David Mitchell (1829 – 1916)
The founder of the Mitchell dynasty in Australia was David Mitchell, a dour Scot who worked hard to build a new life for himself and his family. His honesty in business earned him the respect of all who worked with him from his own employees to captains of colonial industry. His interests were many and varied throughout the years – building, brick making, gold mining, quarrying, farming, wine growing – but his greatest love was his family.
Later in life he became a leader of industry and supported many new inventions and initiatives – many of which have been overlooked by historians.
Born in Forfarshire (now Angus), Scotland on February 16, 1829 David Mitchell was the son of William and Anne Mitchell.
In his 1968 thesis on his great-grandfather, for his architecture degree, John Mitchell’s research sets the life of the Mitchell family.
As a tenant farmer, William Mitchell worked a small farm at North Meathie.
In 1846, David Mitchell began a four-year apprenticeship to master mason James Watson in Kirriemuir, nine or 10 miles from the family farm.
His indenture bound him to ‘be careful of tools as well as of the materials committed to his charge and – not to frequent or keep any bad company’ and to ‘furnish himself with bed, board and body clothes and washing’. His master was to instruct him ‘in his arts, trade and employment of mason, and others so far as he knows, and practises the same himself, and ‘ not to conceal from him any part thereof’. (1)
For the first two years, David Mitchell received four shillings a week; five shillings in the third year and six shilling in the fourth year.
Each year James Watson could dispense with David Mitchell’s services for three months during winter but could also require him to work if needed. (2)
A cousin, Alex Menzies wrote to Melba in 1926 and spoke of David Mitchell walking to the town of Forfar during the winter months, to attend evening class in drawing, mathematics and building construction. (3)
William Mitchell died on May 1, 1849 aged 58 years and this probably prompted his sons to emigrate.
After finishing his apprenticeship, David Mitchell decided to also migrate and on April 6, 1852 at Liverpool he boarded the barque Anna for Australia.
Brothers and Sisters
Some of David’s brothers and sisters remained in Scotland while others left for Canada and Australia. Follow the links below to the stories of his brothers and sisters.
The voyage was not all smooth sailing. There were 200 passengers on board with 72 including David Mitchell, in steerage.
The ship arrived at Adelaide and after problems with the crew finally arrived in Melbourne on July 24, 1852 where the mutineers were taken to the then William’s Town watch house and later appeared in court.
With everyone heading for the goldfields, David Mitchell was forced to follow. He headed to Bendigo and worked as a builder. During one contract the owner became bankrupt and left David Mitchell with little money.
While he tried gold prospecting, he had little success and returned to Melbourne where those who had struck it rich were beginning to buy up land and building large homes and public buildings.
Becomes a Building Contractor
He took on building jobs, built himself a rough shack in Burnley Street, Richmond and set himself up as a building contractor.
In April 1856 he successfully tendered for the masonry work for St Patrick’s Cathedral at Eastern Hill. Other contracts soon followed.
David Mitchell’s Life Story:
1. J. Mitchell, David Mitchell Melbourne Builder 1851-1999, Courtesy Dept Architecture and Building, University of Melbourne. P7.
2. Op. cit
3. P. Vestey, David Mitchell a ForFar Man, Pam Vestey, Coldstream, 1992. p5