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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Caley, George (1770–1829)

by R. Else-Mitchell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

George Caley (1770-1829), naturalist and explorer, was born on 10 June 1770 at Craven, Yorkshire, England, son of a horse dealer. His only formal education was about four years at Manchester Free Grammar School, which he left to work in his father's stables. A desire to know more about farriery led him to study botany and with the encouragement of the celebrated botanist, Dr William Withering (1744-1799), he became associated with the Manchester School of Botanists. In 1795 he approached Sir Joseph Banks and after working in the Kew and other gardens was appointed by Banks in 1798 to go to New South Wales as a collector at a weekly wage of 15s. with quarters and supplies from the government stores.

Caley sailed from Plymouth in the Speedy, arrived in Sydney in April 1800 and was allotted a house at Parramatta where he could keep his specimens and maintain a botanical garden. His next ten years were devoted chiefly to the collection of natural history specimens and exploration. Philip Gidley King found him 'eccentric and morose', cantankerous at times in his relations with fellow botanist, Robert Brown, but 'with all his faults … clever and faithful … and very assiduous in his duties'; though on one occasion described as 'flighty', his minor amours seem little unusual in the New South Wales of his day. His main work was botanical and the vast numbers of plants, seeds and descriptions which he sent to Banks bear witness to his diligence and capacity as a collector. He was the first to make a determined effort to study the Eucalyptus; he also studied bird and animal life and specimens of these were likewise sent to Banks with comments and explanations. His excursions took him to Western Port and Jervis Bay, the Hunter River, Norfolk Island and Van Diemen's Land, but of more significance were those around Sydney; these included the definition of the limits of the Vaccary Forest (Cowpastures) in February 1804, an attempt to cross the Blue Mountains in November 1804, which ended at a place he named Mount Banks overlooking the Grose Valley, a journey beyond the Cowpastures to Jugroy in July 1805, another from Parramatta across the northern ridges to the sea near Narrabeen in January 1807, and one from Prospect to the upper waters of George's River and the Cataract and Cordeaux Rivers in July 1807. Caley kept a complete record, usually in the form of a journal, of each excursion and there were others of which his letters make passing mention; on one of them he traversed the whole of the route by which Barrallier had endeavoured in 1802 to cross the Blue Mountains from Nattai.

As a result of these excursions and his systematic cultivation of the friendship of the Aboriginals, Caley acquired a detailed knowledge of the country surrounding the settlement, but little use was made of it, possibly because of the disturbed condition of the colony after William Bligh's deposition in 1808. This event and many other incidents of colonial life attracted Caley's critical eye and were the subject of pungent comment in his frequent reports and letters to Banks. In 1808 Banks wrote to terminate Caley's appointment, but offered him a small pension and agreed to his remaining in New South Wales if he wished. Caley, however, was homesick and returned to England bringing with him, much to Banks's annoyance, an Aborigine who had been his close companion and whom Banks quickly sent back to Sydney.

Caley lived in England, presumably on the small pension from Banks, until 1816, when he was appointed superintendent of the botanical gardens at St Vincent, West Indies. He took up this position on 1 August 1816 but like earlier superintendents he was harassed in his work by the residents. He resigned on 24 December 1822, his health having suffered through some tropical complaint. He returned to England and lived in Bayswater until his death on 23 May 1829; his wife whom he married in 1816 had predeceased him without leaving any children.

Caley's work in New South Wales has not received due recognition although some botanical species were named after him; only a few of the names he adopted from the Aboriginals or gave to geographical features on his expeditions have endured and, oddly enough, the pile of stones on the Blue Mountains near Linden, which was known for many years as Caley's Repulse, was not built by Caley at all. His explorations added greatly to knowledge of the colony and his botanical specimens constituted a valuable contribution to science. As well as being an original explorer and a self-taught naturalist, Caley was a shrewd observer of current affairs and his strong independence of mind and character gives his comments on conditions in the colony and of the deposition of Bligh an impartial quality which is lacking in many contemporary accounts. Only small fragments of his voluminous journals, letters and natural history notes have been published; like the many specimens he collected, they are dispersed in the Mitchell Library, the British Museum, the Kew Gardens and herbaria elsewhere.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 3-6
  • J. Cash, Where There's a Will there's a Way, or Science in the Cottage (Lond, 1873)
  • J. H. Maiden, Sir Joseph Banks (Syd, 1909)
  • J. H. Maiden, ‘George Caley, Botanical Collector in NSW’, Agricultural Gazette of New South Wales, 16 Oct 1903, pp 988-96
  • R. Else-Mitchell, ‘George Caley: His Life and Work’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 25, part 6, 1939, pp 437-542
  • L. A. Gilbert, Botanical Investigation of Eastern Seaboard Australia, 1788-1810 (M.A. thesis, University of New England, 1962)
  • manuscript catalogue under G. Caley (State Library of New South Wales)
  • G. Caley letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

R. Else-Mitchell, 'Caley, George (1770–1829)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 28 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

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