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Samuel Stutchbury (1798–1859)

by D. F. Branagan and T. G. Vallance

This article was published:

Samuel Stutchbury (1798-1859), geologist and biologist, was born on 15 January 1798 in London, son of Joseph Sidney Stutchbury and his wife Hannah, née Smith. After some training in medical and natural science, he was appointed on 3 January 1820 to assist William Clift, the conservator of the Hunterian museum, Royal College of Surgeons, London, at a salary of £80. He resigned on 13 July 1825 and became naturalist to the Pacific Pearl Fishery Co.'s commercial expedition to New South Wales and the Pacific islands. Sir Everard Home presented him with a list of instructions and equipped him with a diving bell.

Stutchbury reached Sydney on 17 December in the Sir George Osborne; he made biological and meteorological observations and collected specimens en route, many of which he dissected and described. In Sydney Harbour he found living specimens of the pelecypod Trigonia, known in Europe only from fossil remains, and other new marine organisms which he later described in English scientific publications. Although his main work was on marine biology he also engaged in geology and met most of the colonists interested in science.

Stutchbury left Sydney in the Rolla on 8 March 1826 for the Pacific islands. His observations, published in Bristol in 1835, were widely quoted in geological literature until superseded in 1842 by Charles Darwin's work. He rejoined the Sir George Osborne at Tahiti on 14 January 1827, returned to England and apparently worked with his brother Henry; on 26 July 1827 they held a sale of objects he had collected in the South Seas. In September 1828 he failed to obtain the curatorship of the museum of the University of London, but in August 1831 he became curator of the museum of the Bristol Philosophical Institution. His published papers reflect his broad interests and support his repute as 'a man remarkably skilled in the various branches of natural history'. He also won wide success as a coal viewer and in 1844 was one of the advisers of the government on the Haswell Colliery explosion in County Durham.

Rumours of gold finds in New South Wales led in 1849 to a successful request that a geologist be sent to the colony. At short notice Stutchbury accepted the post with salary of £600 and reached Sydney on 16 November 1850. He visited the Newcastle coalfields and his unpublished report describes the mines, methods of working and the general geology. On 18 January 1851 he set out on his geological and mineralogical survey. When E. H. Hargraves publicized the gold discovery at Lewis Ponds Creek, Stutchbury was at Carcoar. He confirmed the find and brought some order to the confusion on the goldfield, but received small thanks from E. D. Thomson, the colonial secretary.

Stutchbury extended his survey northward through Mudgee and Wellington almost to Dubbo, then back to Wellington in the early part of 1852. Next year he went to the Warrumbungle Mountains and into Queensland, paying attention to the need for water on the Darling Downs and coal deposits in the Brisbane-Ipswich area. He reached Brisbane early in December 1853 and in April 1854 went north into rugged and relatively undeveloped areas, under threat of attack by Aboriginals. When his party reached Wide Bay he was in poor health; he went by ship to Port Curtis (Gladstone), and returned to Sydney early next year. In the previous November he had complained to Thomson about the treatment and slanders he had received, and aroused official ire by publishing a copy of the letter in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Early in 1855 at the Australian Museum Stutchbury catalogued his specimens and prepared duplicate sets. Some of his material was put on display and proved a popular attraction. In August he returned to Port Curtis and when he submitted his last report from Sydney on 20 November he had examined some 32,000 sq. miles (82,880 km²) of diverse and geologically complex terrain. He had supplied the colonial secretary with sixteen important tri-monthly reports with geological sketch maps; they were printed only as parliamentary papers and are still largely unknown. However his mapping was incorporated in the geological map of Australia collated by Brough Smyth and published in 1875. His appointment was terminated late in 1855 and he left Sydney in December virtually unnoticed. Failing to get a government post in England he carried out consulting work on the coalfields although his health was poor. He died at Bristol on 12 February 1859 of haematemesis and was buried in the Arnos Vale cemetery. On 2 August 1820 at St Giles, Cripplegate, he had married Hannah Louisa Barnard who bore him a daughter Louisa Mary.

Stutchbury was a conscientious scientist of considerable skill and imagination, but his official career in Australia was marred by the government's apparent demand for no more than a skilled prospector who would discover gold and other mineral deposits. W. B. Clarke's influence and writings in the Sydney Morning Herald also damaged him. He had been elected a fellow of the Geological Society, London, on 1 December 1841; he was also an associate of the Linnean Society of London, and in 1851 he became a committee-man of the Australian Society. The molluscan fossil genus Stutchburia was named in his honour, and a number of recent Australian and New Zealand shells bear his name.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1853, 2, no 302, 1854, 2, 1855, 1, 193, 3, 936, 982
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 May 1859
  • Stutchbury diaries and reports (State Library of New South Wales and National Library of New Zealand)
  • D. Vickery, Bristol Calendar 1858-64 (manuscript collection, Bristol Central Library, England)
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

D. F. Branagan and T. G. Vallance, 'Stutchbury, Samuel (1798–1859)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 13 June 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]


15 January, 1798
London, Middlesex, England


12 February, 1859 (aged 61)
Bristol, Gloucestershire, England

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