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With the notable exception of his expedition to Australia in 1838, John Gould did not often venture into the field himself. He was said by his contemporaries to have been more comfortable sorting skins and classifying them than he was collecting them. Indeed, even if Gould had been an avid explorer, there was no way he could possibly have collected the specimens he required without assistance.

John Gould's publications were based on magnitude, both in the sense of their physical size and the extent to which he catalogued a region's bird-life comprehensively. To gather enough specimens for his encyclopaedic, continent-spanning works singlehandedly would be a formidable challenge even if he had had twenty-first century transport at his disposal. In the nineteenth century, when a journey by sea could take months, it was impossible. Instead, Gould relied on a large network of both amateur and professional collectors to provide him with the specimens he used to build a publishing dynasty.

John Gould's network of collectors spanned the world. In Australia alone Gould had at least 17 collectors as well as members from the HMS Beagle who collected for him while they were in Australia. Collectors sent specimens to John Gould for a variety of reasons. Some were natural history enthusiasts, some were paid by the piece, and others were employed directly by Gould.

Being a collector was dangerous. Explorers faced challenging landscapes and weather conditions, deadly animals, and hostilities from the First Nations peoples onto whose territories they were trespassing. In fact, three of Gould's own collectors in Australia were killed by Aboriginal people when they strayed into their territory without consent.

Pig-footed Bandicoot Skull

Pig-footed Bandicoot Skull Photographer: Australian Museum Photography © Australian Museum Collection

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John Gould's main collectors in Australia

  • John Gilbert (1812-1845) was Gould's primary collector from 1838 until his death. Gilbert was killed by an Aboriginal spear in the neck while travelling on Ludwig Leichhardt's overland expedition to Port Essington.
  • Frederick Strange (flourished between 1826-1854) was a collector with Charles Sturt on the Murray. Strange long coveted the position of primary collector for Gould even before Gilbert's death. We know that Strange was semiliterate from a note he sent Gould and that he mismanaged his affairs and was financially incompetent. Frederick Strange was killed by Aboriginal people in Queensland.
  • Charles Coxen (1809-1876) was Gould's brother-in-law through his wife Elizabeth, and had resided in New South Wales since the early 1830s. He not only provided the Australian Museum with specimens but also sent specimens to Gould as did his brother Stephen Coxen. The brothers' letters and the 'strange and unusual' specimens they sent back to England inspired Gould to travel to Australia to collect material for himself.
  • Johnson Drummond (flourished between 1820-1845) collected mammals and birds for Gould, in Western Australia, where he lived with his father. Gilbert met Drummond when he came to Australia and Gould refers to specimens that Drummond shot in The Birds of Australia. Drummond was killed by Aboriginal people in the west.
  • John MacGillivray (1824-1867) was an Australian naturalist who collected for the Earl of Derby who had a working relationship with Gould. MacGillivray was a naturalist on the H.M.S. Rattlesnake.