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Gunn, Ronald Campbell (1808–1881)

by T. E. Burns and J. R. Skemp

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Ronald Campbell Gunn (1808-1881), by Thomas Bock

Ronald Campbell Gunn (1808-1881), by Thomas Bock

State Library of New South Wales, Original : DG 471

Ronald Campbell Gunn (1808-1881), botanist, public servant and politician, was born at Cape Castle, Cape Town, the fourth son of William Gunn of Caithness, Scotland, a lieutenant in the 72nd Regiment, and his wife Margaret, née Wilson; and grandson of William Gunn and Ann, second daughter of Ronald Campbell of Wick, Scotland.

After some years at Bourbon (Réunion) island, where his mother died in 1812, he was educated in Aberdeen. At 16 he re-catalogued the library of General Sir John Hope, and later went to Barbados with his father who had been appointed quarter-master of the 93rd Regiment. In 1826 his father died, and Gunn became a clerk with the Royal Engineers on Antigua, where he married Eliza, daughter of James Ireland of the 93rd Regiment, and there his first child, Ronald James William was born.

Urged by his brother William, Gunn resigned his clerkship in 1829, returned to Edinburgh and sailed for Hobart Town in the Greenock. He arrived in February 1830 with letters from patrons that secured his appointment as overseer of the penitentiary under his brother. He became assistant superintendent of convicts at Launceston in December 1830, justice of the peace in 1833 and police magistrate at Circular Head in 1836. Back in Hobart, he was appointed fourth member of the Assignment Board and assistant police magistrate in 1838, assistant superintendent to the Male House of Correction in 1839, and private secretary to Sir John Franklin and clerk of the Legislative and Executive Councils in 1840. He resigned these appointments next year to become managing agent of the estates of William Lawrence, and two years later of Lady Jane Franklin's estates in Van Diemen's Land, as well as trustee for the Ancanthe botanical reserve and Betsy Island. In 1851 the directors of the Van Diemen's Land Co. appointed him adviser to James Gibson, and later he supervised the alienation of much company land to settlers. In 1855 he was elected to the Launceston seat of the Legislative Council, but soon retired to win the Selby seat in the House of Assembly. When he resigned from parliament in 1860, he was appointed deputy-commissioner of crown lands for northern Tasmania and for the whole territory in 1867. He held a wide variety of other government positions including that of deputy-registrar of the Court of Requests, and of births, deaths and marriages, clerk of the peace in Launceston from 1862, and coroner from 1870.

In addition to leading this busy public life, Gunn was an energetic botanist and traveller. Through Robert William Lawrence of the Vermont and Formosa estates, he became a plant collector for Professor W. J. Hooker of Glasgow University. Botanical excursions took him into rugged, half-explored country, while correspondence with Dr Milligan at Hampshire Hills produced more specimens for Hooker, who gave his name to many plants including Ranunculus gunnianus, Hook. After providing evidence on northern penitentiaries for James Backhouse, Gunn helped him to write an 'Index plantarum or … a popular description of some of the most common and remarkable indigenous plants', which was included in James Ross's Hobart Town Almanack for 1835. With Sir John and Lady Franklin he visited the Aboriginal settlement on Flinders Island in 1838 and next year, with the ornithologist John Gould he joined Lady Franklin's expedition to Recherche Bay. In Hobart he became secretary of the Horticultural Society and of the Tasmanian Society, assisted Captains Ross and Crozier of the Erebus and Terror Antarctic expedition, accompanied their botanist, Joseph Dalton Hooker, on many local excursions, and grew their plants from Kerguelen Island in his own garden behind Government House. His continuous travels took him to the Port Phillip District, overland to Macquarie Harbour and to the mountains, lakes and forests of northern Tasmania. In 1850 he sent a living Tasmanian tiger (thylacine) to the British Museum. Later in the 1850s he supported Milligan in an unsuccessful effort to introduce the South American alpaca, and investigated gold discoveries at Tullochgorum, at Deloraine and on the Forth and Upper Arthur Rivers. In 1860 he rediscovered Gunn's Plains. He was also elected a fellow of the Linnean Society of London in 1850 and of the Royal Society in 1854.

In 1842 Gunn wrote Observations on the Flora of Geelong, and began a seven-year editorship of the Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science in which many of his articles appeared. He also contributed to the London Journal of Botany. In 1862 he helped to compile Charles Walch's Almanack, and wrote the section on zoology in West's The History of Tasmania (Launceston, 1852). William Harvey dedicated the fifth volume of Phycologia Australica (London, 1863) to Gunn for his collections of Tasmanian algae.

Gunn's first wife died on the birth of their sixth child on 26 June 1836 in Dublin. On 18 December 1839 he married Margaret Legrand (1817-1895), daughter of David Jamieson of Glen Leith, near New Norfolk, by whom he had nine children. They lived for some time at Penquite House near Launceston, but in 1854 Gunn acquired the Newstead estate and soon built a new home. In 1876 he retired from public service on a pension of £250, too crippled to sign his name. Two years later he presented his private herbarium to the Royal Society of Tasmania, whence it went to the National Herbarium, Sydney. He died on 13 March 1881 at Newstead House and was buried in the Presbyterian cemetery, Launceston.

During his early years in Van Diemen's Land, Gunn won quick esteem for his interest in education, church and Sunday schools. On leaving Launceston and Circular Head he received popular presentations, and at Hobart he enjoyed the friendship of Sir John and Lady Franklin. He supported the transportation policy of Governor Sir William Denison and circulated a petition to retain transportation, refusing when requested to erase from it the signatures of Bishop Francis Nixon and Archdeacon Fitzherbert Marriott. When deputed in 1872 to collect rates from guarantors of the Great Western Railway, he thought the demands unjust and resigned after successfully collecting the rates for the first year.

Gunn was a first-rate botanist whose contribution was commemorated in Sir Joseph Hooker's introduction to his Flora Tasmaniae: 'There are few Tasmanian plants that Mr. Gunn has not seen alive, noted their habits in a living state, and collected large suites of specimens with singular tact and judgment. These have all been transmitted to England … accompanied with notes that display a remarkable power of observation, and a facility for seizing important characters in their physiognomy'.

Select Bibliography

  • J. D. Hooker, Botany of the Antarctic Voyage of H. M. Discovery Ships Erebus and Terror in the Years 1839-1843, parts 5-6 (Lond, 1860)
  • Van Diemen's Land Correspondents by T.E. Burns and J.R. Skemp (Launceston, Tas, 1961)
  • J. Reynolds, ‘Some Tasmanian Naturalists: Ronald Campbell Gunn’, Tasmanian Naturalist, vol 1, no 5, April 1926, pp 13-14
  • Gunn correspondence 1832-72 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Gunn papers 1833-46 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Calder papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Van Diemen's Land Co. records (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • CO 323/134
  • J. M. Curtis papers (privately held)
  • Gunn family papers (privately held).

Citation details

T. E. Burns and J. R. Skemp, 'Gunn, Ronald Campbell (1808–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gunn-ronald-campbell-2134/text2709, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 22 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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