About John Gilbert, naturalist and explorer

St James' Church, Sydney 24

The memorial to John Gilbert in St James's church in Sydney. Photo by Toby Hudson.

John Gilbert (14 March 1812 – 28 June 1845) was an English naturalist, taxidermist and explorer. Gilbert is credited with collecting the “type” specimens (those which formally act as the name-bearer for any given scientific name) of at least 8% of all forms of recent Australian birds and mammals. He also collected the first specimens of many species of Australian reptiles, amphibians, fish, molluscs, insects and plants.

Gilbert’s London-based employer, John Gould (who is often called the father of Australian ornithology) scientifically described over 300 new Australian birds and about 50 new mammals, most of which are still valid taxa, and many of which he based on Gilbert’s specimens.

Early life

John Gilbert was born in Newington Butts, near the Elephant & Castle in south London, on 14 March 1812 (the same year, incidentally, as the “Nonsense Poet” Edward Lear, Charles Dickens and Canada). His parents, William and Ann, came from villages in Kent just three miles apart. John Gilbert was christened on 25 October 1812 in the non-conformist chapel of Lady Huntingdon in Spa Fields, Clerkenwell, central London. His father was a carpenter but appears to also have been a printer, perhaps of controversial material. Non-conformists were Protestant Christians who did not "conform" to the governance and usages of the established Church of England. Gilbert appears to have been a bit of a radical himself, and certainly did not suffer fools gladly.

First employment in England

John Gilbert’s first job, from 1828 when he was 16, was at the Zoological Society of London, which was then in Bruton Street. At the zoo he was trained in natural history preparation by John Gould, “The Bird Man”. Gilbert was listed in the London Directory for 1835 as a “Naturalist and Animal Preserver”. It is thought that Gilbert married during this period, to a widow, Catharine Crump. In 1836 Gilbert became the first curator of the Museum of Shropshire & North Wales Natural History Society in Dogpole Street, Shrewsbury, where he was responsible for preparing and arranging the birds and mammals, and also insects, crustaceans and the geological and mineralogical specimens. Gilbert was also appointed to a supplementary position to curate the private museum of Thomas Eyton, Shropshire landowner and expert on the duck family and on bird osteology. In total Gilbert’s salary was £90, plus on-site living quarters and coal. Gilbert’s first wife must have died, as he was described as single in his application for the Shrewsbury position. In 1836 he apparently married Esther Sadler, and the Trustees objected to his wife being with Gilbert in his rooms in the museum. The Trustees accepted Gilbert’s resignation in 1837 but immediately offered him a part-time job at a reduced rate, which he refused. The museum was subsequently run by honorary (unpaid) curators until 1885.

Gilbert returned to London and stayed, at least temporarily, with John Gould in his house in Golden Square. In 1838 Gould hired John Gilbert as his assistant for a visit to the almost unexplored continent of Australia. Gould’s purpose was to gather material for his  subsequent publications The birds of Australia (1840-1848) and The mammals of Australia (1845-1863). They sailed from England on the barque Parsee in May and visited Tenerife and Ascension Island on the way, arriving in Tasmania in September 1838.

First visit to Australia

Gould and Gilbert explored Tasmania for three months, staying with the Governor Sir John Franklin and his wife and collecting many specimens. They enjoyed a cruise on the Government schooner, visiting Green and Actaeon Islands. In January 1839 Gould and Gilbert left for north Tasmania, and visited the Bass Straits Islands. In February Gould sent Gilbert off to Western Australia on the Comet, hoping he would find many new forms of natural history in the new colony of Swan River. Gilbert did indeed collect many new species there, and travelled inland as far as York and Northam and also to islands such as Garden and Rottnest.

In January 1840 Gilbert left the Swan River colony on the Caledonia, via King George’s Sound and inland south-west Western Australia, for Sydney, where the ship arrived in May 1840. Here Gilbert was aghast to find that Gould and his party had already left for England, leaving few supplies for Gilbert and what was left of Gilbert’s equipment in disarray. While Gilbert was in Western Australia Gould had left Tasmania to visit inland New South Wales and South Australia, but his collections were far less extensive than Gilbert’s and included fewer type specimens.

In June 1840 Gilbert left Sydney on the Gilmore for Port Essington, a very remote British naval outpost on the north coast of Australia, an area where the natural history was almost completely unknown. He also visited Timor for about two weeks in September and October 1840.  Gilbert left Australia for England, via Singapore, in March 1841, arriving home in September of that year. For several months he worked for Gould, writing up his notes on his own collections, and preparing and labelling specimens. Gilbert was in England for barely four months, however, before Gould decided to send him back to Australia.

Second visit to Australia

Gilbert left London on the brig Houghton-le-Skerne at the beginning of February, 1842, and travelled to Australia via the Cape of Good Hope, where the boat stayed for five weeks and Gilbert was able to do some collecting, including obtaining Jackass Penguin eggs from Dassen Island. He arrived in the Swan River Colony of Western Australia in July 1842 and travelled to all his old collecting haunts, like York and Northam on the River Avon, and further north to the Moore River area and Wongan Hills.  In October 1842 Gilbert set off with the Government botanist, James Drummond, on an overland excursion to King George’s Sound. On 3 November, at Drakesbrook, Gilbert discovered the Noisy Scrub-bird Atrichornis clamosus, one of the rarest and most elusive of Australia’s birds. Gilbert and Drummond failed to reach the Sound overland but both made important collections of botanical and zoological specimens. Gilbert subsequently collected in the Augusta area of the coast and from offshore islands, where he obtained the types of the Flesh-footed Shearwater Ardenna carneipes. In January & February 1843 Gilbert spent nearly two months on the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, west of Champion Bay. Here he made important collections of sea lions, kangaroos and seabirds. In May of that year Gilbert revisited the Sound by ship, and then continued his collecting in the interior to the east of Perth. On 20 December he left Western Australia for Tasmania on the schooner Timbo, arriving in January but leaving the same day for Sydney on the Union.

January to August 1844: Gilbert's travels

In 1844 Gilbert worked his way up the droving routes from Newcastle in New South Wales to the Darling Downs area of what is now southern Queensland. On this trip he collected many specimens of two new fishes, the Spangled Perch Leiopotherapon unicolor and the Australian River Gizzard Shad Chatoessus erebi. The Darling Downs proved to be an important area for Gilbert, as it was here that he collected many new species of small mammals, as well as about seven specimens of a beautiful new parrot - the now extinct Paradise Parrot Psephotus pulcherrimus.

Membership of the First Leichhardt Expedition

It was also on the Darling Downs that Gilbert met the German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, who was planning an expedition, the primary purpose of which was to be the first party of Europeans to cross Australia from east to north coasts. Gilbert joined the expedition and they left the last known outpost on the Downs, Jimbour House, on 1 October 1844. Gilbert collected several new birds, including the White-browed Robin Poecilodryas superciliosa,  during the travels of the Leichhardt Expedition northwards along the watercourses of eastern Queensland, but unfortunately was killed during an Aboriginal attack in Cape York Peninsula on 28 June 1845. Gilbert was buried at the spot and a fire lit over his grave to screen it from the Aborigines, making it difficult to locate. However several expeditions have since searched for the grave, and the probable site on Rutland Plains station is now marked and frequently visited by Gilbert’s admirers, despite its remoteness.

Gilbert’s legacy

Gilbert and Gould’s Australian specimens are now scattered in museums throughout the world. There are particularly significant collections in the Natural History Museum (London and Tring, Hertfordshire), in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Cambridge, in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Philadelphia, at Naturalis, Leiden (Netherlands) and in the Western Foundation for Vertebrate Zoology in Camarillo, California, but perhaps the best preserved (most of which still bear their original field collection labels) are now in National Museums Liverpool. This material was originally in a private museum at Knowsley Hall in Lancashire, which was bequeathed to the people of Liverpool in 1851 by the natural historian and zoo-keeper Edward Stanley, 13thEarl of Derby, to whom John Gould sold numerous specimens. The Earl’s collections founded the Liverpool Museum (now World Museum, part of National Museums Liverpool).

Only the Gould Collection specimens in major collections such as the Natural History Museum and the Academy of Natural Sciences had ever been checked for type status. For the last 35 years, research has been undertaken as part of a long-term project to re-assess all Gould and Gilbert’s Australian specimens, which - as well as assessing any with possible type status - includes a re-appraisal of details such as their age and sex, exact collecting locality and date. Many of the taxa are no longer found where Gould and Gilbert collected them; some are now extinct. This task has involved searching the collections of nearly a hundred museums, and checking the resulting finds against Gilbert’s field notes and letters, his diary from the Leichhardt Expedition, and against Gould’s original type descriptions.

This careful, much overdue documentation of Gilbert and Gould’s collections is proving to be an increasingly useful and well-used resource for Australian zoologists. As DNA studies make increasing use of museum specimens, and give us greater knowledge of the relationships between species, so the details of their possible type status and exact collecting dates and localities increase in value.Locked within these specimens is crucial biological information, and even tiny clues can help retrieve this.

Gilbert is not only remembered by his outstanding natural history collections. There are monuments to him at Drakesbrook, where he discovered the Noisy Scrub-bird, and at Taroom in Queensland, where he rode to the top of a hill to admire the view over the Dawson Valley. There is a memorial to him in St. James Church in Sydney, inscribed “et decorum est pro scienta mori” (“It is sweet and fitting to die for science”). Leichhardt named several geographical features after Gilbert during the expedition of 1844-1845, including the Gilbert Range near the Dawson Valley, the Gilbert Range in the Lynd Valley, Gilbert’s Dome in the Peak Range, the Gilbert River (which flows into the Gulf of Carpentaria), and Gilberton, which is on the Gilbert River. The Trans Australia Airline named one of their aircraft “John Gilbert”.

Many new species were named after Gilbert. Gould described Gilbert’s Potoroo (a small kangaroo) Potorous gilbertii after him, as well as Gilbert’s Whistler (a songbird). Later taxonomists described subspecies of a tern, a heron and a nightjar as gilberti. The little marsupial mouse Sminthospis gilberti was named after Gilbert in 1984 and the bat Hipposideros ater gilberti in 1959. The mollusc Helix gilberti, fish Pingalla gilberti, and reptiles Gilbert’s Dragon and Gilbert’s Hinula also bear his name.  At least twelve species of plants are called after John Gilbert and were described from his specimens, including the Acacia Acacia gilbertii.

Gilbert’s 200th birthday on 14 March 2012 was celebrated at the site of his birthplace in Newington Butts, south London, by a party of natural historians and a bottle of good champagne.