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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wheelwright, Horace William (Horatio) (1815–1865)

by A. H. Chisholm

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Horace William (Horatio) Wheelwright (1815-1865), hunter, naturalist and writer, was born on 5 January 1815 at Tansor, Northamptonshire, England, second son of Rev. Charles Apthorp Wheelwright and his wife Ann. Educated at Reading Grammar School, he later studied law, practising in 1843-46 as an attorney at Thrapston, Northamptonshire, but his great interest was field sports. After failing in his profession he moved to Kent and later spent some years 'rambling over the forests and fells of Northern Europe', especially Norway and Sweden.

About 1852 Wheelwright migrated to Australia, probably attracted by the Victorian gold rushes. Unsuccessful on the diggings, he decided to 'face the bush on his own account' rather than seek work on a station; although impressed by Melbourne he had no desire to live there. He became a professional shooter of game and, as he described later, luckily fell in with a mate in the same circumstances as himself, with similar education, training and tastes; together they 'roughed it' under the same canvas for some four years. Camping within a radius of forty miles (64 km) of Melbourne, they shot duck, quail, pigeon and kangaroo for the city market. Occasionally they were joined on expeditions by sporting friends from Melbourne, and Wheelwright also spent some time alone in the bush. In 1859, according to his own account, although some sources say 1856, he returned to Europe.

Wheelwright's years as a shooter in the Victorian bush would have remained obscure but for the publication of his Bush Wanderings of a Naturalist: Or, Notes on the Field Sports and Fauna of Australia Felix (London, 1861, 1862, 1864), written under the pseudonym of 'An Old Bushman'. A handbook for the rambler, it is regarded now as one of the most informative and readable narratives of early bush life in the colony. In it he details information on local animals, birds, reptiles, insects and fish, ranging from minute observations of their appearance and habits to practical notes on how to catch joeys for pets, make possum rugs or platypus tobacco pouches, cure kangaroo hams and choose suitable guns and ammunition for hunting purposes. Although he was himself a strong advocate of regulations to protect animals and birds during their breeding seasons, his book reveals how widespread was the slaughter of wildlife by the mid-1850s.

After leaving Australia Wheelwright lived in Sweden and devoted himself to natural history. But he was not so much a scientific naturalist as a pioneer who solved mysteries of nature by adventure and daring. In 1859 he published in Carlstadt, Sweden, a comparative list of birds in Scandinavia and Great Britain; from 1860 he contributed articles to The Field. In 1864 he published a book on his experiences in Lapland and in 1865 his Ten Years in Sweden appeared. His Sporting Sketches. Home and Abroad … (London, 1866) contains reprints of articles from English journals and two are based on his Australian experiences.

A fall in a slippery London street aggravated a hernia condition from which Wheelwright had suffered for years. He was taken to his brother's house at Crowhurst Parsonage, Surrey, but died on 16 November 1865 after an operation. He was buried in Crowhurst cemetery. In a preface to Sporting Sketches his publishers described him as an apt observer with great powers of description; though not an accomplished scholar, he was 'a kind-hearted, highly principled, honourable, manly fellow'. His writings on birds retain their value.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Whittell, The Literature of Australian Birds (Perth, 1954).

Citation details

A. H. Chisholm, 'Wheelwright, Horace William (Horatio) (1815–1865)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 24 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

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