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James Drummond (1787–1863)

by Rica Erickson

This article was published:

James Drummond (c.1787-1863), botanist and plant collector, was born in Inverarity, Angus, Scotland. His brother, Thomas, was a well-known collector of North American plants. In June 1808 James was appointed curator of the Cork Botanical Gardens, Ireland. Soon afterwards he married Sarah (1782-1864), daughter of Maxwell Mackintosh, a Scottish settler in Ireland. He was elected an associate of the Linnean Society in 1810, and published several papers on Irish plants.

In 1829 with his wife and six children he accompanied Captain (Sir) James Stirling to Western Australia in the Parmelia. Although for many years he was known as government botanist his original appointment was government naturalist, without pay. Until 1832 he received a salary of £100 as superintendent of the government gardens. During Stirling's absence in England in 1832-34 the gardens were conducted for Drummond's profit. In 1835 he lived on his Helena valley grant but changed this in 1836 for a location of 2900 acres (1174 ha), called Hawthornden, in the Toodyay valley. His sons managed the farm while he collected seeds and plants for sale in England. In 1836-38 his collections were sent to Captain Mangles, London. They were gathered from Swan River, Darling Range, Avon valley, the Guangan or sandplains to the east of Toodyay valley, Salt River, east of Northam, and the Albany and Vasse River districts. Hampered by lack of paper Drummond often dried the specimens between layers of Xanthorrhoea leaves. Mangles, who was in ill health, redirected the 1837 collection to Dr Lindley, who commissioned George Bentham to number and divide the specimens into sets. Hundreds of new species were named from this collection, but the botanists were critical of the condition of the specimens. When Drummond heard this he began another collection of the same species with additions from new areas. In August 1839 he visited Rottnest Island with Ludwig Preiss, botanist, and John Gilbert, collector for John Gould. Late in 1840 he collected at Albany and Cape Riche. This so-called 1st Collection, comprising fifteen sets of 1000 numbered species, was dispatched in May 1842. One set was presented to Sir William Hooker of the Kew Botanical Gardens, a life-long correspondent who published many Drummond letters in his journals, but not always dated or in chronological order.

During 1841-44 Drummond and his sons pioneered the Victoria Plains, where he collected widely, as well as at Moora, Wongan Hills and Augusta. In 1842 some journeys were made with Gilbert on his second visit to Western Australia, but Drummond's youngest son, Johnston, was his most constant companion. Johnston (1820-1845), a promising naturalist, collected birds and animals for Gould in return for copies of Gould's books. In 1840-41 James Drummond proved that severe stock losses were caused by poisonous plants. In 1842-43 the Inquirer published reports of his experiments and journeys, as well as a series of letters on the botany of Western Australia. At the end of 1843, after two excursions to the interior, Drummond and Johnston collected for three months at the Stirling Range and Albany. Some of these specimens were placed in his 2nd Collection; the remainder were included in the 3rd, most of which was gathered during a journey in 1844 to Walyormouring (Wallemarra), thence eastwards beyond salt lakes as far as a river they incorrectly called the Arrowsmith. This 3rd Collection brought the total number of species sent to his subscribers to 2000.

Johnston was killed in July 1845 by an Aboriginal at Moore River. His father then lost interest in collecting, but his enthusiasm revived in October 1846 when he received an honorarium of £200 from the Queen's Bounty for services rendered to botanical science. His 4th Collection was made in the summer of 1846-47 when he and George Maxwell journeyed through the Stirling Range to Cape Riche, thence eastwards beyond Salt River on the south coast to a virgin area at West Mount Barren. His 5th Collection, in 1847-48, comprised fourteen sets of 550 species gathered on two later journeys. In 1847 he attempted to reach Lucky Bay overland from Toodyay, but became blind with ophthalmia and turned back when beyond Mount Caroline. In 1848 he collected further east of Albany than formerly. After reaching Middle Mount Barren he turned north to unknown parts, now Ravensthorpe. Surveyor-General John Roe on his exploration of the south coast found Drummond's tracks and named a near-by mountain after him. Drummond's 6th Collection of 225 numbers was made in 1850-51 when he accompanied his sons, James and John, on a hazardous journey to the Champion Bay district where they explored the Murchison River for pastures. The brothers later took the first flocks into these parts.

Old James Drummond, with his two white packhorses and kangaroo dogs, was a familiar figure throughout the colony. Described as a plain but agreeable old man, his dour Scottish face was framed by bushy white whiskers. He usually walked everywhere, his horses being laden with stores on the way out and specimens on the way home. When his knapsack and pockets were filled with plants his white head was bared and his hat was crammed to the brim.

In 1855 he declined the post of botanist in (Sir) Augustus Gregory's expedition to northern Australia because of advancing years. In his old age he held open house at Hawthornden on Saturday evenings when he lectured on natural history. He died at his home on 27 March 1863, survived by his widow, three sons and two daughters.

James Drummond junior (1814-1873), the second son, inherited Hawthornden. He was a pioneer and leading pastoralist, for many years the chief grower of wheat in the colony and owner of a large steam flour-mill. A silent but kindly man, he inaugurated on his grant a benevolent method of settling poor migrant families and ticket-of-leave men in cottages on small farming lots. He was an active member on local committees for the school, the church and the agricultural society. He married Martha Sewell in 1857, by whom he had three sons and three daughters. He suffered severe losses in the depression of the 1870s, but aided those less fortunate than himself. He was elected to the colony's first representative Legislative Council in 1870, was a foundation member of the Victoria Plains Road Board in 1871 and chairman of the Toodyay Road Board in 1872. He died at the peak of his career on 8 February 1873, after fighting a bushfire at Hawthornden. Before his death he sent his father's valuable key collection to the Melbourne Herbarium.

John Nicol Drummond (1816-1906), the third son, became a legendary figure for his extraordinary skill with a gun and his unsurpassed knowledge of Aboriginal language and customs. Appointed inspector of a small police force at York in 1842, when Johnston was killed he tracked the murderer and shot him. Governor Hutt censured him, and to escape possible punishment John took refuge with a native tribe disguising himself as one of them. Reinstated as a policeman his disregard of red tape continued to annoy his superiors. In 1849, when hostile Aborigines at Champion Bay jeopardized the new settlement, John was sent to conciliate them and keep order. His bride Mary Shaw, whom he married in 1852, was the first white woman to live there. They had no children.

It has been estimated that James Drummond senior collected about 3500 numbers for each of his subscribers in addition to other sets and a great number of species not sent overseas. His specimens are now in twenty-five herbaria; seven in the British Isles, twelve in other parts of Europe, three in the United States, and three in Australia at Melbourne, Perth and Canberra. He named several Western Australian plants and 119 were named after him. Although about a third of these have since been reduced to synonymy, the remainder are a fitting memorial to that most 'enterprising and indefatigable man'.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Bentham, Flora Australiensis, vols 1-7 (Lond, 1863-78)
  • A. Burton and P. U. Henn (eds), Wollaston's Picton Journal (Perth 1948)
  • P. U. Henn (ed), Wollaston's Albany Journal (Perth, 1954)
  • J. H. Maiden, ‘Records of Western Australian Botanists’, Journal of the West Australian Natural History Society, no 6, Feb 1909, pp 5-27
  • Inquirer (Perth), 7 Apr, 3 Nov 1847, 6 Dec 1848, 31 Jan 1855
  • Mangles's letter-books (State Records Office of Western Australia)
  • J. Drummond, letters to W. J. Hooker (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Library).

Citation details

Rica Erickson, 'Drummond, James (1787–1863)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 19 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Inverarity, Angus, Scotland


27 March, 1863 (aged ~ 76)
Toodyay, Western Australia, Australia

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