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Coxen, Charles (1809–1876)

by A. H. Chisholm

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Charles Coxen (1809-1876), naturalist and politician, was born on 20 April 1809 at Ramsgate, Kent, England, son of Nicholas Coxen and his wife Elizabeth, née Tompkins. He arrived in New South Wales in the Eleanor on 1 February 1834 and joined his elder brother Stephen, who had reached Sydney in 1827 accompanied by his wife Sarah and their three-year-old son, and had become established at Yarrundi, a property on the Dart Brook near Scone.

As a brother-in-law of John Gould Coxen had developed a strong taste for natural science, and in 1834-35 he travelled for four months, often on foot, seeking specimens of birds and mammals in the sparsely settled country between the Hunter and Namoi Rivers. The first Catalogue of the Specimens of Natural History … in the Australian Museum (Sydney, 1837) acknowledges that most of the institution's basic examples of Australian fauna were donated by Charles Coxen, from 'Hunter's River scrubs' and 'Liverpool Plains in the interior of Australia', and by the explorers (Sir) Thomas Livingstone Mitchell and Charles Sturt. Both Coxen brothers also sent specimens and information to Gould in England and thus were largely the stimulus for the famous expedition in 1838-40 which enabled Gould to gain personal knowledge of Australian fauna and to produce his remarkable series of books on the subject.

After some months at Yarrundi, originally 1280 acres (518 ha) but later much enlarged, Coxen went north to manage a pastoral property on the Peel River, and a few years later he joined his nephew, Henry W. Coxen, at Jondaryan on the Darling Downs. In 1850-60 he was associated with a very large number of pastoral properties in southern Queensland, but became known chiefly for his work in founding the Queensland Museum in 1855; of that institution he was the first honorary curator and secretary and later served as a trustee in association with Sir Augustus Gregory. He was also a founder of the Queensland Philosophical Society (1859), becoming vice-president under Sir George Bowen and long continuing as a driving force. Meanwhile he wrote numbers of papers on anthropology, ornithology and kindred subjects—he was the first writer to report on the curious arbour-building habits of bowerbirds—and from time to time he made further useful collections on behalf of the museum.

In 1855-60 Coxen was a member of a standing jury appointed to try all civil cases in Brisbane. In 1860 he became the representative of Northern Downs in the first parliament of Queensland and in 1863 he was elected chairman of committees. In 1867 after losing his seat in parliament he spent some time at the new goldfield of Gympie. Next year he was appointed land commissioner for Moreton Bay; in 1870 he also became land agent for Brisbane and inspecting commissioner for the settled districts in 1872, holding these three positions until 1875. In 1874 he was appointed to a commission to inquire into the condition of Aboriginals in Queensland. He died at Bulimba, Brisbane, on 17 May 1876. The stone erected by public subscription on his grave at Tingalpa, near Brisbane, and now in the care of the Queensland government, bears witness to him as 'a good Christian and a sincere friend'.

At Ryde, New South Wales, in 1851 Coxen married Elizabeth Frances Isaac of Gowrie station, Darling Downs. She was intelligent and pleasant, and established some repute as a meteorologist and conchologist, at one time being in charge of the shells in the museum. She became in 1886 the first woman member of the Royal Society of Queensland, founded in 1883, and in 1893 the first woman to read a paper to that society. She died at Bulimba on 11 August 1906, aged 80, and was buried with her husband. Zoological material which she had held, including manuscript notes left with her husband by John Gilbert in 1844, was acquired by the Queensland Museum.

Charles Coxen had no children. His brother Stephen, who passed from prosperity to poverty through a depression, committed suicide in a Sydney hotel on 5 September 1844, aged 46; as neither of his two sons left issue the family in Australia consists solely of descendants of the nephew, Henry Coxen.

Select Bibliography

  • A. H. Chisholm, The Story of Elizabeth Gould (Melb, 1944)
  • G. Mack, ‘The Queensland Museum, 1855-1955’, Memoirs of the Queensland Museum, vol 13, part 2, 1956, pp 107-24
  • E. N. Marks, ‘A History of the Queensland Philosophical Society and the Royal Society of Queensland from 1859 to 1911’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Queensland, vol 71, 1959, pp 17-42 + plates.

Citation details

A. H. Chisholm, 'Coxen, Charles (1809–1876)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/coxen-charles-3281/text4981, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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