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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Hall, Robert (1867–1949)

by Ann G. Smith

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Robert Hall (1867-1949), ornithologist, was born on 19 October 1867 at Lal Lal, Victoria, third son of Isaac Jones Hall, railway stationmaster from Cork, Ireland, and his English wife Eleanor, née Fisher. Educated at Scotch College, Melbourne, Hall in the 1890s set up in Melbourne as a tea merchant and cartage contractor. But his great interest was ornithology. After 'some biological work' at the University of Melbourne he travelled through the north and west of Australia before accompanying a Norwegian expedition to Kerguelen Island, as naturalist, in 1897. Two years later he made a bird-collecting trip to the Houtman Abrolhos. His major expedition outside Australia was with R. E. Trebilcock to Siberia, via Japan and Korea, in February-December 1903 to collect specimens and eggs of Siberian birds known to migrate to Australia in summer. He travelled 3000 miles (4828 km) along the Lena River to its mouth, collecting 90 species totalling 401 specimens; when he failed to raise sufficient funds from Australia to cover his expenses he sold the skins to the Rothschild Museum at Tring, Hertfordshire, England.

Hall returned impressed by overseas museum technology and became an influential advocate of nature study in schools: 'Nature is the true foundation of the finest education'. Already the author of A Key to the Birds of Australia and Tasmania (1899) and Insectivorous Birds of Victoria (1900), the latter a standard Victorian Department of Education issue to state schools, he wrote, with William Gillies, Nature Studies in Australia (1903) and gave evening lectures to metropolitan teachers. Some useful Birds of Southern Australia followed in 1907.

In January 1908 Hall succeeded Alexander Morton as curator of the Tasmanian Museum and Botanical Gardens. He had worked briefly for the Queensland Museum in 1901 and claimed experience at the National Museum, Melbourne. Although well over six feet (183 cm) tall and craggy in build, he had a cherubic expression and appeared to the Mercury on the day he commenced duties as an intensely shy man; he needed much prompting to expound his idea of creating attractive and realistic displays of fauna in simulated natural surroundings and so bringing 'nature … to the people who will not go to Nature'. Himself a skilled preserver of birds, he regarded the taxidermist as the 'mechanical pulse' of the museum.

Hall's plans were not realized and he resigned in 1912 after disagreeing with the museum trustees over the possible purchase of some Tasmanian Aboriginal skulls; he also relinquished the secretaryship of the Royal Society of Tasmania. He became an orchardist at Bellerive, then at Cygnet and Sandy Bay; describing himself as 'nature scientist', he promoted various short-lived, eccentric schemes including the production of fish meal, and possum-farming. He remained always helpful to students and until the 1920s continued as a prolific contributor to nature journals. In 1922 he published Australian Bird Maps. A foundation member of the (Royal) Australasian Ornithologists' Union (1901) and president in 1913, he was also a corresponding member of the Zoological Society of London (1903), a fellow of the Linnean Society (1903) and a colonial member of the British Ornithologists' Union (1908). He died on 19 September 1949 at New Norfolk, and was cremated. His wife Edith Mary, daughter of W. R. Giblin and sister of L. F. Giblin, whom he had married on 17 September 1908 at St David's Cathedral, Hobart, survived him; they had no children. Parts of his private bird and egg collections are held at the Tasmanian Museum and the National Museum, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • L. J. Blake (ed), Vision and Realisation, vol 1 (Melb, 1973)
  • Emu, Oct 1949
  • Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania, 1949
  • Australian Bird Watcher, Sept 1978
  • Sun-News Pictorial (Melbourne), 4 June 1927
  • Mercury (Hobart), 3 Jan 1908, 20 Sept 1949
  • Tasmanian Museum, minute book, 1912.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ann G. Smith, 'Hall, Robert (1867–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 25 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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