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French, Charles (1842–1933)

by R. T. M. Pescott

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

This is a shared entry with Charles Hamilton French

Charles French (1842-1933), horticulturalist, naturalist and entomologist, and Charles Hamilton (1868-1950), naturalist and entomologist, were father and son. Charles senior was born on 10 September 1842 at Lewisham, Kent, England, son of John French, jeweller, and his wife Ellen, née Tucker. After the death of his father in 1848 and the remarriage of his mother to John Weatherill, the family migrated to Victoria, arriving on 18 July 1853 and settling at Cheltenham. Busy with clearing land and assisting bullock-wagons transporting supplies to the goldfields, young French was unable to spend much time pursuing his interest in natural history, particularly the collection of insects, which he had developed in England.

In 1858 he was apprenticed to nurseryman James Scott of Hawthorn, who specialized in the growing of trees. Later he transferred to the nurseries at South Yarra of Alex Bogie, a rose specialist, and of Joseph Harris who was a general nurseryman with pot plants as a specialty. There he met (Sir) Ferdinand Mueller, director of the Botanic Gardens, with whom he formed a life friendship. His outstanding horticultural expertise appealed to Mueller and in 1865 French was appointed to the nursery and gardening staff of the gardens. After his marriage with Presbyterian forms on 23 May 1867 to Janet Callander he lived in one of the lodges attached to the gardens.

On the appointment in 1873 of W. R. Guilfoyle as curator of the gardens, French was transferred to the nursery complex in charge of the propagation of ferns and tropical plants. Guilfoyle in his first annual report in 1874 praised him for his 'aptitude and attention'; he had over 250 species of ferns in cultivation at that time. In 1881 he was transferred to the Phytological Museum of Melbourne, later the National Herbarium, under Mueller's control. By 1886 he had become first herbarium assistant at a salary of £225.

French had taken up his interest in insects again in 1860. In 1874 he contributed an article on timber-boring insects to the Department of Agriculture's annual report: this is now considered to be the first article on economic entomology published in Victoria. In 1889 French was made government entomologist, a post created to investigate the increasing ravages of native and introduced insects. Apart from routine identifications and inspections, his major work was the Handbook of the destructive insects of Victoria; Volumes I-V were published in 1891-1911; Volume VI, with text and coloured plates, was prepared but never published. At his suggestion an intercolonial departmental conference considered uniform vegetation diseases legislation and, following the passing of the Victorian Act in 1896, he was appointed chief inspector and was responsible for a standardized spraying and fumigation programme for fruit-trees. In 1907 he attended an International Conference of Entomologists in London, a prelude to his retirement in 1908. He is now generally regarded as having laid the foundation of economic entomology in Victoria. He published twenty-two articles on the subject between 1889 and 1912. He was a fellow of the Linnean Society of London, of the Royal Horticultural Society of England and of the Society of Isis, Dresden, Germany.

French was a foundation committee-member in 1880 of the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria. He wrote extensively on Victorian ferns in the Southern Science Record in 1884-87, information that was incorporated in Mueller's two-volume Key to the system of Victorian plants (1885-88). During his life he made three major collections of Australian Coleoptera, one of which went to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), one to Holland and the other to the National Museum in Melbourne.

French's first wife had died in 1890; on 6 April 1891 at Christ Church, South Yarra, he married 28-year-old Emma Charlotte Merchant. After her death in 1908 he married Rachel De Lany on 28 June 1911 at St John's Church, Camberwell. He died at his home at Malvern on 21 May 1933, survived by his wife, his son and a daughter of the first marriage, and a daughter of the second.

Charles Hamilton French was born on 10 June 1868 at the Botanical Reserve. He was educated at the local state school and later entered the Melbourne offices of a solicitor and a doctor as a junior clerk. Assisting his father on collecting expeditions, he acquired a wide knowledge of Australian plants, birds, insects, reptiles and Aboriginal artefacts. On 1 July 1883 he joined the staff of the herbarium as a junior assistant, later rising to third herbarium assistant. For thirteen years his work required him to travel throughout Victoria collecting plant specimens; he also gathered insect specimens for his father.

On 5 September 1891 at South Yarra, French married Ada Crook, 19-year-old daughter of a drawing-master. In 1896 he was appointed to the Department of Agriculture as an inspector under the Vegetation Diseases Act; later, as this work developed in the direction of insect control, he became assistant government entomologist. In 1907-27 he contributed thirty-one articles on entomological studies to the monthly Journal of Agriculture as sole author and nine as joint author, writing as Charles French junior. From 1931 until his retirement in 1933 he was biologist to the Department of Agriculture and officer-in-charge of the science branch at Burnley Gardens.

With his father, French had attended informal meetings of naturalists which led to the formation of the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria, but because he was a junior his admission as a member was delayed until July 1883. His association through the club, with (Sir) Baldwin Spencer led to a large collection of Aboriginal artefacts and skulls going to the National Museum, and his interest in native orchids resulted in the discovery of many new species in the State. He was elected an honorary member of the club in August 1937. His few articles in the Victorian Naturalist were on orchid localities and on native insects and birds of economic importance.

French lectured on entomology at the University of Melbourne for some years, and also to horticultural students at Burnley Gardens. In retirement he found much satisfaction in growing orchids, begonias and ferns in his glasshouses at Canterbury. He died in a private hospital at Deepdene on 17 July 1950 and was buried in Burwood cemetery, survived by three of his four sons and two of his three daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • J. H. Willis, Botanical Pioneers in Victoria (Melb, 1949)
  • R. T. M. Pescott, History of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne (manuscript, privately held).

Citation details

R. T. M. Pescott, 'French, Charles (1842–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/french-charles-6246/text10753, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 27 November 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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