Dr James Mitchell



Born at Clinkhill, Dalgety, Fife, Scotland, on 24 January 1793

Died at Cumberland Place, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, on 1 February 1869

[This article also includes information on the members of Dr Mitchell's family who remained in Fife.]


Family and early life

Dr James Mitchell's paternal grandparents were John Mitchell and Isabel Stocks, both born in the Parish of Aberdour, Fife. John was born in 1724 and Isabel in 1723. They were married in Aberdour in 1748. According to the International Genealogical Index, John was the son of Robert Mitchell. John may have had a brother, Francis, born in Aberdour in 1726.

John and Isabel had seven known children, born between 1749 and 1768 - Robert and William in Aberdour; and John, David, Thomas and Isabel in the Parish of Inverkeithing (probably in the small village of Hillend), Fife. David, who was Dr James Mitchell's father, was born in 1755.

In 1779 David married Margaret Low, the daughter of John Low, Laird of Wallsgreen (sometimes called Wellsgreen) in the Parish of Auchterderran, Fife. Margaret was the daughter of John Low and Rachel Walls, and it is likely that John and Rachel had inherited the small farming estate of Wallsgreen from Rachel's family (after whom the estate was named). David's marriage to Margaret would have increased his social status, although I'm not suggesting for a moment that that was his main aim! The Low connection would also have meant that David and Margaret's children would in due course benefit from having relatives who were professional men. A strong influence on their son James is likely to have been his uncle, Dr James Low - in the same way that Dr Low influenced another of his nephews, Dr James Low Warren (1791-1871). James Low Warren studied medicine at Edinburgh University, where he took the degree of M.D. with the gold medal of his year in 1814. His Latin thesis was dedicated to his uncle (his mother's brother), Dr James Low - his 'very dear relative' - and is held by the library of the British Museum, London. He entered the army, and was appointed surgeon to the army of occupation in Paris, after Waterloo. He served in the West Indies, on the staff for ten years. In Jamaica, he owned large sugar plantations. He liberated all his slaves before the Emancipation Act was passed, and, when offered compensation by the British Government, refused it. He was surgeon to the 6th Dragoon Guards. On retiring from the army, he settled in Edinburgh, and was associated with Sir James Young Simpson in the experiments which led to the discovery of chloroform. He retired from professional life, and died at Southsea in 1871, aged 81 years. The similarities between his early career and that of his cousin, Dr James Mitchell (see below) are striking, and are, I think, more than a coincidence!

In the early 1780s David Mitchell became the tenant of a small farm, Clinkhill (now known as Clinthill) , on the Fordell Estate in the Parish of Dalgety, Fife, and about one mile north west of Hillend.

Dr James Mitchell was born at Clinkhill, and it was here that he spent his first seven years - in an idyllic setting, overlooking the Firth of Forth.


John Merewether at Clinkhill
John Merewether at Clinkhill in 2002 (see text).

View from Clinkhill
The view from Clinkhill, across the Firth of Forth.

Capeldrae Farm   Capeldrae Farm
Capeldrae Farm in 1999. The wall in the right hand photo probably dates from James Mitchell's time.


On Martinmas (11 November) 1799, David Mitchell became the tenant of the farm of Capeldrae (also spelt Capledrae) in the Parish of Auchterderran, Fife, some eight miles north of Clinkhill. As the farm buildings were in 'a decayed and ruinous condition', he was granted the sum of 200 to build a new house and repair the other structures.


David Mitchell and Margaret Low had nine known children. They were all (with the possible exception of Agnes) born at Clinkhill. The first was Rachel, who was born in 1780 and married Andrew Aitken in 1806 - they had a daughter, Jane, who looked after her grandfather, David, and her Uncle William and Aunt Jean at Capeldrae, as they got older.


The eldest son, John, was born in 1784, and became a farmer at Redwells in the Parish of Kinglassie. The family also probably had the neighbouring farm of Finmont. This branch seems to have prospered, as John's son, Alexander, was able to build and donate the Mitchell Hall to the people of Kinglassie in 1896. They also seem to have inherited the Wallsgreen estate (see above), which passed in due course to John's daughter, Margaret. Margaret Mitchell and her brother David farmed on their own account at Hilton of Carslogie in the Parish of Monimail. I believe the Wallsgreen property was eventually bought by the Bowhill Coal Company of Cardenden, which was taken over in 1909 by the Fife Coal Company.


The second son was David (1786-1867), my great great grandfather. He returned to Clinkhill where he married a Fordell miner's daughter, Christian Japp, and raised a family. He was to return to Capeldrae in later years, perhaps when his wife died.


The second daughter, Jean (1788-1855), never married and probably lived at Capeldrae for most of her life.


The third son, William (1790-1872), also remained unmarried, and became the tenant of Capeldrae after the death of his father, remaining so for the rest of his life.


Then came the fourth son, James. His baptism is recorded in the parish registers for Dalgety - 'James, lawful son to David Mitchell and Margaret Low his spouse in Clinkhill was born January 24th and baptized 27th before these witnesses James Cousins John Roxbrugh and others.' St Bridget's KirkThe original register is confusing at this point - the year of birth looks like 1793, although the entries are mixed up and it might have been 1792 or 1794. Australian biographies usually say that he was born in 1792. I therefore looked into this in some detail. I first of all satisfied myself that baptisms took place on Sundays, and then checked to see in which of these three years the 27th of January fell on a Sunday. This happened only in 1793. I therefore concluded that James Mitchell was born at Clinkhill on Thursday, 24th January, 1793, and baptised on Sunday, 27th January, 1793. The baptism would have taken place in St Bridget's Kirk, Dalgety (pictured right; photo courtesy of Eric Simpson). There was no civil registration in Scotland at the time and therefore no birth certificates, so it is understandable that some biographies give the wrong year for the birth. It is also possible that James himself was the source of the error. Perhaps at some stage in his early life he had to lie about his age, and maintained the fiction thereafter.


David and Margaret's fifth son was Ebenezer, born in 1794. No further information has yet been found about him. He may have died at an early age.


The sixth son was Thomas (1795-1875) who was educated at Edinburgh University. He became a Minister of the Church of Scotland at Oldhamstocks, East Lothian. He married Jessie Lowe Warren in 1851, and they had three daughters. (Jessie Lowe Warren was the full cousin, once removed, of her second husband, Thomas Mitchell. She was also reputedly the great granddaughter of John Warren, Captain in the Irish Brigade of the French army and standard-bearer to Prince Charles Edward Stuart at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.)


A further daughter, Agnes (dates unknown), married James Clark, a farmer at Stenhouse, near Burntisland - they had at least one daughter, Jessie, who died in 1828, aged six, and is buried in Burntisland Parish Churchyard.


Mitchell headstoneDavid Mitchell senior died in 1829, and his wife, Margaret Low, followed him in 1838. They, and three of their children - David, Jean and William - are buried in Auchterderran Churchyard. Even though son James was by then so far away in Australia, he received the same attention in his father's will as did the other children. Pictured on the right is the headstone at Auchterderran. Yes, it is leaning!


The various inscriptions on it read:

(Front) Erected to the memory of David Mitchell, farmer, Capeldrae, who died 23 November 1829, aged 77 years. And Margaret Low his wife who died 2 March 1838 [the year is indistinct], aged 81 years. Also William Mitchell their son, farmer, Capeldrae, who died 13 August 1872, aged 79 years.

(Left side) Also in memory of David Mitchell their son, who died 25 June 1867, aged 79 years.

(Right side) Jean Mitchell their daughter, who died 14 June 1855, aged 67 years.




At the age of 17 or 18, James Mitchell entered the medical department of the British Army, eventually attaining the rank of Captain. In 1813, he qualified in Edinburgh as a Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons. His subsequent nine years of active service took him to Spain, America, the Netherlands, the West Indies and Australia. He was present at several engagements which took place towards the end of the Peninsular War, and served in the American War of 1812-1815, including the Battle of New Orleans. From America he returned with his regiment, the 48th, to Europe and was on the hospital staff at Brussels during the Battle of Waterloo. As Assistant Surgeon of the 48th Regiment he visited Australia twice before being posted there in 1821.


In 1822, Dr James Mitchell took the decision to settle in Australia, and he was to become a significant figure in the development of New South Wales. His business career began with farm management. In due course, he assumed the twin roles of company promoter and financier, and was involved in the affairs of the Australian Gas Light Company, the Australian Mutual Provident Society, the Newcastle Coal and Copper Company, and the Hunter River Railway. He was a benefactor of some Church of England causes, including St Paul's College at the University of Sydney. He was President of the Trustees of the Free Public Library of Sydney, Director of the Australian Museum, and member of the New South Wales Parliament. At the same time his Sydney medical practice flourished, and in general he did much to strengthen the medical profession and influence methods of treatment. Described as having a genial personality, Dr James Mitchell also had a reputation as a man of humanitarian principles.


Mitchell Street, Merewether (a suburb of Newcastle), is named after him. So are the Mitchell Streets in the other Newcastle suburbs of Stockton and Tighes Hill, and also in the Lake Macquarie township of Teralba. Mitchell's Flat near Singleton in the Hunter Valley also carried his name, as did a ward in the old Merewether Council.


In 1833, he married Augusta Maria Scott. They had three children - Augusta Maria Mitchell, David Scott Mitchell, and Margaret Scott Mitchell.


The RidgeAugusta Maria Mitchell


James Mitchell's first daughter, Augusta, was born in 1834. In 1860, she married Edward Christopher Merewether who had arrived in Australia in 1838 as private secretary and aide de camp to Governor Sir George Gibbs. Augusta and Edward built an imposing family home, 'The Ridge' (pictured right in the Merewether family days). The house survives in Curry Street, Merewether - once again a private residence, following service as a Salvation Army Mothers Home and a maternity hospital.


Augusta and Edward's great grandson, Edward John Merewether (my fourth cousin, and in his eighties) visited me in August 2002. I was able to take him on a tour of Clinkhill, Capeldrae, Auchterderran Churchyard and the Mitchell Hall, Kinglassie. (Postscript - sadly, Edward John Merewether died on 1 March 2008.)


David Scott Mitchell


The Mitchell Library in Sydney is named after its major benefactor, David Scott Mitchell, the son of Dr James Mitchell. Born in 1836, David Scott Mitchell was one of the first graduates of the University of Sydney where he won a scholarship in mathematics and prizes in physics and in chemistry. After graduation, he was admitted to the bar but he never practised.


He left the management of the large estates which he inherited, mostly in the Hunter region, to agents, and devoted his life to collecting books. His reclusive life some blamed on a brief but broken romance with Emily, daughter of Sir William Manning, but that was never confirmed. Others have suggested that he might have been gay.


He amassed a gigantic collection of literary works, which, on his death in 1907, along with an endowment of 70,000, passed to the people of New South Wales. One of the conditions of Mitchell's donation was that a new building be erected to house the collection as a separate library. The Mitchell Wing of the State Library of New South Wales was opened on 8 March 1910 with over 60,000 volumes and many other priceless historical materials - described as an 'immense and unrivalled collection of Australiana' and 'one of the greatest national collections in the world'. This wing now houses the Mitchell Library reading rooms, work areas and galleries.


Margaret Scott Mitchell


Margaret, the second daughter of James Mitchell, was born in 1840. On the death of her father in 1869, she inherited the Booragul/Teralba section of his estates. There was some excitement the following year, when Margaret eloped with the family coachman, William Bell Quigley. The couple married on 8 March 1870. They made their home at Awaba Park, on the waterfront at Booragul. William Bell Quigley was killed in an accident on 18 March 1879. His wife Margaret died of burns received when her house was destroyed by fire in November 1886. The Quigleys' grave is just off Primrose Street in Booragul. A new home was built on the site of the original, and occupied by the children. The Perpetual Trustee Company administered the Quigley Estate for many years. The Quigley's unmarried daughter, Augusta Sophia, died in 1972, at the grand old age of 98. She left an estate valued at $1.5 million.


Dr James MitchellPersonal matters


Pictured right is Dr James Mitchell in his later years (photo courtesy of John Merewether, who told me that this craggy Scotsman is probably a better likeness than the romantic portrait by Marshall Claxton which is at the top of this page!).


I conclude this article with comments on a couple of striking coincidences.


The paths of the descendants of Dr James Mitchell and of the descendants of his brother, David, could not have been more different. David Scott Mitchell inherited a fortune, indulged his literary passions, and then, Carnegie-like, donated the fruits of his labours to the people of New South Wales and created a fine new public library in Sydney.


His full cousin, James (son of Dr James' brother, David), was an agricultural labourer. Between his two marriages, he fathered an illegitimate son in a brief liaison with a domestic servant, Ann Lothian. This son (my grandfather) took the name James Lothian Mitchell. Despite his troubled origins, he rose to become head teacher of Burntisland School at the age of 29. He was also politically active, and his greatest achievement was his successful battle - and it was a battle! - to secure for Burntisland its fine new public library, which was donated and opened by Andrew Carnegie in 1907.


I do not know if James Lothian Mitchell knew anything of the exploits of his great uncle, Dr James Mitchell. If he did, he might not have approved! In the context of Andrew Carnegie, it is recorded that he was 'not a strong admirer of any man who amassed so many millions'. On the other hand, James Lothian Mitchell shared with Dr James the fact that both men were highly principled. Each in their different ways fell out with those who formed the establishment in their respective spheres, and as a result suffered dismissal from their posts - James Lothian Mitchell as head teacher of Burntisland School because he refused to withdraw from local politics; and Dr James Mitchell as Colonial Surgeon because he refused to accept changes in the Colonial Medical Department imposed by a new departmental head.



Australian Dictionary of Biography - Dr James Mitchell

Australian Dictionary of Biography - David Scott Mitchell

State Library of New South Wales - 2007 Exhibition: 'A Grand Obsession: The D.S. Mitchell Story'

Burntisland.Net - James Lothian Mitchell

Further Reading

'Dr James Mitchell' (Newcastle History Monographs No. 1) by C.E. Smith, Newcastle Public Library, 1966.




(with significant - and much appreciated - assistance from Ken Shilling of Merewether Heights, New South Wales; Hilda Hansen of Mayfield, NSW, and her sister-in-law, Pat; and Peter Stout of New Zealand)
June 2004 (subsequently updated)


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