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Alfred Richard Selwyn (1824–1902)

by D. F. Branagan and K. A. Townley

This article was published:

Alfred Richard Cecil Selwyn (1824-1902), geologist, was born on 28 July 1824 at Kilmington, Somerset, England, son of Rev. Townshend Selwyn, canon of Gloucester Cathedral, and his wife Charlotte Sophia, daughter of Lord George Murray, bishop of St David's, Wales. Educated at home by private tutors and later in Switzerland, he became interested in geology by collecting fossils as a hobby. On 1 April 1845 he joined the Geological Survey of Great Britain as assistant geologist and was promoted to geologist on 1 January 1848. He worked in Shropshire and North Wales on the mapping of the Palaeozoic rocks, but was also on the British coalfields. Early in 1852 he married his cousin Matilda Charlotte Selwyn, and had to seek a higher income. His brother Arthur was in Queensland and in September 1851 had indicated prospects in Australia. Next year the Victorian government appealed to the Colonial Office for a 'Mineral Surveyor', and Selwyn was appointed geological surveyor (later director of the Geological Survey). He arrived in Melbourne in the Sydney in November.

Selwyn's salary was increased by Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe from £500 to £800, and soon to £900; he at first worked with only 'one assistant, one tent-keeper and a horse-keeper' and mapped more than 1000 sq. miles (2590 km²) each year, though he had to spend much time in supervision and training of successive staff. In 1856 he discovered near Bendigo the first graptolites found in Australia. This important group of fossils was later used for zoning much of the Lower Palaoezoic sequence. In 1853-69 the Geological Survey issued under Selwyn's direction sixty-one geological maps and numerous reports; they were of such high standard that a writer in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London bracketed the survey with that of the United States of America as the best in the world. Apart from annual reports, he prepared an essay on the geology of Victoria, and expanded it in 1861 for the Catalogue of the Victorian Exhibition; in 1865 he put out a geological map of Victoria in eight sheets. With G. H. F. Ulrich in 1866 he published Intercolonial Exhibition Essays … Notes on the Physical Geography, Geology and Mineralogy of Victoria for the Paris exhibition; it was translated into French.

In 1855 Selwyn had surveyed the coal measures of Tasmania, and in 1859 the eastern part of South Australia including the Flinders Range. In the Inman Valley region south of Adelaide he recognized evidence for glaciation at a site now known (and preserved) as Selwyn's Rock; later he supported this important observation by similar work in the Bacchus Marsh region of Victoria. His other duties included appointments to the Mining Commission (1856), the Board of Science (1858) and the Board of Agriculture (1859); he was a commissioner for the Victorian Exhibition (1861) and the London International Exhibition (1862) and was on the management committee of the Zoological Gardens from 1858.

In 1869, pleading lack of funds, the government abruptly terminated the Geological Survey against a background of disagreement with Selwyn about its functions, apparently instigated by R. B. Smyth, secretary for mines. He left Melbourne for England in March, visiting Sydney on the way. Before he left he announced that he had been offered the post of director of the Geological Survey of Canada. He arrived in Canada in October, took office in December and continued a distinguished career until his retirement on 1 January 1894. After moving to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1896 he carried out consulting work in mining geology. He retained an interest in Australian geology and corresponded with various friends, notably A. C. Macdonald, F. von Mueller and J. C. Newbery. He died in Vancouver on 18 October 1902 and was buried in the Mountain View cemetery, predeceased by his wife in 1882 and by four of his nine children.

Many honours were accorded Selwyn: he became a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1871 and of the Royal Society in 1874, was created C.M.G. in 1886 and was a foreign member of scientific societies in fourteen countries. He was Murchison Medallist of the Geological Society in 1876. In Melbourne he was on the councils of the Philosophical Society in 1855, and the Philosophical Institute to 1857; he was also a councillor of the Acclimatisation Society. His contributions to Australian geology were recognized in 1884 by the award of the (W. B.) Clarke Medal by the Royal Society of New South Wales. He was not universally liked, though he was held in respect and affection by his colleagues. Quick-tempered and somewhat autocratic, he made enemies in the government and especially in mining circles, in both Australia and Canada, by his unswerving and often tactlessly outspoken devotion to accuracy and scientific truth. He was a hard taskmaster, with boundless energy that he expected his assistants to emulate; but outside his work he was an amiable companion of his younger colleagues and he had many long-standing and firm friendships.

Selwyn's undoubted dominance in Australian geology owes something to the scientific climate of the 1850s, which was one of transition from the amateur to the professional, from occasional to systematic; but this situation does not denigrate his achievement, for he had the necessary stature to implement change. He brought a rigour to the study of geology that it never could have gained from, say, the work of Clarke. It is arguable that Selwyn's greatest achievement lay not in his own work but in his legacy to Australia of a generation of geologists imbued with his ideals. Within a few years the disbanded Victorian survey was making its influence felt over the whole of Australia: Richard Daintree and C. D. Aplin became government geologists of Queensland; C. S. Wilkinson and E. F. Pittman of New South Wales; H. Y. L. Brown of South Australia and later of Western Australia; while R. A. F. Murray and E. J. Dunn remained in Victoria and built up the resuscitated survey after 1872. R. Etheridge junior, in the Geological Survey of New South Wales, developed into Australia's greatest palaeontologist, and G. H. F. Ulrich founded the Otago School of Mines, New Zealand.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Woodward, ‘Eminent living geologists’, Geological Magazine, 6 (1899)
  • H. M. Ami, ‘Memorial or sketch of the life of the late Dr. A. R. C. Selwyn’, Royal Society (Canada), Transactions, 10 (1904)
  • E. J. Dunn and D. J. Mahony, ‘Biographical sketch of the founders of the Geological Survey of Victoria’, Victorian Geological Survey, Bulletin, 23 (1910)
  • F. J. Alcock, ‘A century in the history of the Geological Survey of Canada’, Canadian Mining Journal, 68 (1947) no 6
  • Selwyn family papers (privately held).

Citation details

D. F. Branagan and K. A. Townley, 'Selwyn, Alfred Richard (1824–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 19 April 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


28 July, 1824
Kilmington, Somerset, England


18 October, 1902 (aged 78)
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

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