Charles Smith Wilkinson (1843-1891), geologist, was born on 22 August 1843 at Potterspury, Northamptonshire, England, to David Wilkinson a civil engineer associated with George Stephenson, and his wife Elizabeth, née Bliss. He was educated at Elby, until his family migrated to Melbourne, arriving in the Marlborough in November 1852. Charles attended Rev. T. P. Fenner’s Collegiate School, Prahran, and in December 1859 began work with the Victorian Geological Survey becoming a field assistant in 1861 . In 1863 he accompanied Reginald Murray to the Otway Ranges and became field geologist in 1866. That year he contributed an important paper on the formation and deposition of gold nuggets in drift to the Royal Society of Victoria, of which he was a member. In February 1868 while working with Selwyn in the Grampians, he became acutely ill with a lung inflammation and returned to Melbourne where he resigned from the survey.
Wilkinson moved to Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, to take up pastoral pursuits, but occasionally did some private surveying. In October 1870 in evidence before the gold fields royal commission he warned against dividing the interests and claims of geology and mining, and argued for a department of mines. After passing his surveyor’s licence on 16 August 1871 he worked in the Surveyor-General’s Department, then as a geological surveyor from 16 July 1874 in the Department of Lands until he became geological surveyor in charge in the Department of Mines in 1875.
In 1874 Wilkinson began the systematic geological survey of New South Wales. In 1876 he reported on the specimens collected by Sir William MacLey’s expedition to New Guinea, and later announced the discovery of Miocene fossils and described the gold specimens found by Andrew Goldie and William George Laws in New Guinea. Although much of his work was the routine survey of coal and goldfields, Wilkinson brought to his department the diligence and dedication of his old master Selwyn. From October 1882 to March 1883 he acted as chief mining surveyor. He persuaded the government to support the search for subterranean water in the western districts, giving detailed hydrological evidence in August 1884 before the royal commission on the conservation of water. He travelled widely throughout New South Wales as a member of the Prospecting Board from 1888, gaining an intimate knowledge of its mineralogical and palaeontological wealth.
In 1882 Wilkinson was joined by Sir Tannatt William Edgeworth David, to whom he delegated much responsibility. He brought together the extensive collection for the Mining and Geological Museum, Sydney, and served on every major New South Wales exhibition commission from 1875; in 1890 he visited London as the colony’s representative at the International Exhibition of Mining and Metallurgy. He contributed notes on the geology to the two departmental editions of Mineral Products of New South Wales … (1882 and 1887), launched and gained contributors for the first Memoirs of the New South Wales Geological Survey, and in 1889 started its Records to provide more scope for research publications and exchanges. An ‘unostentatious but enthusiastic’ worker, he won great respect among scientific contemporaries and colleagues both as a geologist and chief.
Despite long absences from Sydney Wilkinson was active in the colony’s corporate scientific life: a member of the local Royal Society from 1874, he was its president in 1887-88; a member of the Linnean Society of New South Wales from 1880 and president in 1883-84, he contributed five papers on anthropology, geology and the general progress of colonial science. He was elected a fellow of the Geological Society, London, in 1876, the Linnean Society of London in 1881 and the Victoria Institute, London, in 1885 and was a member of the New South Wales branch of the Geographical Society of Australasia. He made over ninety contributions to science in lectures, articles, maps and official reports. A member of the Engineering Association of New South Wales, Wilkinson also served on the Board of Technical Education and as a trustee of the Australian Museum. He lectured widely on religion and science, defending Charles Darwin as one of the greatest apostles of Truth.