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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Elsey, Joseph Ravenscroft (1834–1857)

by A. H. Chisholm

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Joseph Ravenscroft Elsey (1834-1857), surgeon, explorer and naturalist, was born on 14 March 1834 in London, the only son of Joseph Ravenscroft Elsey, a Bank of England official. He was educated at Mill Hill School, and trained in medicine at Guy's Hospital (M.B., 1853). In March 1855 he qualified at the Royal College of Surgeons and the College of Chemistry, and soon after was appointed surgeon and naturalist to the North Australian Exploring Expedition, led by (Sir) Augustus Gregory. Before leaving England in April Elsey sought advice on meteorology from Charles Sturt. In July he reached Melbourne in the Marco Polo and went on to join Gregory in Sydney. The expedition, in which Elsey ranked fifth and Ferdinand Mueller sixth, sailed from Port Jackson and reached the mouth of the Victoria River near the end of September. Elsey had made notes on coastal history and natural history, and while quartered at the Victoria was diligent in medical work and the study and collecting of birds and insects; he also bred caterpillars in boxes, gave attention to fish and crocodiles, made geological and meteorological observations, and cultivated vegetables. Some of his most interesting beetles, which frequented treetops, were obtained from the stomachs of high-flying birds. 'You cannot imagine', he wrote to his parents, 'what delight my work as a naturalist affords me. Not a day passes but some wonder or novelty shows itself'.

In June 1856 Elsey, with the two Gregory brothers, Mueller and three stockmen, trekked overland to Brisbane, a journey of more than 2000 miles (3,219 km) that took six months. Earlier Elsey had obtained two new species of birds, now known as the lilac-crowned wren and the buff-sided robin, and on the overland journey he discovered a third novelty, the golden-shouldered parrot. These species were named by John Gould, who acknowledged the informative nature of numerous field notes furnished by Elsey.

Elsey returned to Sydney and in March 1857 sailed in the Alnwick Castle for England. There he was assured that Gregory's tribute to his conduct had been officially noted with 'great satisfaction'. He was then offered appointment as government surgeon at the Seychelles Islands; but his health had become 'seriously and unexpectedly deranged' in London and he went instead to the West Indies, where he hoped to do natural history work in a better climate. He died at St Kitts on 31 December 1857.

The amount and nature of the work done by the youthful Elsey were impressive. He was accorded warm tributes by Gould, by Mueller who named a plant of the genus Ripogonum in his honour, and by the zoologist John Gray who gave a new tortoise the generic name Elseya. Gregory had given the name Elsey to a tributary of the Roper River, and the pastoral property, Elsey station, established there was the scene of Mrs Aeneas Gunn's We of the Never-Never.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Gould, Handbook to the Birds of Australia, vol 1 (Lond, 1865)
  • A. H. Chisholm, ‘J. R. Elsey, Surgeon, Naturalist, Explorer’, Queensland Naturalist, vol 17, nos 3-4, June 1964, pp 60-70
  • J. D. Macdonald and P. R. Colston, ‘J. R. Elsey and His Bird Observations on Gregory's Overland Expedition, Australia, 1856’, Emu, vol 65, part 4, Mar 1966, pp 255-78
  • A. H. Chisholm, ‘J. R. Elsey, Explorer of the Never-Never’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 52 (1966)
  • J. R. Elsey papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Mueller papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

A. H. Chisholm, 'Elsey, Joseph Ravenscroft (1834–1857)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 30 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

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