CAMERON, Cyril St Clair (1857–1941)
Senator for Tasmania, 1901–03, 1907–13 (Protectionist; Anti-Socialist Party)

Cyril St Clair Cameron, army officer and farmer, came from a northern Tasmanian family which produced four parliamentarians. Son of Donald Cameron, MLC, and Mary, née Morrison, he was born on 5 December 1857 at the family property, ‘Fordon’, Nile. Educated in Tasmania and Scotland, Cameron received a second lieutenant’s commission with the Queen’s Royal Lancers in 1879. In 1879–80, he served in Afghanistan, took part in Roberts’ march on Kandahar and the eventual battle for that city, and received the Afghan War Medal with clasps and Bronze Star. After service in India during 1881–85, Cameron returned to England to serve as adjutant of the Staffordshire Yeomanry Cavalry and, later, of the 8th Yeomanry Brigade. He was promoted captain in 1887 and was placed on the reserve list in 1895.[1]

Tasmania responded eagerly to the call for troops for the Boer War. Cameron was commander of the colony’s first contingent, a force of eighty that arrived at Cape Town in November 1899, and for eleven months was engaged in skirmishes in Cape Colony, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. On 24 February 1900, the newly promoted Major Cameron led a scouting party near Arundel, but after giving his horse to a wounded soldier was himself wounded, and captured. Abandoned by his captors, by April he was back in command. Wounded again at the Zand River on 10 May, his physical condition had so deteriorated that the leader of Tasmania’s second contingent had trouble in recognising him. The first contingent’s return to Tasmania in December 1900 saw Cameron widely feted. He received a CB and the Queen’s Medal with three clasps, and was mentioned in dispatches.[2]

Cameron’s political career had begun with an unsuccessful contest for the House of Assembly seat of Evandale as an Independent in 1897. During his campaign, he asserted that a key reason for Federation was the need to establish a strong defence force. Australian defence was to remain an abiding interest.Despite his absence in South Africa, the Cameron family (without his knowledge) sought to ‘demonstrate the appreciation by his constituents of his self-sacrifice’ by approving his nomination for Evandale in 1900. He was captured just prior to polling day, but voter sympathy did not ensure his election.[3]

Cameron nominated for the first Senate election, but although appointing an election agent, seems to have done little campaigning. It was later claimed that he spoke only on universal military training, yet his manifesto and his two speeches dealt with four main questions: the fiscal issue, foreign affairs, defence and public debts. Supported by advertisements placed by the Federal Protection League, he was regarded as a Protectionist, and therefore opposed by the Mercury and Examiner, though the latter applauded his ‘soldierly qualities’. Cameron was elected fifth, a result described later as a ‘khaki’ vote—he had received a patriotic address at a public reception in Scottsdale only eight days before the poll. There was also a regional element to his support, for about two-thirds of his votes came from the north and north-west of the state. At the same election, his brother Norman was elected to the House of Representatives.[4]

A declared supporter of the Barton administration, Cameron was often absent from the Senate: ‘I have no hesitation in saying … I have other things to attend to’. The hostile Examiner cited figures pointing to his poor attendance in comparison with other Tasmanian senators. He spoke rarely, never at any length, displaying a surprising diffidence: ‘I only wish that an abler voice than mine had taken the matter up’. In his first speech, he asserted that defence was the ‘most important question’ for Australia to consider, and this continued to be his major interest during his two parliamentary terms, though other subjects raised included states’ rights, New Guinea, the High Court and conciliation and arbitration. He was ambivalent about White Australia, largely because he would never support the exclusion of Indians, people whom he believed had helped build the British Empire.[5]

At the 1903 election, Cameron was defeated. Three years later, he was elected to the Senate as one of three Anti-Socialists who swept the Tasmanian seats. He still spoke rarely and briefly, usually on national defence as he warned of the threat to Australia and the Empire posed by Germany, Russia and Japan. He pleaded for a fully fledged defence force that was not reliant on the British, and for uniform military training including one year’s compulsory training for males. He also advocated an officers’ college. Such views commanded respect. Senator O’Keefe described him as a man ‘whom we all recognise as an expert’, while Senator Henderson said that Cameron was ‘a real and not a toy soldier’. When invited to describe his preferred policy for the 1909 Defence Bill, Cameron replied that it was the role of the government to make legislative proposals: ‘My function is to criticise my honorable friends …’.[6]

 Cameron seems to have found parliamentary politics distasteful: ‘I dislike the imputation of motives by honorable senators on either side’. One journalist noted in 1901: ‘As a politician he does not shine’, and another later observed that he ‘cared little for party and not at all for its tactics’.In an exchange between Cameron and Senator Pearce, the latter accused Cameron of not being a politician, to which the Tasmanian replied: ‘I am not a politician, and I do not aspire to be one’.

Cameron believed the emergence of a party-dominated political system regrettable. In correspondence with Alfred Deakin, he referred to the ‘classes v. masses’ antagonism which he thought would result from sides being taken between socialism and anti-socialism. In August 1912, responding to press advertisements for Liberal candidates for the forthcoming Senate election, Cameron stated that he would stand. When Liberal candidates were asked to pledge that, if not selected, they would not allow their names to be nominated and that they would give their ‘loyal support to the person or persons so selected’, Cameron condemned the pledge ‘root and branch’. He asserted that he ‘was not going to be bound by it’, for by their actions the Liberals ‘would divide the country into two distinct camps’. After failing to gain preselection, Cameron stood as an Independent Liberal, but gained only 2 per cent of the vote, a result that confirmed the emergence of two-party politics in Tasmania. His parliamentary career was ended.[7]

Throughout his time in the Senate, Cameron had continued to serve in the army. He was a lieutenant colonel with the 26th Light Horse, he commanded the Australian contingent to the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, served in Somaliland in 1904, and was ADC to Governor-General Northcote. At the outbreak of war in 1914, the former senator travelled to England, was appointed to Headquarters Imperial Staff and in April 1915 was assistant adjutant-general on Sir Ian Hamilton’s staff at the Gallipoli landing. Ill-health forced his early evacuation. While visiting the Senate the following September, he was spotted in the public gallery and given a rousing reception by senators. At President Givens’ invitation, Cameron was escorted to a seat on the Senate floor as senators ‘cheered him again and again’.[8]

Cameron, who believed that ‘the troubles of the Commonwealth’ were to come, continued to farm ‘Fordon’, which he had inherited from his father in 1894. He died there on 22 December 1941, though he also spent time at his famous Hobart mansion, ‘Lowestoft’. As a senator, he had been a handsome man, with a neat military moustache. On 30 August 1887, he had married, at Bovey Tracey in Devon, Margaret Honeywood Hughes, daughter of General Sir William Hughes. Two of the Cameron’s four sons, Donald and William, and a daughter Margaret, survived him. Donald, a colonel in the war, had been awarded the Military Cross. Cyril had been killed at Neuve Chapelle in 1915, while Ewan died in February 1941.

The Melbourne Punch’s view of Cameron was shrewd: ‘As a politician, Cameron was a failure, but a splendid failure! In a National Government, freed from party ties, he would have been immense. As a soldier, he is unique. As a brave man he will live in history’.[9]


Scott Bennett

[1] Caroline L. Cameron, ‘Cameron, Donald Norman, and Cyril St Clair’, ADB, vol. 7; Francisca A. Vernon (comp.) and Michael N. Sprod (ed.), The Whitehead Letters: Tasmanian Society and Politics 1871–1882 as Seen Through the Letterbooks of John Whitehead MHA of ‘Winburn’, Lymington, Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Sandy Bay, Tas., 1991, pp. 6, 24; John Bufton, Tasmanians in the Transvaal War, S. G. Loone, New Town, Tas., 1905, pp. 62–64.

[2] P. L. Murray (comp.), Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1911, pp. 213, 546-548; John Stirling, The Colonials in South Africa 1899–1902: Their Record, Based on the Despatches, William Blackwood, Edinburgh, 1907, pp. 480-484; Bufton, Tasmanians in the Transvaal War, pp. 62-64; W. T. Reay, Australians in War: With the Australian Regiment from Melbourne to Bloemfontein, A. H. Massina, Melbourne, 1900, pp. 336-339.

[3] Examiner (Launceston), 18 January 1897, p. 6, 6 March 1900, p. 4.

[4] Examiner (Launceston), 6 March 1901, p. 7, 2 March 1901, p. 11, 22 March 1901, p. 6, 25 March 1901, p. 5, 10 December 1903, p. 4.

[5] CPD, 1 September 1910, p. 2371; Examiner (Launceston), 1 December 1903, p. 6; CPD, 20 August 1903, p. 3902, 23 May 1901, pp. 262-265, 1 October 1903, pp. 5641-5642, 18 July 1901, p. 2701, 20 November 1901, p. 7488, 27 May 1903, p. 73.

 [6] CPD, 20 February 1907, pp. 11-17, 5 November 1909, pp. 5412-5414, 1 October 1903, p. 5642.

[7] CPD, 25 October 1911, p. 1793; Examiner (Launceston), 26 March 1901, p. 4; Punch (Melbourne), 16 September 1915, p. 440; CPD, 19 August 1903, p. 3809; Letter, Cameron to Alfred Deakin, 5 July 1905, Deakin Papers, MS 1540, NLA; Examiner (Launceston), 8 May 1913, p. 6, 9 May 1913, pp. 3, 4.

[8] CPD, 1 September 1915, pp. 6497-6498; Argus (Melbourne), 2 September 1915, p. 8.

[9] Letter, Cameron to Alfred Deakin, 21 August 1904, Deakin Papers, MS 1540, NLA; Examiner (Launceston), 30 August 1937, p. 8, 23 December 1941, p. 4; Mercury (Hobart), 23 December 1941, p. 5; Punch (Melbourne), 16 September 1915, p. 440.


This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 1, 1901-1929, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Vic., 2000, pp. 221-223.

CAMERON, Cyril St Clair (1857-1941)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Tas., 1901–03, 1907–13

Senate Committee Service

House Committee, 1901–03

Printing Committee, 1907–13