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Keartland, George Arthur (1848–1926)

by Allan McEvey

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

George Arthur Keartland (1848-1926), naturalist, was born on 11 June 1848 at Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, England, second of ten children of William Keartland, draper, and his wife Martha, née Morris. He was brought to Melbourne by his parents in 1850 and, by all accounts, was educated at George Street Public School, Fitzroy.

By a childhood accident he was lamed for life. Neverthless he developed a strong affinity with the outdoors and interest in shooting and nature. After some training as a photographer he completed an apprenticeship to a printer and became a compositor with the Age, where he was employed for over fifty years. He joined the Melbourne Typographical Society in 1871 and was twice president of the Australasian Typographical Union. Anglican by birth, he married with Wesleyan forms on 11 June 1873 at Brunswick, Margaret Jane Nicol who had been born in Manchester, England, and educated at Mrs James's Academy for Girls, Fitzroy. They settled at Collingwood.

In 1886 he attended his first meeting of the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria and was immediately inspired to study all branches of natural history. However, he was especially drawn to ornithology. His latent ability emerged in the guidance he provided on club excursions, and such instruction continued as late as 1907 when he taught bird-skinning to fifty teachers at the club's Mornington camp.

Keartland became a field ornithologist of national standing on the Horn and Calvert expeditions. On the former, from Oodnadatta to the MacDonnell Ranges in May to August 1894, Keartland, as naturalist-collector, preserved some 200 bird-skins, representing 78 species including 5 previously undescribed. A. J. North, of the Australian Museum, Sydney, regarded the collection as the most important after Sturt's of 1839 for its information on species distribution. North's published account includes Keartland's valuable field notes.

On the ill-fated Calvert expedition to north-west Australia in 1896-97, Keartland was again a naturalist-collector but had to abandon over 300 bird-skins including a 'new' and possibly still unknown pigeon, returning with 167 specimens of 59 species excluding nests and eggs. This significant collection was also accompanied by excellent field notes, including early details of the Night Parrot.

Keartland's enthusiasm and dedication overcame all physical disabilities. In 1926 Professor Sir Baldwin Spencer recalled the cold winter nights of the MacDonnell Ranges when 'hour after hour [Keartland] used to work away [skinning birds] by the light of the flickering lamp, with a rug wrapped round him and the water frozen in the billy-can'. On the Calvert expedition the heat was intense by mid-October and on one night the water in the casks 'almost scalded one's fingers'. The collection, equipment and all personal effects had to be abandoned for survival; but Keartland, it is said, continued day after day to carry across the sand-hills the gun lent by a friend, later to hand it back without a word about the burden it had been.

Keartland's private ornithological collection is divided. Sir Malcolm McEacharn purchased from him bird-specimens and notes representing some 140 species and an egg-collection of 398 clutches dating from 1884 to 1902. These were later presented to the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh. A further 464 clutches of eggs for the period 1878-1914 are in the South Australian Museum. Historically Keartland's species-notes in Edinburgh are of considerable ornithological interest.

Keartland's published notes on birds are found chiefly in the Victorian Naturalist. They exemplify careful observation including his early recognition of the two Australian Teal species and his timely plea for biologically sound Quail seasons. His 'Birds of the Melbourne district', 1900, treats 185 species personally observed and provides a useful historical view for comparison with contemporary avifaunal accounts. He also made observations on native bird-species in his aviaries.

In 1900 Keartland was prominent in the founding of the (Royal) Australasian Ornithologists' Union. He was president of the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria in 1907-09. His name is commemorated in Lichenostomus (Meliphaga) keartlandi, Grey-headed (Keartland's) Honeyeater, named by North from the Horn expedition collection, and in Keartlandia, a now synonymized generic name, created by Mathews, for the Orange Chat. The name Keartland Hills in Western Australia commemorates his part in the Calvert expedition as does the name Gardenia keartlandii for a plant collected near the Fitzroy River.

Keartland was of kindly and family-loving disposition. He died of cancer at his home at Preston on 21 May 1926 and was buried in Coburg cemetery. He was survived by his wife, two of his five sons and four of his six daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • W. B. Spencer (ed), Report on the Work of the Horn Scientific Expedition to Central Australia (Melb, 1896)
  • H. M. Whittell, The Literature of Australian Birds (Perth, 1954)
  • Australasian Typographical Journal, June 1897, p 7
  • Royal Society of South Australia, Transactions, 22 (1897-98)
  • Emu (Melbourne), 26 (1926), p 87, 58 (1958), p 123
  • Victorian Naturalist, June 1926
  • Age (Melbourne), 13, 23 May, 5 Dec 1896, 23 Sept 1908, 22 May 1926, 17 Feb 1962
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 30 Jan 1897
  • Leader (Melbourne), 19 June 1897, 5 Jan 1907
  • Preston Leader, 26 June 1926
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 26 June 1937.

Citation details

Allan McEvey, 'Keartland, George Arthur (1848–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/keartland-george-arthur-6903/text11975, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 24 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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