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Helena (Nellie) Scott (1832–1910)

by Nancy Gray

This article was published:

Helena (Nellie) Scott is a minor entry in this article

Alexander Walker Scott (1800-1883), entomologist and entrepreneur, was born on 10 November 1800 in Bombay, India, son of Dr Helenus Scott and his wife Augusta Maria, née Frederick. Educated at Bath Grammar School and Peterhouse, Cambridge (B.A., 1822; M.A., 1825), he entered Lincoln's Inn but discarded a legal career for speculation as a merchant. On 17 January 1827 he arrived at Newcastle, New South Wales, in his ship Australia. This and voyages to the colony in 1829 and 1831 proved financially disastrous. In 1829 he took up a 2560-acre (1036 ha) grant on Ash Island in the Hunter River and in 1831 with his mother and sister he returned as a settler. He bought land between Newcastle and Maitland. From Newcastle House, built in 1837 on the harbour front at Newcastle, he supervised the establishment of an iron-foundry, forge and patent slip at Stockton and the construction of large tanks on Moscheto Island, where sea-water was used to supply salt for Sydney. He grew tobacco and flax on the Maitland farms and oranges on Ash Island. In 1842 Ludwig Leichhardt visited the island, found it 'a romantic place' and noted the artesian bore. In 1844 Scott presciently financed detailed plans for a railway between Newcastle and Maitland and was undeterred by Governor Gipps's comment that 'the colony was not sufficiently advanced to entertain such important works'; he advocated a tramway to Singleton and in 1853 became a shareholder in the Hunter River Railway Co., taken over by the government in 1855. Scott's original project became part of the Great Northern Railway.

From his father, a distinguished physician and botanist, Scott had acquired a deep interest in the natural sciences, and in 1835 became the founding treasurer of the Newcastle Mechanics' Institute which had a library and museum. He was an original member of the Australian Club, a magistrate, warden of the first Newcastle District Council in 1843, a trustee of Christ Church and later a founder of the Newcastle Corps of Volunteer Rifles; in these activities he conformed to the traditional pattern of behaviour so important to his brothers Robert and Helenus and their fellow exclusives, although his friends were drawn from a wider range of colonial society.

In 1856 Scott was elected to the new Legislative Assembly for Northumberland and Hunter; he held his seat in 1858, won Northumberland in 1859 and the Lower Hunter in 1860. A liberal, he favoured the secret ballot and an extension of the franchise. In 1861 he resigned from the assembly to accept nomination to the Legislative Council, where he was inactive and resigned on 1 May 1866. His appointment as a land titles commissioner on 4 June did not stave off bankruptcy in November, caused by his business incapacity and generous hospitality. He resigned as president of the Victoria Club and had to sell Ash Island, already heavily mortgaged.

Scott had given up Newcastle House and made Ash Island his home after his marriage on 29 December 1846 to Harriet Calcott (d.1866), the mother of his daughters Harriet and Helena; he welcomed distinguished artists and scientists there and devoted his time increasingly to entomology. In 1862 he was a founding member of the Entomological Society of New South Wales, next year a councillor and president in 1866 and from 1868. He published seven papers on butterflies and moths in its Transactions, and the first volume of Australian Lepidoptera and Their Transformations … (London, 1864), illustrated by his daughters, was followed by Mammalia, Recent and Extinct (Sydney 1873). On the initiative of Helena the second volume of his Lepidoptera was completed and published in five parts, 1890-98, by the Australian Museum. An active trustee of the museum in 1864-66 and in 1867-79, he was involved in the dismissal of Gerard Krefft. In 1876 he became a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales.

Scott died of liver disease at Paddington on 1 November 1883 and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. He left his estate, valued for probate at £1602, to his daughters and step-daughter Mary Ann Calcott. Scott Street, Newcastle, was named after him and a pencil drawing of him by his friend Edwin Landseer is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

His daughters Harriet (1830-1907) and Helena (1832-1910), artists and naturalists, were born in Sydney, Helena on 11 April 1832. Educated by their father on Ash Island, they acquired a considerable knowledge of Australian plants, animals and insects. They collected for and corresponded with leading colonial scientists. Their many paintings of Australian insects earned high praise from members of the Entomological Society and after the publication of Australian Lepidoptera they were elected honorary members.

In 1864 Helena married Edward Forde and next year accompanied him on a survey of the Darling River between Wentworth and Bourke. She made a collection of fodder grasses and of specimens for her proposed 'Flora of the Darling', but Forde died of fever at Menindee on 20 June 1866 and she returned to Sydney, transferring her collections to Rev. William Woolls, who used them for a section of his Contribution to the Flora of Australia (Sydney, 1867). Harriet and Helena received commissions from the Macleays, William Macarthur, E. P. Ramsay, and Sir Terence Murray and for some years provided almost all the figures for the scientific literature produced in Sydney, notably J. C. Cox's Monograph of Australian Land Shells (1868) and Krefft's Snakes of Australia (1869) and Mammals of Australia (1871). They also designed Christmas cards with Australian themes for commercial production, while Harriet's drawings of native flowers and ferns graced the 1884 and 1886 editions of The Railway Guide of New South Wales.

In 1882 Harriet married Dr Cosby William Morgan but the marriage was unhappy. She died at Granville on 16 August 1907. Helena, whose letters reminded Murray of 'what letter writing was in the Augustan days of England', died at Harris Park on 24 November 1910.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Aurousseau (ed), The Letters of F. W. Ludwig Leichhardt, vols 2-3 (Cambridge, 1968)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1859-60, 3, 353, 1868-69, 3, 1257, 1869, 2, 875, 1873-74, 5, 917, 1875, 4, 289
  • ‘Presidential address’, Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 36 (1911) and J. J. Fletcher, ‘The Society's heritage from the Macleays’, 45 (1920)
  • W. J. Goold, ‘Our pioneers’, Newcastle and Hunter District Historical Society, Journal, 10 (1956)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 Oct 1844
  • Forde letters, sketches, drawings (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Scott collection (Australian Museum, Sydney)
  • family papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Nancy Gray, 'Scott, Helena (Nellie) (1832–1910)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

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