Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas Carter (1863–1931)

by Freda Vines Carmody

This article was published:

Thomas Carter (1863-1931), ornithologist and pastoralist, was born on 6 April 1863 at Masham, Yorkshire, England, son of James Carter, merchant, and his wife Amelia Mary, née Rhodes. He was educated at Sedbergh and his interest in ornithology was encouraged by his father, a keen naturalist. Before migrating to Western Australia Carter had published a number of papers in British wildlife journals and had been to Iceland to study birdlife. Landing at Carnarvon in 1887, he was employed as jackeroo on Boolathanna station and wrote his first notes for the British wildlife magazine the Zoologist, launching the modern period in intensive studies of Western Australian birds.

In 1889 Carter acquired a 135,000-acre (54,633 ha) pastoral lease centred on Point Cloates; he was the first to hold a lease in the area. His characteristic energy and tenacity were needed to cope with sheep losses incurred by poison plants, dingoes and recurring drought in a largely waterless area. His real reward was the magnificent birds which he sought, often dangerously, in the yawning canyons and towering cliffs of Cape Range. An unsuccessful operation on his left eye had rendered it practically useless but he was an excellent shot. Living off the land on his expeditions he was forced sometimes to eat valuable specimens through sheer hunger. His Crusoe-like existence was emphasized by his house built from wreckage of two ships lost near by. Carter's charts of entrances through the dangerous reefs are still in use. An assistant was speared but Carter remained on good terms with the Talaindji tribe, recording their bird names in 'Birds Occurring in the Region of the North-West Cape', published in the Emu on 1 July 1903. He identified 180 birds and secured specimens of 170, two entirely new—Rufous-crowned Emu-wren and the Spinifex-bird which bears his name, Eremiornis carteri.

Carter sold out and returned to England in 1903. On 8 September at Twickenham, Middlesex, he married Annie Ward whom he had known all his life and whose rejection of his proposal when she was 17 had prompted his departure to Australia. Returning to Western Australia the following year they settled on a southern sheep-property at Broomehill. 'Birds of the Broome Hill District' appeared in the Emu in 1923-24.

While in England in 1909, Carter was warned by doctors to relax his strenous life-style. After a near-tragic fire at Broomehill, heart trouble was apparent by 1913. Urged by his wife, Carter disposed of his property. With their three children they returned to England in 1914, settling at Sutton, Surrey. Two years later he was back in Western Australia visiting Dirk Hartog Island where mouse plagues invaded his blankets while he slept. He rediscovered there the Black-and-white Wren and the Western Grass-wren, collected only by the French naturalists J. R. C. Quoy and J. P. Gaimard nearly a century earlier on the Freycinet expedition. He paid three more visits to Western Australia, the last in 1928.

Carter died on 29 January 1931 and was buried at his birthplace. Remarkable in quality and quantity, his Australian contributions occupy two pages in Hubert Whittell's Literature of Australian Birds. Four species and fourteen sub-species bear his name. Birds collected by him are in the American Museum of Natural History, being part of the famous 'Tring' collection and that of his friend Gregory M. Mathews, to which he gave many specimens. Others are in the Western Australian Museum and a collection of eggs is in the British Museum (Natural History). He was a member of the British Ornithologists' Union and a foundation member of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists' Union.

Select Bibliography

  • G. M. Mathews (ed), Austral Avian Record, vol 3 (Lond, 1919)
  • D. L. Serventy and H. M. Whittell, Birds of Western Australia, 5th edn (Perth, 1976)
  • Emu, 30 (1930-31)
  • JRWAHS, 6 (1968) pt 7
  • Yorkshire Post, 2 July 1968
  • private information.

Citation details

Freda Vines Carmody, 'Carter, Thomas (1863–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 16 July 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]


6 April, 1863
Masham, Yorkshire, England


29 January, 1931 (aged 67)

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