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William Saville-Kent (1845–1908)

by A. J. Harrison

This article was published:

William Saville-Kent (1845-1908), fisheries scientist and author, was born on 10 July 1845 at Sidmouth, Devon, England, youngest of ten children of Samuel Savill Kent, sub-inspector of factories, and his first wife Mary Ann, neé Windus. William was educated in boarding schools at Bath, Worcester and Gloucester. His early life was disturbed by his father's infidelity, his mother's death in 1852, and the conviction in 1865 of his sister Constance Kent (1844-1944) for the murder of their infant half-brother in what was alleged to be an act of revenge against a former governess, now their stepmother. Despite her age, and being convicted solely on her doubtful confession, Constance was to serve twenty years in prison. There were three other half-siblings.

After study at King's College (University of London) and at the Royal School of Mines under T. H. Huxley, William became a naturalist and from 1868 worked at the British Museum. In 1870 he received a grant from the Royal Society to conduct a dredging survey off Portugal. Recognizing the potential for experimental marine biology of the public aquaria then being constructed in a number of British cities, in 1872-73 he was resident naturalist at the Brighton Aquarium, Sussex. His ambition was to establish a national marine research laboratory. Although he floated a company, he was forced to leave its development to others. At the Manchester Aquarium (1873-76) he developed an interest in aquaculture. He also worked in aquaria on Jersey, in London and Norfolk and, from 1879, back at Brighton.

On 11 June 1872 at St Matthias's Church, Stoke Newington, London, he had married Elizabeth Susannah Bennett (d.1875). On 5 January 1876 at the parish church, Prestwich, Lancaster, he married Mary Ann Livesay, giving his surname as Saville Kent. Later he added a hyphen. A fellow (1869) of the Royal Zoological Society, London, in 1873 he was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society of London.

Following Saville-Kent's work at the Great International Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883, Huxley recommended him to the Tasmanian government to restore badly depleted oyster beds. Appointed superintendent and inspector of fisheries, William arrived at Launceston with his wife and a half-sister on 15 July 1884. In the following decade he produced the first comprehensive and scientific surveys of Australian fisheries and their potential for development, covering not only the biological aspects of the stocks but also fisheries laws, the economics of the industry and the marketing of the catch. The first to require fishing vessels to be registered, he rebuilt the oyster beds in Tasmania through the establishment of government reserves, the introduction of minimum-size regulations and the leasing of areas in which to apply modern culture methods, but fell out with members of a commission charged with acclimatizing salmon and trout in Tasmania's rivers. When his Tasmanian appointment was not renewed, he applied the same techniques in Victoria (1887-88), Queensland (commissioner of fisheries, 1889-92) and Western Australia (commissioner of fisheries, 1893-95) for both edible and pearl oyster fisheries. He also examined and reported on fish, bêche-de-mer, corals, sponges, dugong and turtles during this period.

Although sceptical about attempts to acclimatize salmon in Tasmania, Saville-Kent introduced trout into Western Australia and attempted to acclimatize other freshwater sporting fish from eastern Australia. He planned to export high quality Australian species into British waters. The author of many scientific papers and reports, he wrote three major books: A Manual of the Infusoria (three volumes, London, 1880-82), The Great Barrier Reef (London, 1893) and The Naturalist in Australia (London, 1897).

William's personal life seemed strongly shaped by women, including friends in Australia such as Louisa Ann Meredith and Ellis Rowan. In 1886, following her release from prison, he had met his sister Constance in England and brought her to Tasmania. She adopted the name 'Ruth Emilie Kaye' and, after accompanying her brother to Victoria and Queensland, worked as a nurse in Melbourne, then in Perth and finally in Sydney, where she became matron first of Prince Henry Hospital and then at Parramatta Industrial School for Girls. She died on 10 April 1944 in Sydney.

Saville-Kent and his wife lived in England in 1892-93 and from 1896 to 1904. He now put his ideas into commercial effect. In 1904 he worked for Lever Bros in a pearl culture experiment based in the Cook Islands. Forming a company back in England in 1905, next year he began to culture pearls in tropical Australia, at Somerset, Torres Strait. He was probably the first to succeed in producing both blister and spherical pearls of commercial quality—a necklace believed to have been made with his pearls has recently attracted specialist attention.

As private research, Saville-Kent devoted much attention to corals and sponges and lizards. These objects of his interest shared his residences. In mid-1908, in poor health, he returned to England and on 11 October, following surgery, he died in hospital at Bournemouth. His wife survived him; they were childless. Saville-Kent was a pioneer of scientific management of Australian fisheries. His grave in All Saints' churchyard, Milford-on-Sea, Hampshire, is decorated with corals.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Taylor, Cruelly Murdered (Lond, 1979)
  • A. J. Harrison, Savant of the Australian Seas (Hob, 1997)
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)
  • Australian Gemmologist, 15, no 5, Feb 1984, p 155
  • Protist (Germany), vol 153, no 4, 2002, p 413.

Citation details

A. J. Harrison, 'Saville-Kent, William (1845–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


10 July, 1845
Sidmouth, Devon, England


11 October, 1908 (aged 63)
Bournemouth, Dorset, England

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