John Campbell (1853-1938), was born on 21 August 1853 at Loch Leven, Kinross-shire, Scotland. After school, Perthshire, he was apprenticed to an architect. Upon completion, he switched to surveying, studying at the University of Glasgow.

Often restless, a need for movement would mark his life, Campbell left for Dunedin in 1879 before completing his course. Two years later he moved on to Sydney.

In Sydney, he adopted the middle name Fauna for identification purposes, becoming J F Campbell. For reasons that will become clear, Flora would have been a better choice given his interests, but Flora was a girl’s name, one carried by Jacobite heroine Flora Macdonald, an association not likely to appeal to a Campbell

In Sydney, Campbell joined the Department of Lands as a cadet draftsman and was soon promoted. Completing examinations, he was registered as a licensed surveyor on 10 January 1884.

Late in 1888, Campbell was sent to the Walcha district of the Armidale Land Board, establishing his New England connection, one that he was to maintain in one way or another for a long time. In February 1889, he married Althea Louisa Gissing, a newly arrived Englishwoman, in Sydney. The couple quickly became well known in the district, with Campbell serving on the Walcha Council for eight years.

Campbell was fascinated by the natural environment. The passage of the Crown Lands Amendment Act of 1884, an uneasy compromise between squatting and free selection interests that became the basis of land policy for the next 100 years, encouraged new selection. Outside his official duties, Campbell began documenting a changing landscape.

A member of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, he studied and collected new botanical specimens, working with Ernst Betche and J. H. Maiden who named a shrub after him. Later, his geological notes were incorporated in Sir Edgeworth David's 1931 Geological Map of the Commonwealth of Australia.

In 1903 Campbell moved to Sydney for the education of his children, briefly returning to New England as crown representative and chairman of the Armidale Forest Board in 1906-07. In retirement from the end of 1913, Campbell retained his interest in rural issues, now researching and writing quite prolifically.

A reticent man who shunned publicity, Campbell displayed unflagging zeal and patience in detailed research until his death in 1938.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 29 April 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

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