Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Edwin Ashby (1861–1941)

by Enid Robertson

This article was published:

Edwin Ashby (1861-1941), estate agent and naturalist, was born of Quaker stock on 2 November 1861 at Pleystowe Capel, Surrey, England, son of James Ashby, tea merchant, and his wife Eliza, née Sterry. A delicate child, he had little formal education but was encouraged in his natural history interests by his parents, both critical field naturalists. He worked for his father, then visited Australia for his health in 1884-87 and migrated to Adelaide in 1888 with his elder sister. On 6 May 1890 he married Esther Maria Coleman; they had two sons and two daughters.

There were three main facets to Ashby's life: his work as a land and estate agent, his passionate interest in natural history, and his involvement with the Society of Friends. Having failed at wattle-bark-growing in the South-East, about 1890 he joined a cousin's firm of land and estate agents and financiers; later, as Saunders & Ashby, they owned much of Eden Hills, which they largely developed. In 1902 the Ashbys moved to Blackwood in the Adelaide hills and established the property, Wittunga, in virgin bushland. He retired in 1914 but continued an independent business from his home. In 1918 he visited North America.

Ashby was an avid collector of birds, butterflies and other insects, shells (particularly chitons) and plants. A critical observer, with infectious enthusiasm, he wanted to share each new discovery. He published over eighty papers in ornithology alone, and named or discovered several new birds. But his most outstanding contributions were on chitons, recent and fossil, on which he was a world authority, discovering over twenty new taxa. His collection, presented to the South Australian Museum in 1932, was considered the best of its kind.

Wittunga began as a formal English gentleman's garden, but as Ashby became increasingly fascinated by Australian native flora, he specialized in its cultivation, collecting numerous plants from the bush throughout Australia. He experimented with methods of cultivation and evolved the 'Ashby system' of watering, giving plants a soaking every three to four weeks instead of the usual light surface watering. Speaking and writing often, he introduced many Australians to their unique flora. A 1934 bushfire burnt part of Wittunga garden, gutted the house and destroyed many of his records and collections. Fortunately many bird-skins and chitons were in the Museum, but material burnt included some 'type' specimens. At 73 he could not rebuild these, but instead enlarged his horticultural interests by establishing an Australian native-plant nursery; over 300 tried and proven species were offered cheaply. An enlightened conservationist, he worked to preserve wildlife reserves such as Flinders Chase, and was a prime mover in securing Chauncy's Line Reserve.

For many years Ashby was one of the Quakers' most widely known members, speaking at public meetings and on the radio, and writing to the press on such issues as peace and temperance. His life exemplified his belief: 'Six working days are a better index of what we are than one Sunday'.

A member of many learned and scientific organizations, Ashby was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society of London and a corresponding fellow of the American Ornithologists' Union. He was a council-member of the Royal Society of South Australia in 1900-19, and president of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists' Union in 1926. He died at Wittunga on 8 January 1941, and was interred in the Friends' Burial Ground, West Terrace, Adelaide. His daughter Alison was a distinguished collector and painter of Australian flora. His garden has been preserved by the gift of his son Keith and his family, who in 1965 donated 35 acres (14 ha) to the Board of Governors of the Botanic Garden, Adelaide.

Select Bibliography

  • Blackwood Magazine (South Australia), 1 (1914)
  • Australian Zoologist, 4 (1925-27), pp 340-42
  • Emu, 40 (1941)
  • Malacological Society London, Proceedings, 25 (1942)
  • Royal Society of South Australia, Transactions, 65 (1941)
  • Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, Aug 1941
  • Observer (Adelaide), 20 Mar 1926
  • Express and Journal (Adelaide), 18 May 1935
  • Esther Ashby, diaries and farm journals (privately held)
  • minute-books and documents (Religious Society of Friends South Australia, Regional Meeting, North Adelaide, and State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Enid Robertson, 'Ashby, Edwin (1861–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 November, 1861
Plaistow, Surrey, England


8 January, 1941 (aged 79)
Blackwood, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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