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Cameron, John Alexander (Jack) (1869–1949)

by Mary Gilmore

My brother, John Alexander Cameron, O.B.E., was born at Cowabbie, and went to school at Downside and at Wagga Wagga under Thomas Bonynge and John Dart.

Thomas Bonynge, incidentally, was married to Miss Jean Daley, of Wagga Wagga, and his brother married the widow of the Earl of Coventry.

Under John Dart, Mr Cameron passed as a pupil teacher, but disliking the work, at about 17 he went on a cattle-droving trip to the Northern Territory. On his return he took up teaching near Exeter and Bundanoon (N.S.W.).

From there he went to Western Australia and edited the Coolgardie Miner, and helped in getting the famous water supply to the goldfields there. Later, he and a writer named Emerson started a Perth paper called Clare’s Weekly.

The Boer War breaking out he went as special correspondent for the Perth Herald, and later for the London Daily Chronicle as well. While there Lord Roberts gave him his own Cape cart and escort to go where he liked and see all he could. When Lambie, the Age (or Argus?) correspondent was accidentally shot, the Boers arranged for Jack and “Smiler” Hales to attend the funeral service and burial of Lambie.

The war over, Jack returned to Perth, married there, and went to a London engagement. He wrote there for the London Daily Chronicle and the St James Gazette. Next he went to Dublin, to the Freeman’s Journal, where he met Yeats, Stephens, Lady Gregory and others of the Irish writers. His editor on the Freeman was Dwyer-Gray, grandson of Caroline Chisholm, and, later, leader of the Labor Party in Tasmania, editor there, and finally Premier.

From Ireland, Jack went to the Riviera to edit the Mentone and Monte Carlo News. Later he had his own paper there, and two seasonal ones in Berne (Switzerland). In Berne, he and a friend (Lord Russell) proposed and worked for the widening of the river there to make it a trade route to the Danube.

But the war ended this. When war broke out in 1914 he left his publications to a manager (who ruined them) and went as a London special correspondent to the Italian front. This war ending, he was appointed as British Vice-Consul to Schaffhausen, on the border between Germany and Switzerland. Here he had to receive among others, all Australians taken as prisoners of war to be repatriated from Germany (and when one came through they talked all night).

From Schaffhausen he was sent as Consul to Czernowitz (now incorporated in one of the composite States in the Balkan area). There he had 14 languages (owing to refugees) and spoke two.

He surreptitiously saved the lives of as many as 500 Jews at a time. Men, women and children were being pogrommed by Czarist Russia, who was our ally. They were lined up on trenches which the men had had to dig for their mass graves, and the guns were then turned on them.

Some of those he saved came to Australia and told me this. The heads of Jewry (he later told me) were so grateful they said his name was to go into the Golden Book at Jerusalem directly next to the signatories of the Balfour Declaration.

From Czernowitz he was sent to Detroit, to build up British influence and trade, which his two predecessors had let run down. He and Henry Ford became friends and (air being new) they had a plan for air trade between Great Britain and Detroit. Here he was kept for six years, his work was so valuable.

A young man named Gilmore came to his office to be trained for the Consular service. In a talk, they found he was a descendent of Major MacDonald, a cousin of our grandfather, Hugh Cameron, who was at the taking of the Plains of Abraham (Quebec) from the French where General Wolfe was killed (“Not a drum note was heard, not a funeral note, etc”). Major MacDonald had his foster-brother with him. His name was Ross, and it was he, or his son, who was the first man killed at the Eureka Stockade (father told us this).

From Detroit, Jack was sent to Danzig as Minister Plenipotentiary. There he did a piece of work for which he was given the O.B.E. Of retiring age, he was asked to stay a year longer than his term as he was needed there. Retired, he worked on Censorship and Intelligence in the 1939-45 war. He was still at work when he had a seizure. Almost recovered, he died suddenly in February this year.

His son, Donal, is with the British Embassy in Madrid. Before going to Cambridge, Donal came, at 17, to Australia, to see us and decide upon his career. He then spoke four languages fluently (English with a French accent, having been educated in France and Italy) and knew enough to travel on three others. He returned to Europe, went to Cambridge, and was appointed at 19 to the British Consulate in Rumania. Thence he was sent to Peking, where in eight months he was translating Chinese that it took others two and three years to learn. Next he was Consul at Ichang, on the Yangtze River (later bombed by the Japanese). From China he was appointed to Genoa.

War breaking out, and speaking Italian like a native, Donal sent his wife and child to England and remained on special work in Italy. From Italy he was sent to Tahiti. Later a bomber was sent to take him to Rome. After Rome he was sent as Adviser in Economics to the British Embassy in Rumania, just 19 years after he had first been there. From there he was sent to Madrid, whence he lately wrote to me:- “We hope to get off to France in June in a car, which is doing yeoman service in the local Sierras, enabling us to indulge in a quite insatiable desire to spend some of our time nearer the earth, its smells and all, and withal. Our latest resort from our ‘escapism’ is a very old small village house in the mountains, oak beams, huge chimney, beaten earth floor and patio, and well away from Madrilenos, main roads, and tiresome amenities, with snow-capped mountains around us, woods to wander in, and a stream to fish and swim in. We are quite happy to sleep hard and cook smokily. A few books, including those you have sent, fill in the lazier spells. But it is not all like that, and back here in Madrid we go on exerting ourselves in the more vulgar and inept ways of the world, and do our little bit for the promotion of Western civilisation.”

Donal’s son, Peter, 10 years old, goes to school in England so that he will speak English without some foreign accent.

As will be seen from the foregoing, Donal is very much the son of his father, whose heart was ever with the old town near where he was born, and who never forgot the mud floors with which it began. For in his last letter to me (dated October 21, 1948) he wrote:- “From newspaper cuttings your visit to Wagga was like a Royal progress. But I would like to have heard how the trees have grown (60 years ago looking down from Willan’s Hill, it was like a garden); just where the “new” bridge that replaced the arched wooden one across the river; what they have done with the Chinese island; what remains of Brooklyn; whether, across the Malebo Plain the Malebo hills look blue as ever. Lastly, why was Wagga not made the Federal capital? Willan’s Hill and behind it would have made an ideal site for the Federal buildings.”

That was among the last letters he wrote to Australia.

He was a Wagga Wagga boy.

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Citation details

Mary Gilmore, 'Cameron, John Alexander (Jack) (1869–1949)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/cameron-john-alexander-jack-1691/text1817, accessed 16 June 2019.

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