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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mathews, Robert Hamilton (1841–1918)

by Isabel McBryde

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Robert Hamilton Mathews (1841-1918), surveyor and anthropologist, was born on 21 April 1841 at Narellan, New South Wales, son of William Mathews and his wife Jane, née Holmes. His early years were spent at Narellan and from 1850 on his father's property south of Goulburn. He was educated by a tutor and later by his father who was a classicist. Against his own inclinations towards the university and a profession, he remained on the land. His introduction to surveying came when he assisted Deering's party on the main South Road in 1866-67, and worked with Kennedy and Jamieson on the northern rail route to Tamworth in 1867-69. In July 1870 he topped his examinations as a licensed surveyor.

Mathews worked in northern New South Wales, surveying in the far west and in New England for twenty years. On 4 July 1872 at Tamworth he married Mary Sylvester Bartlett. In the 1880s they lived at Singleton and in 1882-83 visited America, Britain and Europe. Mathews became a justice of the peace for Queensland, South Australia in 1875 and New South Wales in 1883 and was coroner at Singleton. He lived at Parramatta after 1889 where he acted as deputy coroner, and wrote Handbook to Magisterial Inquiries and Coroners' Inquests, which was issued in several editions.

As a surveyor in northern New South Wales Mathews had an unrivalled opportunity to observe the remnants of traditional Aboriginal life and customs in areas rapidly opening to settlement; his curiosity soon developed into close observation and record. In the 1890s he first published his studies, with work on Aboriginal rock art in the Singleton district. Encouraged by W. D. Campbell, he prepared a paper on rock art which was awarded the medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1894. Retiring from surveying in the early 1890s he devoted his last years to anthropology and hoped eventually to complete a full-scale work on the Aborigines. His field investigations produced research data on linguistics, social structure, ceremonial life, customs and art. He travelled widely to interview informants and also had a full correspondence in Australia and beyond. By character reticent, methodical and independent, he prided himself on ascertaining his facts from the Aborigines themselves, and testing all accepted theories. Although he was a member of the Presbyterian Church and versed in biblical literature, his interest in Aboriginal beliefs and ceremonial seem to have been inspired by anthropology.

Mathews was one of many enthusiasts, mostly with little or no formal training in anthropology, concerned with recording Aboriginal culture. His reports on ceremonial life and language are invaluable, often the only record for large areas of northern New South Wales. He also studied and wrote on the tribes of the Northern Territory and Central Australia. He published some two hundred papers, with an impressive range of overseas publications, at a time of immense national and international interest in the Australian Aborigines. A corresponding member of the Anthropological Society of Paris, he was awarded its Godard silver medal.

Mathews's views on the social structure, descent systems and marriage laws in Aboriginal society differed from those accepted by Alfred Howitt, Lorimer Fison and Baldwin Spencer. They questioned his field methods and his interpretation of data. Some of these controversies cannot now be resolved for lack of evidence, while in other areas his ideas are now more readily acceptable to anthropologists, for example his use of the term 'section' and his conclusions on marriage laws. His work remains a vital contribution to knowledge.

The large-scale work he planned was not completed when he died at Parramatta on 22 May 1918, but his papers remain sufficient tribute to his enthusiasm for his self-imposed task. Survived by his wife, four sons and a daughter, he was buried in the Presbyterian section of the Parramatta cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Greenway, Bibliography of the Australian Aborigines (Syd, 1963)
  • A. P. Elkin, ‘The development of scientific knowledge of the Aborigines’, Australian Aboriginal Studies, H. Shiels ed (Melb, 1963)
  • W. S. Dun, ‘Presidential address’, Royal Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 53 (1919)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Isabel McBryde, 'Mathews, Robert Hamilton (1841–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

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