Recently I was perusing the Trove digitised newspapers database for any articles about acrobats in Western Victoria when a completely different item caught my eye. Extraordinary scandal at Bridgewater was too good a headline to resist. This 1873 story, repeated in various Victorian newspapers, concerned a Mrs Fairbrother and her son Robert and threats that they made to Robert Walker Campbell, a Wesleyan minister, as he attempted to conduct a Sunday Service at Bridgewater (North West of Bendigo).

The Australasian  24 May 1873: p.23

Accompanying Rev Campbell was Annie Moore, who had previously been engaged to Robert Fairbrother. Mrs Fairbrother was particularly incensed that her son had been thrown over, and abused Rev Campbell as he made his way across the bridge to the church.

Loddon Bridge, Bridgewater H2979

She threatened to blackball him through the streets and expose him before the congregation. Her son accused Annie Moore of ‘being in the family way.’ This was too much for Rev Campbell who retorted, ‘You hound I will knock your teeth down your throat’. Once in the church the abuse continued, Mrs Fairbrother calling Rev Campbell a ‘low crawling vagabond’. [1]

Mother and son were duly charged with ‘endeavouring to prevent by threats a minister of religion from celebrating divine worship’. Neither was found guilty ‘to the astonishment of every rational being … the jury shamefully violated their oath to decide according to the evidence’.

Ovens and Murray Advertiser 5 November 1873: 2

The newspaper’s view was that ‘there is nothing extraordinary in the fact of a woman repenting of a promise to marry an ill-natured boor, when a more attractive swain throws himself at her feet’. [2]

Rev Campbell proved sincere in his affection and he married Annie Moore the following year. The young family moved to South Australia, to tragedy and more controversy. Their first two children Lilian (born 1875) and William (born 1876) died within a few days of each other in 1878.

At the time Rev Campbell was embroiled in a fierce battle over the Nock Act. This was an amendment brought by staunch temperance advocate David Nock to the Licensed Victuallers Act that outlawed Sunday trading by hotels to all but bona fide travellers. There were moves afoot to repeal this law. Rev Campbell was an outspoken defender of such temperance measures. His view was that

no man could frequent public-houses without great deterioration of his moral and social character. It was impossible for him to breathe the fumes of beer and blasphemy which filled our public houses, without feeling the bad effects of it. The family of the publican must also necessarily be injured by the surroundings of the public-house. No family could be reared properly and surrounded with holy and purifying associations if the place of habitation chosen was the modern ‘drinking’ shop. [3]

Licensed Victuallers Amendment Act 1877 aka The Nock Act

As this battle raged Rev Campbell became embroiled in further conflict with the local mayor. Mayor Lipsett, in the midst of a re-election campaign, was engaged in an argument with the local hospital about his choice to cease being a subscriber, and his right to authorise treatment of a destitute patient. This played out in increasingly acrimonious correspondence in the press, and was followed hard on the heels by an attempt by Rev Campbell to ban him from his congregation for dishonesty. This was a controversial move, and the details of the process were hotly contested by all protagonists.

Mayor Lipsett described Campbell as a ‘new chum [whose] past history………would not bear the best of lights’. [4]

Rev Campbell immediately responded through the local newspaper:

As my character has an official value which effects others beside myself I had thought of making Mr. Lipsett prove his fact in a court of law. But having no wish to perpetuate the spirit of petty strife which has already sufficiently disgraced the community I shall let the matter drop[5]

A few years later Rev Campbell and his family moved to Western Australia where he was pastor at the Wesley Church in Perth and Chairman of the WA Wesleyans.  He died suddenly on 27 December 1886, aged only 43.  Admiring obituaries revealed a combative man never far from controversy.

One wrote : ‘I am sorry to add he was not appreciated in Western Australia. Few of our best and bravest spirits are. The world sees clearer when their place is empty and their voice is hushed for ever’.[7]

Another, in lauding his strengths in the pulpit, remarked that he had ‘a keen and firm grasp of truth — amounting at times to dogmatism’.[8]

A third referred to him as a ‘real Boanerges’, a biblical reference to his thunderous preaching style. [9]

His wife Annie was left to bring up their five young children alone.

Notes on sources

Trove historic newspapers provide an extraordinary insight into daily lives and events. We also subscribe to many overseas newspapers, both current and historic and have created a number of newspaper research guides.

You can join our VicFix community and help correct newspaper transcriptions on Trove. This makes articles easier to find.

The Library has a wide range of research guides on various subjects. We also offer online and in-house training sessions.

For a broad outline of online research through the Library and other sources see this page from our VCE research guides


[1] Extraordinary scandal at Bridgewater The Argus 22 May 1873: 7.

[2] The infamous Fairbrothers case Ovens and Murray Advertiser 5 November 1873: 2

[3] Repeal of Nock’s Act  South Australian Chronicle and Weekly Mail 7 September 1878: 9.  A great challenge of research is when colloquialisms are used, especially when referring to government documents. You won’t find any official ‘Nock Act’ but you can find the Act to amend the Licensed Victuallers Amendment Act, 1872,and the Licensed Victuallers Amendment Act, 1876.

[4] Complimentary Dinner to Mr. E. Lipsett, J.P. Burra Record 20 December 1878: 3.

[5] Rev. R. W. Campbell and Mr. E. Lipsett Burra Record 27 December 1878: 2.

[6] Open Column Burra Record 3 January 1879: 2.

[7] The Rev . R.W. Campbell The Daily News 28 December 1886: 3.

[8] Obituary notice for the late Rev . R.W. CampbellVictorian Express (Geraldton, WA) 5 February 1887: 3.

[9] ‘The name given by Christ to the two sons of Zebedee….a loud vociferous preacher or orator. (Mark iii:17)’ Oxford English Dictionary


This article has 2 comments

  1. Catherine Jenkins

    Really interesting and very well written! And a great example of the fascinating treasures in Trove!
    Thank you very much.

  2. Andrew McConville

    Thanks Catherine, yes those digitised newspapers really are a treasure trove!

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