1812 - 1838: Early life of John Gilbert

14 March 1812

John Gilbert was born in Newington Butts, south London. His parents, William and Ann, were both natives of Kent; from villages just three miles apart. 

This information was discovered by the following methods and from these sources:

1. William Gilbert wrote a letter to John Gould from Acre Passage, Peascod Street, Windsor, Berkshire on August 21st 1846. This was one of the letters discovered in the possession of Gould's descendants by Alec Chisholm in 1938; it is now in the Mitchell Library, Sydney. Unfortunately Chisholm, who stated that he had examined the census records for Windsor for 1841 and 1851 (Chisholm 1940: 160), must have missed the relevant entry. An entry does exist in the census return for 1851; for William (aged 60, carpenter; born in Staplehurst, Kent) and Ann (aged 61, born in Headcorn, Kent). A copy of the entry was supplied by the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, London.

2. A camp-site on the 1844/1845 Leichhardt Expedition, pitched on March 14th 1845, was named "Gilbert's Birthday Camp". A search was made of the Mormon Genealogical Index for entries for a John Gilbert born on March 14th between 1810 and 1815. The only possibility was for the christening of a John Gilbert - son of William and Ann - on 25th October 1812, at Lady Huntingdon's Chapel in Clerkenwell, London. The Public Record Office was asked to search the register for this church (RG 4/4171, for births and baptisms 1800-1815). They provided a copy of an entry for the birth of John Gilbert, son of William and Ann Gilbert of the parish of Newington Butts, on March 14th 1812 (LH Folio 179).

3. In addition, the Mormon Genealogical Index and the register for Lady Huntingdon's Chapel provided the dates of birth of Gilbert's two brothers; William on October 16th 1813 and Thomas on July 6th 1818. Both were christened at the chapel on 21st March 1819. John Gilbert also had a sister, possibly called Rachel, although she cannot be traced in the LHC register. This information comes from a letter, written in May 1991, from John Gilbert's great great-niece, Mrs Pamela Pearse (of New South Wales). She recorded that her Aunt Alice used to visit her grandmother Mrs Hill (John Gilbert's sister) at her home in Clerkenwell.

At some point William and Ann moved to Windsor, possibly in Gilbert's childhood. However, William and Ann Gilbert do not appear to be in the census returns for Windsor previous to 1851.


Gilbert joined the Zoological Society of London as a taxidermist (Gould had joined in 1827). The Zoological Society had been formed in 1826, but the Zoological Society Gardens did not open until April, 1828. (See Torrens 1987: 212; Sauer 1982: 92, 312). The Society Museum was at 33 Bruton Street until 1836, when it moved to 28 Leicester Square.

6 September 1829

A John Gilbert married Catherine Alice Crump at Shoreditch, London. Gilbert was recorded as a bachelor, Crump a widow. The signature for Gilbert appears to match the writing of Gould's assistant; albeit in a rather less well-formed hand. (Mormon Geneological Index, from parish register for St. Leonard's, Shoreditch. Copy of certificate obtained from the Guildhall Library 7498/38, entry no.734). 


Gilbert and Gould were entered as "Naturalists" in the London Directory, the former at 130 High Holborn; Gilbert shared a house with Daniel Wright (a baker) and William Osler (a coach liner). Gilbert was also listed in the Directory under "Animal Preservers". (See Torrens 1987: 212).

17 March 1836

A letter was sent by Gould to W.A. Leighton (Shrewsbury Public Library MSS 133: 31) recommending Gilbert for the job as Curator of the Museum of Shropshire and North Wales Natural History Society (SNWNHS). The letter also mentions that Gilbert had previously applied for the curator's job at the Royal Institution, Liverpool but had been unsuccessful.

7 April 1836

A letter to Gilbert from Dr Henry Johnson, Hon. Secretary of the SNWNHS Trustees, saying they were interested but could not afford the £100 that Gould had mentioned as being a possible salary (draft in Scrapbook of Society SPL MSS 6825, see Torrens 1987: 213). 

22 April 1836

Another letter from Trustees offering Gilbert £5 travelling expenses to come for interview (SPL MSS 6825). 

3 May 1836

At a Meeting of Trustees of the SNWNHS the appointment was discussed. With the help of a letter of recommendation from Sir Rowland Hill (M.P. for North Shropshire), Gilbert was appointed for 1 year, at £80 p.a. plus apartments and coal. The salary was to be supplemented by £10 p.a. from T.C. Eyton for Gilbert to curate his private museum. See Torrens 1987: 213 and Memorandum of Agreement between the Secretaries and Gilbert, transcribed into the Minute Book (SPL MSS 180).

6 May 1836

Thomas Eyton wrote to John Gould: "Sir, In consequence of the excellent caracter [sic] you gave Gilbert we have this day elected him curator of our nat hist soc with a salary of 80£ per ann and ten pound additional from me on condition that I have his services over here for a short time every now and then" (written 3 May 1836, BMNH General Library).

1 June 1836

Gilbert started work for the SNWNHS in a building in Dogpole Street (now the building used by the Shrewsbury & Atcham Borough Council's Rates Office). Gilbert made donations of his own material to the Society (shells and small mammals) and it is recorded (SPL MSS 180, 182) that the Society also purchased Gilbert's own collection of birds for £12.

5 July 1836

The Society resolved that Gilbert should be sent over to Welshpool to investigate the remains of the "Shropshire Mammoth" (Shrewsbury Public Library MSS 182).

17 November 1836

The Report of Council to the AGM of the SNWNHS noted that "since Mr Gilbert's appointment a very visible improvement has been effected in the general order and arrangement of the Museum...".

29 November 1836

A John Gilbert married Esther Sadler at Stepney, south London. Gilbert was described as a widower, Sadler a spinster. Again, the signature appears to match that of the relevant John Gilbert. (Mormon Genealogical Index, from parish records for St. Dunstan's, Stepney. Copy of marriage certificate obtained from the Greater London Council, Northampton Street; X24/33 P93/DUN/73, original register page 213, entry no.638).

7 March 1837

Gilbert wrote a letter to the Trustees offering to resign due to the dissatisfaction they had expressed on him bringing his wife to Shrewsbury (Shrewsbury Public Library MSS 6825; see Torrens 1987: 215).

9 March 1837

The Trustees accepted Gilbert's resignation, but offered him instead a part-time job for less money (Torrens 1987: 216).

10 April 1837

Gilbert's contract was terminated and he was paid the last instalment of his salary, a total of £67 (Torrens 1987: 216).

30 March 1838

Gilbert wrote to Thomas C. Eyton (Trustee of the SNWNHS) from 20 Broad St, Golden Square (Gould's address), offering Eyton his own collection (which included skeletons and over 80 birds) as he was going to Australia with Gould (Shrewsbury Public Library MSS 133: 30; Torrens 1987: 217).