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Campbell, John (Tinker) (?–1876)

by Judith Iltis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

John (Tinker) Campbell (d.1876), pastoralist, was reputedly the son of a Campbell family at Breadalbane, Perthshire, Scotland. Other legend has him in Nova Scotia as a youthful tinsmith and used by judge Haliburton as the original in The Clockmaker, or, the Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick of Slick Vale (London, 1837-40). He arrived in Sydney from Nova Scotia in the Mic Mac about 1833. Either because he brought a consignment of tinware or because he set up two fellow passengers as tinsmiths, he was given the nickname Tinker, which he disliked. He was also called Never-to-be-beaten Campbell.

Campbell made money by peddling goods near Sydney. He soon had two small runs on the Hunter and Gwydir Rivers, but he sold out and in 1839 went to a station on the Macintyre, moving north in January 1840 to look for new country. On the river he called Mayne, he built stockyards at Kittah Kittah (Beeboo). Lonely and harassed by Aboriginals, he sold out, followed the tracks of Patrick Leslie and early in 1841 squatted at Westbrook, the fifth squatter on the Darling Downs. He treated the Aboriginals considerately, swapping names with one, Multugerrah, also known as Moppy. He never showed firearms, and his home and cattle were not molested even in his frequent absences. Later, with Walter Smith, he went to the Logan district where he took up Tamrookum, but soon sold it. In 1841 on his first visit to Brisbane he made friends with Andrew Petrie. In the Piscator he went on to Sydney, where in 1842 at the first Moreton Bay land sales he bought ten acres (4 ha) at Kangaroo Point and more at Fortitude Valley. On his return to Brisbane he met Ludwig Leichhardt and again at Westbrook in 1844, when he advised the explorer on routes and supplies for the Port Essington expedition.

When depression and drought prevented northern settlers from marketing their cattle Campbell proposed to cure their meat. He undertook to supply salt, casks and labour, retaining the hides and tallow as his commission. He opened works at Kangaroo Point in 1843, but lost heavily on the venture. When a public meeting was told of Henry O'Brien's boiling down experiments at Yass, Campbell was chosen to imitate them at Brisbane. With modest success he used local timbers for his casks and brought experienced men from Sydney, but supplies of stock were irregular. Although he saved many pastoralists from ruin, he had to sell his works in 1846 at great loss. He also had to sell Westbrook and his Brisbane land, and moved with his family to Redbank. With Robert Towns as his Sydney partner, he opened up local timber and coal resources, and dealt in other profitable enterprises. With prosperity Campbell soon became a figure in the Brisbane and pastoral society centred on Brazier's Hotel, but disputes with Towns led in 1865 to lawsuits that left him ruined once more. In bad health he moved to Cleveland. His last years were spent round Moreton Bay with his sons, processing salt, growing sugar, cotton and castor oil, sponge gathering, burning shells and coral for lime, and breeding angora goats. All these pioneering ventures failed, but in the Brisbane Courier, 3 July 1869, 'Old Tom' (Thomas Dowse) spoke of his 'indomitable pluck and energy', and credited him with 'a touch of the blue nose in his composition … A more shrewd, enterprising man never took up a clearing with more pluck and energy'.

The Campbell legend grew when he published The Early Settlement of Queensland and Other Articles (Ipswich, 1875); his family papers were later destroyed by fire. Both he and his wife Temperance, née Perkins, died in 1876. They were survived by three sons: John Edwin (1832-1898) who sailed in Towns's schooner Don Juan on its first black-birding trip in 1863, Frederick Foster (1838-1898) and Robert Perkins (1843-1918). A twice-married daughter died in 1870.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Bartley, Opals and Agates (Brisb, 1892)
  • T. Welsby, ‘John Campbell, a Squatter of '41’, Journal (Historical Society of Queensland), vol 3, part 1, 1938, pp 27-36
  • Toowoomba Chronicle, 17 Apr 1940.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Judith Iltis, 'Campbell, John (Tinker) (?–1876)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/campbell-john-tinker-1874/text2193, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 23 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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