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Babbage, Benjamin Herschel (1815–1878)

The announcement of the death of Mr. Benjamin Herschel Babbage, which appears in our obituary column, will occasion surprise to most of our readers, as it has not been generally known that he was in failing health, and it is only a few months since his name came before the public as that of an aspirant for legislative honours. We learn that Mr. Babbage had not been in his usual state of health for some few months past, and that his death was not unexpected by his own relations and immediate friends. He died at his residence, St. Mary's, South Road, on Tuesday, October 22, at the age of sixty-three years,

Mr. Babbage, who was a son of the celebrated inventor of the calculating machine, was educated as an engineer, and for a considerable time was engaged in his profession in Europe. He was employed as Assistant Engineer at the Bristol end of the great Northern Railway for about four years, and subsequently for about half that time on the works between Chippenham and Swinden of the same railway. He was afterwards engaged in superintending the construction of the Bristol half of the Bristol and Gloucester Railway. Subsequently he laid out for Mr. Brunel a railway across the Apennines from Genoa to Milan. The laying out of this work and the preparation of the plans occupied about four years, during which time Mr. Babbage had a commission from the Government of Piedmont to report on a line across the Alps by way of Mont Cenis. His next engagement was by an English Company, to report on a line of railway from Milan, taking the Adriatic coast to Rome and returning by the west side of the Apennines to Florence. After that he was Acting Engineer under Mr. Brunel, and subsequently Engineer-in-Chief in laying out and constructing a railway from Florence to Pistoja. He resided in Tuscany for four years, before the expiration of which time he completed and opened this line for about half its length, namely as far as Prato. The progress of the remainder of the line was interrupted by the revolution, and Mr. Babbage returned to England. The line was however completed some time after from his plans by an Italian engineer. On returning to England the subject of this notice was appointed an Engineering Inspector under the General Board of Health, and was engaged in reporting upon the water supply, sewerage, and sanitary condition of towns in England.

Mr. Babbage arrived in South Australia in the ship Hydaspes in November, 1851, and in the following year we find that he received several appointments, including those of Commissioner to Issue Gold Licences, Geological and Mineralogical Surveyor, Government Assayer, and Justice of the Peace. He was one of the first members of the Philosophical Society, which he joined in 1853 and of which he was a corresponding member until the time of his death. Mr. Babbage will also be remembered as having been the first Engineer of the Port Railway, the premier line of South Australia. He was also an explorer of some note, having been to Lake Torrens, when he discovered the MacDonnell River, St. Mary's Pool, Blanchewater, and the surrounding country. After this expedition he was elected to the first Parliament under the new Constitution, when he represented Encounter Bay in the House of Assembly in conjunction with Mr. A. F. Lindsay. He only retained the position for nine monthe, however, having resigned in December 1857, when he was appointed to the command of a northern exploring expedition. Although his preceedings (sic) in this enterprise did not meet with entire approval, it may be mentioned as showing the confidence which was reposed in him that the Chief Secretary, Mr. Younghusband, stated in Parliament before he left with his party that Mr. Babbage had shown "particular qualification" for this service by the "endurance, courage, and energy" he displayed on the previous expedition. "He possesses moreover (Mr. Younghusband added) scientific qualifications of a high order which are not easily found combined in one man, with the necessary exploring qualifications of endurance, energy, and perseverance."

Of late years Mr. Babbage had not appeared much in public life. He announced himself, however, as a candidate at the late election of members to the Legislative Council. His characteristic and straightforward address to the electors attracted a good deal of attention at the time, and the first three paragraphs of the advertisement are worth reproducing here. He wrote :—

"I beg to offer myself as a candidate for one of the existing vacancies in the Council; but at the same time I beg respectfully to inform you that it is not my intention either to canvass or in any way to solicit your votes. I consider these matters to be your duties and not my business. If my services are worth having it is surely worth your while to secure them by taking the trouble of electing me. Independent in circumstances, I have no object to promote in offering myself except our country's welfare, especially as I am dead against payment of members. Even if my health at the present moment allowed it I should decline to go about amongst you to electioneering meetings, now at one public-house, now at another, as is too generally done at these times. Such conduct is, I think, unworthy of a gentleman or a legislator. The votes of the publicans and their friends may be secured by these means, but at the expense of how many a deeper stain upon the souls of the intemperate village politicians who remain to drink and discuss the proceedings of these meetings over the tankard." Mr. Babbage was one of the first in the field, but he did not go to the poll, as a large number of candidates came forward after he had announced his intention to stand.

The deceased gentleman lived for many years at St. Mary's, on the South-road. He had an excellent vineyard there, and devoted a great deal of attention to winemaking. He has left several children.

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'Babbage, Benjamin Herschel (1815–1878)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/babbage-benjamin-herschel-1550/text1612, accessed 16 December 2019.

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