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John Gould (1804–1881)

by A. H. Chisholm

This article was published:

John Gould (1804-1881), by Thomas Herbert Maguire, 1849?

John Gould (1804-1881), by Thomas Herbert Maguire, 1849?

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9547887

John Gould (1804-1881), zoologist, was born on 14 September 1804 at Lyme Regis, Dorset, England. It is probable that after some slight education he served with his father as a gardener, and thus became attracted to both plants and birds. At 23 he was appointed a taxidermist on the staff of the Zoological Society of London, of which society he was to become a leading figure in later years; and in 1829 a growing ambition took definite shape when he married Elizabeth Coxen, a talented artist of his own age.

In 1831-32 Gould published in twenty monthly parts A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains, a volume notable for its eighty colour plates finely executed by Mrs Gould, and the precursor of a remarkable series of books on birds and mammals. In 1832 also he began the publication of The Birds of Europe, a work of five volumes that was completed in 1837. Other works followed and then, animated by specimens which his brothers-in-law, Charles and Stephen Coxen, had sent him from New South Wales, Gould turned his attention to the birds of Australia. Upon this subject he issued in 1837-38 four parts of a so-called synopsis, with seventy-three plates by his wife, and immediately afterwards two more parts appeared. Very soon, however, he discontinued this work, and later he suggested in a letter to the Earl of Derby that the 'suppressed' parts should be known simply as 'Illustrations of Birds from Australia'. Also he predicted that they would probably be of value some day, 'though, it is true, more to the Book-Collector than the Naturalist'.

At this stage he had resolved to take an expedition to Australia and, after feverish preparations, with his brain 'ever in a complete jumble', he sailed in May 1838 with his wife and eldest son, aged 7, a young nephew, a man-servant and a maid-servant, and, most important, a zoological collector, John Gilbert. Three younger children were left at home with their grandmother, and Gould's financial affairs in London, including a taxidermist's business, were placed in the hands of E. C. Prince, a competent secretary who had also served, and was to serve again later, as an editor of the Gould publications.

On 18 September 1838 in the Parsee the party landed in Hobart Town and at once Gould and Gilbert, accompanied at times by the servant James Benstead, began fieldwork in Van Diemen's Land and adjacent islands. In the following months, while Gilbert was operating in Western Australia, Gould visited New South Wales, spent several weeks exploring the Murray scrubs in South Australia, mainly in the company of Charles Sturt, and also visited Kangaroo Island. Adelaide did not impress him: it was then (1839) merely 'a chaotic jumble of sheds and mud huts'. Returning to Hobart, he went to New South Wales with his wife and two children, another son having been born in the meantime.

With Yarrundi, the Coxen property in the Hunter valley, as his base, the resolute zoologist did much fruitful work by riding and walking in a large area of little-known country, especially in the region of the Liverpool Range. Earlier he had visited Sturt at Varroville, near Campbelltown, and had explored both the Illawarra and the southern tablelands. He also spent some time in Sydney, where in March 1840 he issued a prospectus relating to his proposed publications on the birds of Australia, already published before he left England, as indicated by a reprint in the Sydney Herald, 9 September 1839. The Australian prospectus is known from two copies recovered in England in 1938. The only publication issued by Gould in Australia, it gives in its four pages details of the proposed work, nominates John Fairfax as agent, and adds names of potential subscribers 'at Home' and 'in the Australian colonies', with the first batch headed by 'Her Most Gracious Majesty the Queen' and 'His Majesty the King of Prussia'.

The Gould party left Sydney on 9 April 1840, and publication of The Birds of Australia began in London on 1 December 1840. The final parts, making a total of thirty-six, appeared in 1848. They were bound in seven volumes and the cost to subscribers was £115. A supplementary volume issued in parts was completed in 1869. As with his earlier books, these were published with admirable colour plates; many of the drawings had been executed by Mrs Gould, but after her death in 1841 other artists were employed. The total number of colour plates in the eight volumes is 681, and the whole production is undoubtedly the greatest of Gould's eighteen major works.

Although grievously affected by his wife's death, and left with the care of six young children, he continued to work diligently at research and publishing. Gilbert died in 1845, but Gould subsidized other collectors and also kept in touch with Sturt and other explorers and naturalists in Australia. In addition to numerous papers in scientific journals, he issued works on humming-birds, on the birds of Asia, and on the birds of Great Britain, all beautifully illustrated; and during 1845-63 he produced in three volumes, The Mammals of Australia, followed in 1865 by a two volume Handbook to the Birds of Australia. He was engaged in compiling The Birds of New Guinea and the Adjacent Papuan Islands at the time of his death, and this work was completed by Dr R. B. Sharpe.

Gould died in London on 3 February 1881. He had lost two sons, Henry and Franklin, but was survived by the youngest son, Charles, who had done some geological work in Tasmania, and three daughters. His publications, 41 large volumes with some 3000 plates, remain as memorials to a man who, lacking advantages in youth, became an outstanding ornithologist and general zoologist, as well as a most competent publisher and businessman. He was extremely fortunate in his assistants, but his success derived largely from his own ability and industry. The heavy costs of his undertakings, with other obligations, were probably responsible for his tendency to drive hard bargains, and it may be that the many tragedies which afflicted him in middle and later years caused him to be sometimes morose and brusque. Yet to his children and intimate friends he appealed, reportedly, as the possessor of a 'really tender and affectionate heart'.

During his lifetime Gould was honoured by numbers of scientific societies. Now his name persists as that of the 'father' of bird study in Australia, and he is commemorated in a nation-wide institution, the Gould League of Bird Lovers.

Select Bibliography

  • C. L. Barrett, The Bird Man (Melb, 1938)
  • A. H. Chisholm, The Story of Elizabeth Gould (Melb, 1944)
  • H. M. Whittell, The Literature of Australian Birds (Perth, 1954)
  • Gould Commemorative issue, Emu, vol 38, 1938, which carries at pp 117-18 a complete list of Gould's works
  • A. H. Chisholm, ‘John Gould's Australian Prospectus’, Emu, vol 42, part 2, Oct 1942, pp 74-84
  • A. H. Chisholm, ‘Some Early Letters in Australian Ornithology’, Emu, vol 63, part 4, Mar 1964, pp 287-96 and vol 63, part 5, June 1964, pp 373-82.

Citation details

A. H. Chisholm, 'Gould, John (1804–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 23 July 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

John Gould (1804-1881), by Thomas Herbert Maguire, 1849?

John Gould (1804-1881), by Thomas Herbert Maguire, 1849?

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9547887

Life Summary [details]


14 September, 1804
Lyme Regis, Dorset, England


3 February, 1881 (aged 76)
London, Middlesex, England

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