Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Silvester Diggles (1817–1880)

by E. N. Marks

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Silvester Diggles (1817-1880), naturalist, artist and musician, was born on 24 January 1817, the eldest son of Edward Holt Diggles, ironmonger of Liverpool, England, and his wife Elizabeth, née Silvester. In May 1839 he married Eliza, daughter of John Bradley, tutor of Liverpool; they had two daughters and a son. With them he arrived at Sydney in November 1853. After an exploratory visit to Brisbane in November-December 1854, he settled there permanently with his wife and family in January 1855. He taught drawing and music and also practised as a tuner and repairer of musical instruments. His wife died in August 1857 and on 26 January 1858 he married Albina, daughter of John and Sarah Birkett of Barnby in the Willows, Nottinghamshire; they had two sons. Genial, friendly and an enthusiastic supporter of community activities, Diggles became a well-known and beloved citizen. He was a founder of the Brisbane Choral Society in 1859 and the Brisbane Philharmonic Society in 1861 and accompanist at church services and concerts. When the musicians of the city gave him a grand benefit concert in 1877, he was termed 'the father of music in Brisbane'. Sincerely religious, he had joined the New Jerusalem Church in 1846 and acted as its leader in Brisbane for some years; he also was a Mason.

Diggles helped to found the colony's first scientific institution, the Queensland Philosophical Society, on 1 March 1859 and published several papers in its Transactions. He acted for many years as honorary curator of the Philosophical Society’s small museum, established in the old windmill observatory on Wickham Terrace in 1862. This collection was gradually transferred to the Queensland Museum in 1871-74. His special interests were ornithology and entomology, through which he had a wide circle of friends and correspondents. His outstanding publication was The Ornithology of Australia of which twenty-one parts were issued in 1865-70. Each part contains six lithographed hand-coloured plates, imperial quarto size, each accompanied by a page of descriptive text. When bound, this formed a large volume of 126 plates and 126 text pages, but it covered only about one third of the known Australian birds as he lacked the funds to complete the publication. In 1877 his remaining plates and text were reissued under a new title, Companion to Gould’s Handbook. Between 1863 and 1875, Diggles, unassisted, made 325 detailed watercolour paintings depicting about 600 Australian land birds, as the preliminary artwork for his plates. These watercolours, now bound in four folio volumes, are held in the Mitchell Library, Sydney. They formed part of the Library’s foundation collection bequeathed by David Scott Mitchell. Diggles's major contribution to the knowledge of Australian fauna, however, was through the extensive collections of insects, particularly butterflies, moths and beetles, which he sent to overseas entomologists for description. In 1875 his health began to fail, due partly to worry over the Ornithology. He died at Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, on 21 March 1880, survived by two daughters of his first marriage and two sons of the second.

Select Bibliography

  • E. N. Marks, ‘Silvester Diggles: A Queensland Naturalist One Hundred Years Ago’, Queensland Naturalist, vol 17, nos 1-2, July 1963, pp 15-25
  • E. N. Marks, ‘Notes on Diggles “Ornithology of Australia”’, Queensland Naturalist, vol 17, nos 5-6, June 1965, pp 99-102.

Citation details

E. N. Marks, 'Diggles, Silvester (1817–1880)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


24 January, 1817
Liverpool, Merseyside, England


21 March, 1880 (aged 63)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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