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Charles Hedley (1862–1926)

by Denis Fairfax

This article was published:

Charles Hedley, n.d.

Charles Hedley, n.d.

Australian Museum

Charles Hedley (1862-1926), naturalist, was born on 27 February 1862 at Masham, Yorkshire, England, son of Canon Thomas Hedley, vicar of Masham and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and his wife Mary, née Bush. Briefly at Eastbourne College, he was educated mainly in France. From boyhood he collected shells and was greatly influenced by a French work on molluscan anatomy.

A chronic asthmatic, Hedley in 1881 went to New Zealand; in September 1882 he crossed to Queensland. Enjoying a 'liberal allowance from his father', he sampled outback life and tried an oyster lease at Moreton Bay and fruit-growing at Boyne Island, Port Curtis. An accident to his left arm rendered him unfit for manual work, so he went to Brisbane in 1888 and worked voluntarily for the Queensland Museum; in January 1889 he joined its staff and in May was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society of London. Early in 1890, at the invitation of Sir William MacGregor, Hedley collected extensively in Papua. In April 1891 he became a scientific assistant at the Australian Museum, Sydney, in 1896 conchologist and in 1908 assistant curator. He augmented the museum's collections, gave many older scientific books to its library and, to cope with the increasing number of specimens, paid assistants and illustrators. He was active in local scientific circles and president of the Linnean (1909-11), Royal (1914), Field Naturalists' and (Royal) Zoological societies of New South Wales.

Typical of self-taught nineteenth-century naturalists, Hedley wrote confidently on botany, ethnology and general natural history, as well as conchology. His many papers on molluscs established him as the foremost Australasian conchologist of his time. Scornful of the deficiencies of the earlier 'London School', he set a high standard of taxonomic work. Although mainly concerned with Australian fauna, he described the collections of molluscs made by the Shackleton (1907-09) and first Australasian (1911-14) expeditions to Antarctica. He also wrote on zoogeography, notably on the ancient relations of Antarctica to Australia and New Zealand. Hedley had accompanied the Royal Society of London's expedition to Funafuti Atoll in the Ellice Islands in 1896 and maintained a lifelong interest in coral reefs. He collaborated with Professor W. A. Haswell and Sir Joseph Verco in investigating the continental shelf and co-operated with the Commonwealth Advisory Council of Science and Industry.

Early in 1919 disagreements over a superannuation scheme divided the museum staff, brought Hedley into open conflict with R. Etheridge and involved F. A. Coghlan, auditor-general and museum trustee. After Etheridge's death in January 1920, Hedley became acting director but, despite the support of Haswell and Sir Edgeworth David, Coghlan ensured that he was passed over as director. Hedley was given the nominal position of principal keeper of the collections in 1921. He resigned in March 1924 and became scientific director of the Great Barrier Reef Committee.

Striking in appearance, Hedley was tall and lean with, in later life, a neatly trimmed grey beard and moustache. He was an intrepid traveller, genial colleague and an indefatigable worker. In Hobart on 19 January 1898 he had married Harriott Georgina Echlin. Survived by her and an adopted daughter, Hedley died of heart disease at his home at Mosman, Sydney, on 14 September 1926. He was cremated with Anglican rites and his ashes scattered at sea, off the Great Barrier Reef. His estate was valued for probate at £16,852. Hedley's work was recognized by the award of the David Syme research prize of the University of Melbourne in 1916 and the (W.B.) Clarke memorial medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales. He was a fellow of the Malacological Society of London and an honorary member of the New Zealand Institute and of many other societies.

Select Bibliography

  • J. C. Verco, Combing the Southern Seas (Adel, 1935)
  • E. Frankel, Bibliography of the Great Barrier Reef Province (Melb, 1978)
  • R. Strahan et al (eds), Rare and Curious Specimens (Syd, 1979)
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 61, 1936, and for publications
  • T. Iredale, ‘Charles Hedley's papers indexed’, Proceedings, Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, 1956-57
  • Hedley papers (Australian Museum, Sydney)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Denis Fairfax, 'Hedley, Charles (1862–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Charles Hedley, n.d.

Charles Hedley, n.d.

Australian Museum

Life Summary [details]


27 February, 1862
Masham, Yorkshire, England


14 September, 1926 (aged 64)
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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