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ROBERT BROUGH SMYTH, SECRETARY OF MINES, MELBOURNE

This folded blue entire was addressed to the above, the postage being paid by a 4d rose pink Victoria ‘Beaded Oval’ stamp postmarked with the barred numeral ‘173' (Type 1B) of Daylesford and there was a blue boxed ‘TOO LATE’ alongside (Figure 1).

The reverse showed a blue unframed oval DAYLESFORD/ JU 12/ 62/ VICTORIA as well as a red MELBOURNE/ 3A/ JU 14/ 62 reception postmark (Figure 2).

Robert Brough Smyth (1830-1889), was born at Wallsend, Northumberland, England, son of Edward Smyth, mining engineer, and his wife Ann, née Brough. He was educated at Whickham, Durham, and was instructed by his father and brothers in iron-making and mining techniques, finding 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, in November 1853 he became a draftsman under the surveyor-general Andrew Clarke, and soon he was acting chief draftsman for the Colony. In 1855 he took over official meteorological observations in Melbourne and published three parliamentary reports on weather in 1856-58, for which he was given wide recognition in Australia and abroad.

He secured his election as a fellow of the Geological Society of London and became the first secretary of the Board of Science in 1858. He was primarily responsible to the mining committee issuing instructions to mining surveyors and 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. He strongly criticized A.R.C. Selwyn and the Government Geological Survey and some of his recommendations were adopted.

In 1869 he superintended the establishment of a museum of economic geology, mineralogy and mining and published The Gold Fields and Mineral Districts of Victoria. Robert Smyth was a man of breadth and brilliance, no less respected in scientific circles than his great rival Selwyn. In 1876 he was accused by officers in his department of “tyrranical and overbearing conduct”. A board of enquiry heard how Smyth’s abusive outbursts routinely reduced men to tears and fainting fits. Clerks were fined for spelling errors and sacked if they used an eraser. Smyth resigned after the board of enquiry upheld the charges leveled against him. A drawing of him certainly suggested a somewhat wild countenance (Figure 3).

 

In June 1860 Smyth became honorary secretary to the Board for the Protection of Aborigines and in 1863 he became a voting member. Zealous and determined he became the chairman and he wielded great power, including the dubious dismissal of John Green, the general inspector of Aborigines, with whom he had collaborated.. He published a book in 1878 on the Aborigines of Victoria based on information he gathered on artefacts of the Victorian Aboriginal cultures.

In 1878 he was a consultant on a gold mine in India, then a mining engineer in an Indian gold mine. His reports on the gold mines induced English capitalists to float companies and lose their money, after which he retired back to Victoria. In his last years he lectured widely, both on geology and ethnology, related to the Aborigines. He was a fellow of the Linnean Society of London and a member of several European, American and colonial learned societies. He was an agnostic, demanding and officious as an administrator, but conscientious , shrewd and hard working. He was described as “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 in Prahran, Victoria, survived by his wife Emma Charlotte, whom he had married in Melbourne in 1856, and by a son and daughter. A more benign Robert Smyth is seen in Figure 4.

I acknowledge that this paper relies heavily on information available in the online edition of the Australian Dictionary of Biography.


 
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