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Samuel White (1835–1880)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published:

Samuel White (1835-1880), by unknown photographer

Samuel White (1835-1880), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 12278

Samuel White (1835-1880), ornithologist, was born on 15 June 1835 at St John's Wood, London, son of John White, building contractor and Barbara, née Willingale. His father and uncle George migrated to South Australia, arriving at Holdfast Bay on 14 December 1836 in the Tam O'Shanter. John had chartered more than half the cargo space for his building materials and other provisions and had brought out as employees nine men, some with their families. Settling at Reed Beds, Fulham, at the mouth of the Torrens River, he prospered as a builder, farmer and station-owner. His wife and sons Samuel and William arrived in the Taglioni on 13 October 1842.

As a youth Samuel began observing, collecting and sketching birds. In the 1850s he managed his father's station, Tatiara, in the south-east. Able to pursue his ornithological interests after his father's death in 1860, next year he began a series of collecting expeditions. In 1863 he collected along the Murray River, and later in the area north of Lake Eyre; though forced to abandon a dray with his specimens, he brought back a wood swallow, artamus cinereus (melanops). In 1865 he was again seeking bird and insect specimens along the Murray. Later that year on an expedition west of Spencer Gulf, he found a new blue wren, malurus callinus, but lost all except two male specimens when a boat capsized. He forwarded the new malurus to John Gould in London. In 1867-68 he spent eighteen months with his brother William collecting in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. On 5 April 1869 at St Mary's Church, Morphett Vale, he married Martha Elsea Taylor and in July they sailed for England, where he met Gould. Next year he returned to Adelaide and presented to the South Australian Museum a collection of bird-skins from North Queensland, which he again visited in 1871 and in 1878-79, when he also cruised among the Torres Strait islands procuring specimens.

In April 1880 White sailed in his own vessel, the Elsea, to Sydney, where he left his family. He then sailed up the eastern coast. In the Aru Islands, Arafura Sea, he obtained species of birds of paradise; he traded guns, shot, powder, axes and other goods with the natives, but banned spirits. After collecting 800 to 1000 birds, trouble broke out with the crew. Ill, and with arsenic-damaged hands, he returned to Thursday Island, where he left the Elsea. His expedition, which he intended to resume, had cost him £5000. A few days after his return to Sydney, he died of pneumonia on 16 November, and was buried in Waverley cemetery. He was survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter and his estate was sworn for probate at £500.

White was intelligent and highly cultured, but bad luck had dogged him; he published nothing and made no lasting contribution to ornithology. Despite instructions in his will, the collection at his home, Wetunga, at Fulham, Adelaide, was dispersed after his death. He requested his executors to have his children educated in 'the protestant faith, and on no account have them sent to schools or churches where the Romish faith is taught'. A portrait of White in the uniform of a trumpeter in the Reed Beds Cavalry (c.1860) is at Wetunga. His eldest son Samuel Albert (1870-1954) was a distinguished naturalist.

Select Bibliography

  • S. A. White, The Life of Samuel White (Adel, 1920)
  • Pastoral Pioneers of South Australia, vol 2 (Adel, 1927)
  • H. M. Whittell, The Literature of Australian Birds (Perth, 1954)
  • Pioneers Assn of South Australia, The White Collection (Adel, 1960)
  • H. J. Finnis, Before the ‘Buffalo’ (Adel, 1964)
  • E. P. Ramsay letters and papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'White, Samuel (1835–1880)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 23 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

Samuel White (1835-1880), by unknown photographer

Samuel White (1835-1880), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 12278

Life Summary [details]


15 June, 1835
London, Middlesex, England


16 November, 1880 (aged 45)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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