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Whittell, Hubert Massey (1883–1954)

by Tess Kloot

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Hubert Massey Whittell (1883-1954), ornithologist, soldier and farmer, was born on 24 March 1883 at Stratford, Essex, England, son of Alfred Leighton Whittell, engineer, and his wife Amire Campbell, née Henderson. Educated in India, Germany and England, in 1899 Hubert began studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh where he joined the University Company of the Royal Scots Regiment. His hobby was birdwatching. He abandoned medicine, chose an army career and was commissioned in 1904. Next year he sailed for Bombay. Appointed in 1907 to the 56th Punjabi Rifles, Indian Army, he played hockey for All India, rode well and went big-game hunting. Whittell studied Urdu, Pushtu and Persian, collected early north-west Indian coins and published papers on the history of the area. On home leave in 1909, he was engaged to Sydney Margaret O'Hara Hodgkins, a clergyman's daughter, whom he married on 26 October 1911 in St Thomas's Cathedral, Bombay.

During World War I Lieutenant Whittell served in France, Belgium and Egypt; he was twice mentioned in dispatches, promoted major in 1919 and appointed O.B.E. next year. Migrating with his family to Western Australia in 1926, he developed an orchard and dairy farm at Bridgetown. He joined the Royal Australasian Ornithologists' Union in 1929 and was convenor of its checklist committee and president (1941-43); he was also vice-president of the Gould League of Bird Lovers of Western Australia.

Whittell began an egg and skin collection. In the field he was always willing to undertake camp chores. A skilled and patient taxidermist, he often prepared skins in the field and provided specimens for G. M. Mathews who named Pachyptila salvini whittelli in his honour. Determined to preserve a stable nomenclature, Whittell ranged throughout the State and made many trips in search of three rare birds of the south-west: he succeeded in collecting the Western whip-bird.

A restless, spare man, with blue-grey eyes and a clipped English accent, 'the Major' retained his military outlook and relished command. Hard but fair, he was impatient with trivialities. When acquaintances became friends, his good nature made him a congenial companion. He published in natural history journals, including Emu. In collaboration with D. L. Serventy, he produced A Handbook of the Birds of Western Australia (1948, 1951)—a standard work of reference—and A Systematic List of the Birds of Western Australia (1948). For twenty years, with references overflowing into every room of his home, Whittell worked on his monumental The Literature of Australian Birds (1954).

A member of the St John Ambulance Association, the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia, and the Western Australian Naturalists' Club, Whittell was a keen conservationist who served on the State Fauna Protection Advisory Committee from 1946. He was also active in agricultural societies, at local shows and as a chronicler of Bridgetown history. Survived by his wife, daughter and two sons, he died on 7 February 1954 at Nannup District Hospital and was buried in the Anglican section of Bridgetown cemetery. Whittel [sic] Island, north-west of Perth, is named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • Emu, 4, 1937, p 280, 54, 1954, p 61
  • Department of Fisheries and Fauna (Western Australia), Monthly Service Bulletin, 3, no 3, 1954, p 69
  • West Australian, 8 Feb 1954
  • private information.

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Citation details

Tess Kloot, 'Whittell, Hubert Massey (1883–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/whittell-hubert-massey-9086/text16019, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 14 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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