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Sydney Sampson (1863–1948)

by Zachary Gorman

Sydney Sampson (1863-1948), newspaper proprietor, politician and mentor to Robert Gordon Menzies, was born on 30 June 1863[1] at Creswick, Victoria,[2] one of nine children born to Cornish immigrants John and Mary Jane (née Organ).[3] James had come to Australia during the gold rush[4], before becoming a miner and prominent trade unionist. With William Guthrie Spence, John was instrumental in taking the six hundred members of the Creswick Miners’ Union into the Australian Miners’ Association, for which he was blackballed by mine owners.[5]

Little is known about Sampson’s early life, though he reportedly had an eclectic career working as a wood-splitter in the Bullarook Forest, a trucker in the Spring Hill mines, and a butcher, before taking up a plot of land in the Mallee as a selector.[6] In 1891 he married Matilda (née Brewer) the daughter of a tentmaker from the St Arnaud District,[7] producing two daughters.[8] Though in his later career Sampson remained an advocate for the interests of the local farmers, he did not stay long on the land and took up a job as a government inspector involved in rabbit extermination[9] before moving to Jeparit in 1893 where he ran a general store and established the Jeparit Leader.[10] An entrepreneurial risk taker, in 1897 he sold the Leader[11] to purchase first the Dimboola Banner and later the Warracknabeal Herald.[12]

Through his newspapers, Sampson promoted the development of the Western Victorian region and took a keen interest in politics. Though his father was a prototypical Labor man,[13] Sampson’s views were liberal and anti-socialist, perhaps a product of his experiences as a “self-taught and self-made man”[14] who valued economic opportunity.

Warracknabeal was one of the most important regional centres in the federal electorate of Wimmera, and when its sitting member Pharez Phillips retired in 1906, Sampson decided to stand for the seat as an Independent Protectionist. This meant supporting the “corner party” of Allan McLean, opposing Alfred Deakin’s reliance on Labor support and calling for the implementation of a two-party system to facilitate responsible government as soon as a fully protectionist tariff was implemented.[15] Despite a crowded non-Labor field no Deakinite contested the seat,[16] and Sampson was able to simultaneously win endorsement from The Age as the most solidly Protectionist candidate[17] and the Anti-Socialist Alliance associated with Opposition Leader George Reid.[18] Sampson argued that the best preventative for socialism was to ensure that at least fifty percent of the population are landed freeholders,[19] and later suggested that the solution to industrial unrest and productivity was the implementation of cooperatives and profit sharing;[20] all of which amounted to democratising individual incentive. He decried Labor as “a predatory party, which believes in exalting Parliament into a kind of omnipotence at the expense of individual self-reliance, the ultimate result of which must be the creation of a race of dependents without moral or intellectual fibre”.[21]

Elected on a platform calling for agricultural protection, bounties, a Federal Department of Agriculture, assisted immigration for agricultural settlement, and federal control of the Murray,[22] in Parliament Sampson would move an unsuccessful motion calling for a constitutional amendment to implement the latter[23] and he also planned to add it as an attachment to Labor’s wartime referendum proposals.[24] He wanted the river locked off and its water contained for agricultural purposes[25] and his obituary would later boast that he played a prominent role in the establishment of water storages including the Hume Weir.[26] Sampson was highly concerned that Australia’s population needed to rise for defence reasons,[27] and took a personal interest in the development of the Northern Territory, which he had advocated in the Herald before entering politics.[28] His other pet issue was social insurance and contributory pensions of which he made a “special study”[29], and over which his nephew Robert Menzies would later resign from the Lyons Government.

A popular local member representing the vastest electorate in Victoria,[30] Sampson’s seat went uncontested at both the 1914 and 1917 elections. There was some suggestion that this was a deliberate tactic by Labor to minimise Wimmera’s Senate vote,[31] and consequently Sampson became an early advocate of compulsory voting moving an amendment to the Electoral Bill in 1918 which was comfortably defeated.[32] He was a Member of the Standing Committee on Public Works, and was unlucky to miss out on a ministry[33] in circumstances where two political fusions meant that there were careful balancing acts involved in picking Cabinets. Perhaps he was seen as too close to William Irvine,[34] while his repeated insistence that the building of Canberra be delayed for financial reasons cannot have endeared him to a New South Welshman like Liberal leader Joseph Cook.[35]

During the First World War, Sampson advocated conscription as a natural component of democratic rights, complaining that people “gladly received all the privileges but repudiated the responsibilities” of suffrage.[36] He argued that military despotism (which he associated with Germany) produced worse fighters than democracy, as the “best soldier was not machine made, but was the one who breathed the air of freedom, and who was built up on self-reliance, initiative, and independence”. In 1918 he took a remarkable trip to visit wartime ally Japan and advocated for increasing trading ties,[37] on return printing a pamphlet that gave a brief summary of Japanese history and its industrial progress.[38] While the Labor press was interested in what he had to say about Japanese unionism,[39] when in Parliament Sampson asked the acting Prime Minister William Watt what the Government was doing about selling wheat to Japan he was informed they had no plans on the matter.[40]

In the lead up to the 1919 election Sampson was repeatedly approached by the Victorian Farmers’ Union to join the nascent Country Party,[41] but while he said he supported their policies he refused to sign their pledge which he opposed as illiberal and resembling Labor methods,[42] insisting that he had to represent the 37000 members of his electorate rather than the 3000 members of the Union.[43] The VFU was initially worried that he might beat them,[44] but ultimately flexed its muscles by bringing in star candidate Percy Stewart who resigned from the Victorian Legislative Assembly and won the seat on the back of hostility to William Morris Hughes.[45] Sampson had presented himself as somewhat independent from the Nationalists,[46] and his only real difference with the VFU other than the pledge was said to be his “extreme” protectionism.[47]

A long-time chairman of the Country Press Co-Operative,[48] on leaving Parliament Sampson bought the Box Hill Reporter[49] and travelled extensively to America, Canada,[50] Egypt, the United Kingdom,[51] the mandated territories of New Guinea,[52] and Ceylon,[53] generally reporting back on what he saw. He served as a director of Fowler Ltd, Pottery Works and the Federal Mutual Fire Insurance Co.,[54] and was fond of playing lawn bowls in his spare time, even organising Commonwealth Parliament matches.[55]

Passing away in his Camberwell home on 24 March 1948,[56] Sampson’s greatest legacy was arguably his influence on his nephew Robert Menzies. Sampson would visit via buggy even once he moved to Warracknabeal, encouraged Menzies to borrow books from the Mechanics’ Institute in Jeparit, would discuss political and constitutional matters with him at just 13 years of age, and was by Menzies’ own admission “then and later...a great influence upon my mind”.[57] Sampson opened meetings for Menzies during his first election for the Victorian Legislative Council,[58] and famously gave him the advice that he could not give political speeches in the same manner as a barrister; instead he needed to speak simply, use a little humour, and keep repeating in different words a few uncomplicated ideas.[59] This story would be retold by John Howard in a 1999 address given as Prime Minister.[60]

[1] “Personal”, The Argus, 27 March, 1948, 7. 30 Jun 1943 - Personal - Trove (

[2] “Obituary”, The Argus, 27 March, 1948, 7. 27 Mar 1948 - Obituary - Trove (

[3] Troy Bramston, Robert Menzies: The Art of Politics (Brunswick: Scribe, 2019), 23-4.

[4] “People We Know”, Punch, 11 January, 1912, 6. 11 Jan 1912 - People We Know - Trove (

[5] Judith Brett, “Robert Menzies’s Debt to Deakinite Liberalism” in Zachary Gorman (ed), The Young Menzies: Success, Failure, Resilience 1894-942 (Carlton: Melbourne University Publishing, 2022), 68.

[6] “Items of News”, Mount Alexander Mail, 20 December, 1906, 2. 20 Dec 1906 - Items Of News. - Trove (

[7] ”General News”, Maryborough and Dunolly Advertiser, 16 January 1914, 1. 16 Jan 1914 - General News. - Trove (

[8] Joan Rydon, A Biographical Register of the Commonwealth Parliament 1901-1972 (Canberra: ANU Press, 1975), 193.

[9] Janette Bomford, 'Trigellis-Smith, Beryl Randall (1892–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 2 December 2022.

[10] Ibid.

[11] A.W. Martin, Robert Menzies: A Life Volume 1 (Melbourne University Press, 1993), 5.

[12] “Items of News”, Mount Alexander Mail, 20 December, 1906, 2. 20 Dec 1906 - ITems Of News. - Trove (

[13] Robert Menzies, Afternoon Light: some memories of men and events (London: Cassell, 1967), 6.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Wimmera”, The Age, 6 September 1906, 8. 06 Sep 1906 - Wimmera. - Trove ( ”Mr S. Sampson at Wycheproof”, The Argus, 25 September 1906, 9. 25 Sep 1906 - Mr. S. Sampson At Wycheproof. - Trove (

[16] ”Federal Politics The Nominations”, Geelong Advertiser, 19 November, 1906, 2. 19 Nov 1906 - Federal Politics The Nominations. - Trove (

[17] “Melbourne, Tuesday”, The Age, 23 March 1906, 6. 23 Mar 1906 - No title - Trove (

[18] “Wimmera”, The Argus, 5 December 1906, 6.

[19] “The Federal Elections”, The Mildura Cultivator, 8 September, 1906, 8. 08 Sep 1906 - The Federal Elections. - Trove (

[20] ”The Wimmera”, The Argus, 20 November 1919, 8. 20 Nov 1919 - The Wimmera. - Trove (

[21] ”The Federal Fight”, The Argus 9 July 1914, 9-10. 09 Jul 1914 - The Federal Fight. - Trove (

[22] “Wimmera”, The Age, 6 September 1906, 8. 06 Sep 1906 - Wimmera. - Trove (

[23] Sydney Sampson, “Water Conservation and Irrigation”, Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 22 September, 1910.

[24] ”Purely Federal”, Woomelang Sun and Lascelles and Ouyen Advocate, 7 May 1915, 2. 07 May 1915 - Purely Federal. - Trove (

[25] ”The Need For Immigration”, The Mildura Cultivator, 21 March 1908, 9.

[26] ”Obituary”, The Argus, 27 March 1948, 7. 27 Mar 1948 - Obituary - Trove (

[27] ”Federal Elections”, The Mildura Cultivator, 6 April 1910, 8. 06 Apr 1910 - Federal Elections - Trove (

[28] ”Correspondence”, Northern Territory Times and Gazette, 21 February, 1902, 3. 21 Feb 1902 - Correspondence. - Trove (

[29] ”The Wimmera Contest”, The Age, 29 May, 1913, 7. 29 May 1913 - The Wimmera Contest. - Trove ( ”Prattle About People”, Punch, 14 September 1916, 7. 14 Sep 1916 - Prattle About People. - Trove (

[30] ”The Wimmera Contest”, The Age, 29 May 1913, 7. 29 May 1913 - The Wimmera Contest. - Trove (

[31] ”Liberal Campaign”, The Argus, 21 August 1914, 6. 21 Aug 1914 - Liberal Campaign. - Trove (

[32] Scott Bennett, ”Compulsory voting in Australian national elections”, Parliamentary Library Research Brief, 31 October 2005, no. 6, 2005–06, ISSN 1832-2883

[33] There was significant speculation he would be included in the Cook Ministry, ”Second Fusion Ministry”, Labor Call, 19 June 1913, 4. 19 Jun 1913 - Second Fusion Ministry. - Trove ( ”Federal Situation”, Ballarat Star, 23 June 1913, 1. 23 Jun 1913 - Federal Situation - Trove (

[34] ”Parliamentary Pars”, Labor Call, Thursday 5 December, 1912, 7.

[35] ”The Liberal Rally”, The Mildura Cultivator, 4 May, 1912, 12. 04 May 1912 - The Liberal Rally. - Trove ( ”Federal Works”, The Ballarat Star, 18 October, 1913, 2. 18 Oct 1913 - FEderal Works. - Trove (

[36] ”Reinforcements Referendum”, The Mildura Cultivator, 1 December, 1917, 14. 01 Dec 1917 - Reinforcements Referendum. - Trove (

[37] ”The Far East”, Daily Mail, 7 August 1918, 5. 07 Aug 1918 - The Far East. - Trove (

[38] ”Japan and the Far East”, The Naracoorte Herald, 24 January 1919, 5. 24 Jan 1919 - Japan And The Far East. - Trove (

[39] ”Unionism in Japan”, Westralian Worker, 23 August, 1918, 3. 23 Aug 1918 - Unionism in Japan. - Trove (

[40] ”Wheat Pool”, Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 19 June 1918.

[41] ”General News”, The Mildura Cultivator, 26 February 1919, 11. 26 Feb 1919 - General News. - Trove (

[42] ”Farmer’ Union Pledge”, West Gippsland Gazette, 4 November 1919, 2. 04 Nov 1919 - The West Gippsland Gazette. - Trove (

[43] ”Mr Sampson at Charlton”, The Mildura Cultivator, 10 December 1919, 9. 10 Dec 1919 - Mr Sampson At Charlton. - Trove (

[44] ”Victoria Farmers’ Union”, The Mildura Telegraph and Darling and Lower Murray Advocate, 22 August 1919, 4. 22 Aug 1919 - Victorian Farmers’ Union. - Trove (

[45] K. M. Haig-Muir, 'Stewart, Percy Gerald (1885–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 2 December 2022.

[46] ”Mr Sampson at Piangil”, Farmers’ Advocate, 20 November 1919, 4. 20 Nov 1919 - Mr. Sampson At Piangil. - Trove (

[47] ”Topics of the Week”, The Australasian, 3 January 1920, 26. 03 Jan 1920 - Topics Of The Week - Trove (

[48] ”About People”, The Age, 22 February 1913, 13. 22 Feb 1913 - About People. - Trove (

[49] ”Mr Sampson Purchases Box Hill Reporter”, The Mildura Telegraph and Darling and Lower Murray Advocate, 13 February 1920, 2. 13 Feb 1920 - Mr. Sampson Purchases Box Hill “reporter.” - Trove (

[50] ”Personal Items”, Box Hill Reporter, 26 February 1926, 5. 26 Feb 1926 - Personal Items. - Trove (

[51] ”Visit to England”, Box Hill Reporter, 1 September 1922, 5. 01 Sep 1922 - Visit To England. - Trove (

[52] ”Our Mandated Territories”, Box Hill Reporter, 19 May, 1922, 3.19 May 1922 - Our Mandated Territories - Trove (

[53] ”About People”, The Age, 18 February 1936, 11, Sydney Sampson - People Australia.docx - Microsoft Word Online (

[54] ”Obituary”, The Argus, 27 March 1948, 7. 27 Mar 1948 - Obituary - Trove (

[55] ”An Interesting Match”, The Argus, 3 May 1915, 11. 03 May 1915 - An Interesting Match. - Trove (

[56] ”Obituary”, The Argus, 27 March 1948, 7. 27 Mar 1948 - Obituary - Trove (

[57] Robert Menzies, Afternoon Light: some memories of men and events (London: Cassell, 1967), 10.

[58] ”Legislative Council Elections”, Box Hill Reporter, 4 May 1928, 5. 04 May 1928 - Legislative Council Elections - Trove (

[59] A.W. Martin, Robert Menzies: A Life Volume 1 (Melbourne University Press, 1993), 50.

[60] John Howard, ”Address at the Book Launch of the Menzies Lectures 1978-1998", 17 October 1999, PM Transcripts Transcript 11395 | PM Transcripts (

Original Publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Zachary Gorman, 'Sampson, Sydney (1863–1948)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 June 2024.

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