Master collector

Image of George Masters

Portrait of George Masters, the Crown Studios Sydney 1890–1912. Credit: Muse Magazine

By Roslyn Jehne

The Macleay Museum owes a great deal of its natural history collection to the enthusiasm of one man: prolific collector George Masters. Roslyn Jehne takes a look at the English gardener who became a fearless Aussie forager.

Naturalist and entomologist George Masters was born in Kent, England in July 1837. He first became interested in natural history while employed as a gardener. Migrating to Melbourne around 1856 or 1857, he was employed first looking after an entomological collection and then spent some time in Tasmania collecting insects for himself.

Masters arrived in Sydney about 1859 or 1860, continuing with his entomology collection in his spare time. While identifying insects at the Australian Museum, he found errors, which he pointed out to the curator Gerard Kreftt. Fate intervened in Masters’ life when he was introduced to William John Macleay (1820–91), Australian Museum Trustee, wealthy pastoralist, collector and politician and beneficiary of the so-called Macleayan Museum, including the famous insect cabinets of the Macleay family. Macleay employed Masters to collect for him in Port Denison in Queensland.

After returning from his trip in July 1862, Masters began collecting and exhibiting in earnest. Also a fine marksman and taxidermist, he collected a variety of bird skins. He was a robust man, who enjoyed the country sports of ‘huntin’, ‘shootin’ and ‘fishin’. Undaunted by the heat of the Australian climate, his personality well suited life as a collector. It was said of him that he was “a splendid shot, fearless in the bush with natives and frequently caught reptiles, including venomous snakes in his bare hands”.

From 1864 to 1874 he worked as Assistant Curator to Kreftt at the Australian Museum, making extensive collecting trips throughout Australia, including NSW, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania and Lord Howe Island. Hr also provided Macleay with specimens for his private museum. A prolific collector, Masters was responsible at one time for acquiring a considerable section of the Australian Museum’s collection.

Image of collection

A tiny sample of the tens of thousands of labels Masters wrote for the Macleay collections. Credit: Muse Magazine

Masters resigned from the Australian Museum in January 1874 to take up employment as Macleay’s assistant curator. He was offered payment of 300 pounds per annum with the promise of curatorship of the Macleayan University Museum at the same salary, upon Macleay’s death. Always diligent, Masters worked during the week, from nine until noon on Saturdays, and frequently for a few hours on Sundays. He often spent Saturday afternoons at pigeon shooting matches around Sydney and in the country, where he occasionally gained first prize. To be closer to his work, Masters, his wife and housekeeper moved to the Victorian villa Ithaca at Elizabeth Bay. Early in the mornings or in the evenings, he fished from the end of the Elizabeth Bay jetty and brought unusual catches of fish back for Macleay’s museum.

With Masters at work, the Macleay collection expanded rapidly during 1874 through purchases, donations and exchanges with other collectors, as well as through collecting trips in Sydney and country NSW. The collection grew even further in 1875 from Macleay’s trip to New Guinea on board the barque Chevert. This was the first Australian foreign scientific expedition and members collected about 1000 specimens of birds; numerous reptiles including two crocodiles; 800 fish; a very large collection of marine mollusks, land shells; insects; spiders and crustacea. Among the many specimens collected, Masters was the first known collector to secure an egg of the Bird of Paradise, which remains in the Macleay Museum to this day.

Image of Macleay collection

Masters prepared and looked after a diverse range of specimens, including fish. Credit: Muse Magazine

The University of Sydney took over Macleay’s museum between 1886 and 1888. Masters, its first curator, supervised the transfer of the collection from Elizabeth Bay to the University between late 1888 and the beginning of 1890. Having worked as curator at Elizabeth Bay for 14 years, Masters was about to commence 24 years of service to the University. Macleay died in 1891, leaving Masters on his own to care for the Macleay collection. This he did until his death on 23 June 1912, the result of a carriage accident on his way to Government House. He was buried at Waverley Cemetery in eastern Sydney.

During his lifetime, Masters wrote around 20 scientific papers and exhibited specimens at meetings of the Entomological Society of NSW and the Linnaean Society of NSW. In 1871 he published his Catalogue of the Described Coleoptera of Australia, with supplements published in 1895 and 1896. In 1873 he produced Diurnal Lepidoptera and a List of Australian Longicorns. He was a member and Councilor of the Natural History Association of NSW (later renamed the Field Naturalists Society of NSW).

In 1903 Masters donated his private collection of insects with their cabinets, as well as bird’s eggs and zoological specimens to the Macleay Museum. As a testament to his position as a collector and entomologist in the competitive world of collectors, during his lifetime more species of vertebrates and invertebrates were named after him than any other naturalist.

Roslyn Jehne is a social history curator. She volunteers at the Macleay Museum where she has been working on biographies for the Victorian taxidermy project.