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Sir Robert Menzies - a Cornish mining family’s illustrious descendant

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During a family history research visit to the UK in 2015 I took a day off from the West Devon Archives and drove to Cornwall. Walking along Penzance’s main street I was surprised to come across a blue wall plaque for Sir Robert Menzies’ maternal great grandparents and grandfather who had lived nearby. It commemorates John and Catherine Sampson, as well as their son John Jr, a miner who immigrated to Australia with his wife Mary Jane in 1864 to seek his fortune in the Ballarat goldfields. The plaque also acknowledges their descendant as an Australian Prime Minister.

In Australia, John and Mary Jane Sampson’s daughter Kate married James Menzies, a Scottish crofter’s son. Originally a Ballarat coach-painter, James became a storekeeper and stock agent in Jeparit then went on to become the Shire President and a State parliamentarian. Robert Gordon Menzies was one of six children born into this upwardly mobile family in Jeparit in country Victoria in 1894.

Robert Menzies obtained a first-class secondary and university education by winning a series of scholarships. In September 1920 he married Pattie Leckie and they had four children, one of whom died at birth.

Menzies established himself as one of Australia’s leading constitutional lawyers, entered the Victorian Parliament in 1928 where he served as Deputy Premier and won a seat in federal Parliament in 1934. History shows he went on to become Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister. He held the office twice, from 1939 to 1941 and from 1949 to 1966. Altogether he was Prime Minister for over 18 years – still the record term for an Australian Prime Minister.

His short name and most senior public sector position as listed on the blue plaque belies Robert Menzies’ impressive array of titles, achievements and awards during a long and influential legal and political career. His full title and post nominals after leaving office were The Right Honourable Sir Robert Menzies, KT, AK, CH, PC, QC, FAA, FRS. He also received many other domestic and international civic awards and appointments too numerous to list here in full. They included the ceremonial titles of Constable of Dover and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports which were conferred on him by Queen Elizabeth II after they were made vacant by the death of Sir Winston Churchill. After leaving political office, Menzies went on to spend five years as Chancellor of his alma mater, the University of Melbourne.

Robert Menzies’ legacy is still debated in Australia. However, John and Catherine Sampson would no doubt have been surprised yet also very proud of their great grandson who came from humble Cornish mining stock and who, just three generations later, successfully entered the highest echelons of the legal fraternity, government, academia and international society. One can’t help but wonder if John and Catherine would have also been astonished to see their names on a blue plaque in the main street of Penzance more than 150 years after their son and daughter-in-law sailed to the other side of the world in search of their fortune in the Victorian goldfields.


Sir Robert Menzies' post nominals stand for:

  • KT – Member of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle

  • AK – Knight of the Order of Australia

  • CH – Order of the Companions of Honour

  • PC – Privy Councillor

  • QC – Queen’s Counsel

  • FAA – Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science

  • FRS – Fellow of the Royal Society.

I originally published this item in The Ancestral Searcher, the Heraldry and Genealogy Society of Canberra's quarterly magazine Vol. 40, No. 2, June 2017. I updated the article for this Blog.

Below left:- Blue Plaque, Penzance, Cornwall, United Kingdom

Below right:- Prime Minister R.G. Menzies delivering the radio broadcast of the Declaration of War, 3 September 1939. Stan H. Ravenscroft, National Library of Australia, PIC12639/27.

Blue Plaque and Sir Robert Menzies announcing Australia is at War 1939