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Mary Grant Roberts (1841–1921)

by Eric Guiler

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Gerald Alleyne Roberts

Mary Grant Roberts (1841-1921), zoo-owner, and Gerald Alleyne Roberts (1877-1961), businessman, were mother and son. Mary was born on 15 April 1841 in Hobart Town, youngest child of William Lindsay, general dealer, and his wife Mary, née Willing. She married Henry Llewelyn Roberts on 18 August 1863 in St David's Cathedral. Henry, a clerk, later established a successful woolbroking and stock-agency company and inaugurated wool sales in Hobart in 1900.

In 1877 Mary and her husband built Beaumaris on two acres (0.8 ha) of land between Newcastle Street and Sandy Bay Road. Mrs Roberts was interested in birds: her aviary may have been started in her former home, Ashfield, but the major hobby-collection she developed in the grounds of her new home became the basis of the Beaumaris Zoo, opened to the public in 1895.

Mrs Roberts had no formal scientific training, but was skilled in animal care. Her zoo, set in attractive gardens, became noted for its display of thylacines as well as birds. The first Tasmanian zookeeper to attract international attention to indigenous Tasmanian fauna, she was elected a corresponding member of the Zoological Society of London in 1910. She was well known as the first to breed Tasmanian devils in captivity, publishing a study of her achievement in the society's Proceedings of 1915.

Mrs Roberts joined in many social issues. Concerned for the welfare of native animals, she founded the Game Preservation Society and the Anti-Plumage League (1910) and was responsible for the Royal Society of Tasmania's campaign to strengthen the State's protective legislation. She helped to found the Tasmanian branch of the Girl Guides' Association, was a council-member of the Art Society and the Mothers' Union, committee-member of the National Club and Young Women's Christian Association and a delegate to the Tasmanian National Council of Women. She also belonged to the Royal Society of Tasmania, Victoria League, Hobart District Nursing Association, Cat Society, (Royal) Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Avicultural Society, Tasmanian Field Naturalists' Club, Linnean Society, Liberal League, Queen Mary Bridge Club and the Orpheus Club.

Mrs Roberts had strong moral views (disapproving of a 1912 pantomime because of the brevity of the mermaids' costumes) and was intensely patriotic. She raised a fund to erect a statue to King Edward VII and during World War I ran charity afternoons at the zoo, often with vice-regal patronage; when St David's Cathedral refused to lend seats for a Belgian Relief Day she transferred her religious allegiance to St George's, Battery Point.

Mary Roberts died in Hobart on 27 November 1921, survived by two sons and three daughters. Her husband who, of retiring disposition, had taken no part in public life, had died in 1919. Intolerant of being 'put upon', adept at carrying out chores deemed unsuitable for a lady of her time, when even the role of zookeeper was considered avant-garde, Mrs Roberts was an early feminist. Her zoo, presented after her death to the Hobart City Council and relocated in Queen's Domain, closed in 1937.

Gerald Roberts was born on 13 July 1877 in Hobart Town, youngest child of Mary and Henry Roberts. After attending The Hutchins School (1889-94), he entered his father's business, Roberts & Co. Ltd, becoming director in 1908 and chairman of directors 1932-61. He expanded the company to one of the largest of its type in Tasmania, negotiating an amalgamation with Allan Stewart Pty Ltd of Launceston in 1955 and bringing in the Burnie-based Farmers' Co-operative Auctioneers in 1957.

He was a founder in 1918 of the Council of Federated Wool Brokers of Australia (from 1919 National Council of Wool Selling Brokers of Australia), vice-chairman of the Tasmanian Wool Committee in both World Wars and active in the Royal Agricultural Society of Tasmania. For fifty years he was Hobart director of the Commercial Union Assurance Co. Ltd.

As a young man Roberts was a lieutenant in the Southern Tasmanian Cadet Corps and held commissions in the 1st Battalion Tasmanian Infantry and the Derwent Infantry regiments. In 1914 he was appointed assistant censor. A keen sailor and boat-builder, commodore of the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania in 1909-11, he constructed in the 1920s an early cadet dinghy and later several outboard speedboats. He was a proficient metal-turner, making small brass cannon for charity fund-raising, a founder of the Hobart Orchid Society, a trustee of the Church of England and member of the Naval and Military Club.

A quiet, reserved man, generous while preserving anonymity, Roberts died in Hobart on 18 June 1961, survived by his wife Lanoma, née Sadler, whom he had married at St John's Church, Launceston, on 25 February 1909, and by four sons.

Select Bibliography

  • E. A. Bell, An Historic Centenary (Hob, 1965)
  • E. R. Guiler, ‘The Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart’, Papers and Proceedings of the Tasmanian Historical Research Association, 33 (1986)
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 10 May 1967
  • Mercury (Hobart), 11 Feb 1919, 28, 29 Nov 1921, 20 June 1961
  • Roberts diaries and papers (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Eric Guiler, 'Roberts, Mary Grant (1841–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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