Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

George Caley

Botanist - Naturalist - Explorer

'If poor Caley had only the pocket of a beggar, he would have acted with the honour of a prince.'

George Caley was born at Craven Yorkshire on 10th June 1770. [2]

On that same day half way around the world his future mentor and supporter Joseph Banks was involved in a desperate battle to save H.M.S. Endeavour after the vessel struck a reef and started taking in water. HMS Endeavour under the command of Captain James Cook had been sailing north along the east coast of Australia. To lighten the load almost 48 tonnes of material were thrown over the side including ballast and cannons. Twenty-three hours later, at the next high tide, the Endeavour pulled free. Six weeks were spent repairing the ship at what became known as Endeavour River in Queensland.[3]

H.M.S. Endeavour returned to England on 12 July 1771 having been absent three years. Although Banks was never to return to Australia he maintained an interest in the country and of course his passion for botany.

Later after settlement, every vessel that came from New South Wales brought plants or animals or geological and other specimens back to Banks. His influence was used in connection with the sending out of early free settlers, one of whom, a was young gardener George Suttor who arrived on H.M.S. Porpoise. By 1800, thirty years after the momentous expedition of the Endeavour, Sir Joseph Banks' days of adventure were over, yet he followed the explorations of Matthew Flinders, George Bass, and Lieutenant James Grant. His paid botanists as well were Robert Brown, Allan Cunningham, and a young George Caley [4]

George Caley was considered eccentric by Governor King and could be irascible in his dealings with others, however he possessed fortitude, dedication and great strength of body. His extensive knowledge and irrepressible enthusiasm for botany led him to become highly regarded by the most renown botanists of his day.

Early Life

George Caley's early life was described in a biography by James Cash written in 1873 -

'One of the most zealous of the botanists who flourished in Lancashire about the beginning of this century was George Caley, the son of a Yorkshire horse dealer, who, when George was a boy, removed to Middleton, near Manchester, and engaged in farming The circumstances of the early life of George Caley were not very propitious. After his father's settlement at Middleton, he was sent to, and spent a period of four years at, the Manchester Free Grammar School; but at the age of twelve, when about to enter upon a classical course, his father deeming the acquisition of Latin unsuited, or at least unnecessary, to the future occupation of the boy, took him from school and put him to the stable. He was not long, however, suffered to remain there. He had not obtained such a knowledge of arithmetic as his father deemed necessary; and he was, therefore, sent back to school. In a few months - perhaps weeks - he was permanently consigned to the drudgery of the farm.'

'A love for plants, and a desire to familiarise himself with them, seems to have early dawned upon George Caley. His father's design was to train him to his own line of business. The quackery and ignorance of the local farriers did not escape his notice, and finding an odd volume of a work on Farriery upon his father's shelves, containing anatomical figures and recipes for certain diseases, with references to useful plants, he applied himself to the study of the subject. He began to search for the plants named, and had no sooner done so (to use his own words) than he 'wanted to know more about them.' Step by step, having at his command the slenderest means, and no better botanical guides than some 'petty herbals,' which failed to satisfy him, he became acquainted with such plants as grew in his immediate neighbourhood. His was literally in those early days a groping in the dark. Linnaeus and his system were unknown to him; and Johnson's edition of ‘Gerarde, upon which he stumbled, tended only to perplex him. He had, however, in course of a few years, obtained such a knowledge of plants - perhaps not a systematic knowledge, but at all events one which was the foundation of better things - that nothing could quench his determination to make botany a life's study.' [5]


Although initially self-educated in botany, George Caley's devotion to the subject eventually led him into contact Sir Joseph Banks who in 1799 recommended Caley to Under Secretary King who in turn recommended him to Governor Hunter:

14th December, 1798.
Sir Joseph Banks having warmly recommended to his Grace the Duke of Portland a young man who has for upwards of three years studied practical botany and horticulture under his direction, and who from his natural bent towards these studies feels an irresistible impulse to travel into foreign parts, under a full persuasion that he shall be able to discover something useful to the manufactures of the mother country, I am directed by his Grace to desire that the customary ration from the public stores should be issued to him, and that suitable accommodation should be provided for him. I am also to request that he may be permitted to avail himself of any opportunity that may occur of making journeys inland for the purpose of discovering anything likely to prove beneficial to the mother country or to the colony of New South Wales. As the young man is full of health, and abounding with zeal for his favourite pursuit, I make no doubt but that you will give him every encouragement to animate his exertions towards attaining these desirable objects. I am, etc, J. King. Under Secretary King to Governor Hunter. ' [6]

Under Sir Joseph Banks' patronage Caley departed England on the Speedy bound for Australia on 20 November 1799.


The Speedy with Phillip Gidley King and family also on board, arrived at Port Jackson in April 1800. For ten years, from 1800 to 1810, George Caley devoted his life to collecting botanical specimens and also bird and animal life; specimens of these were also sent to Banks with comments and explanations.

Caley had arrived in autumn when fewer plants were in flower and his early days in the colony were not easy.

He described some of his hardships in correspondence to Sir Joseph Banks a few months after arrival -

George Caley to Sir Joseph Banks (Banks Papers.)

12th October, 1800

Sir, I labour under the misfortune of what I informed you of when at the Cape of Good Hope. No ship since ours has yet arrived from England. I have got no paper for to dry specimens excepting a few old newspapers and some other waste papers, which are but mere trifles to what I want. When I arrived here I met with but few plants in bloom, as may be seen by my remittances. At the present there are numbers coming into flower. For the want of paper I am quite distracted, which has hurt my spirits very much. I enjoy my health, and am as great an enthusiast as I ever was in my life, provided I had materials to go on with.

I am not yet thoroughly settled, for here workmanship is very dilatory. I cannot help thinking but what I was rather fortunate in arriving in the winter, for had I arrived in the summer it would have hurt me the more. In the course of one year, provided no obstacles fall in my way, I could collect half of the specimens of the plants in the colony.

I should not have troubled Governor King for any money when at the Cape of Good Hope had I not been informed what a dear and exorbitant price all commodities were sold at here. I shall trouble him for as little money as possible, for I consider £5 in England to be as good as £15 here. All animals and vegetables here appear to be new, excepting those that have been sent home, and what few are naturalised. Gyrandrous plants are very numerous ; so are the papilionaceous ones of the class Decandria. I have met with several genera which appear to be numerous in species.

In my remittances I have prefixed names to those plants that I have examined. I have not done it merely with an intent of their becoming standard ones, but for being less burthensome to my memory, as I find figures tend to perplex if I use them in all cases. I do not doubt but what many of them are inapplicable ; yet, as far as I have been able, I have abided by some expressive character. The initials S. and P. upon the labels denote Sydney and Parramatta, which is the district the specimens were gathered in. The month and year are likewise put down. The alphabetical Numerals prefixed to the Cryptogamiae denote that I have the same in my possession to prevent sending them hereafter, as I have not paid that attention to them as I have done to the more perfect ones. The figures placed in the wrappers of the seeds denote duplicates, though in those I have added names to you will find duplicates without figures being prefixed. If I find better specimens of the plants and seeds which I have now sent, in the course of the summer I shall collect them. I think of packing up some seeds in sugar, as mentioned by Mr. Sneyd, for I think it a very good method.

In course of time, tanning of leather ought to be much in practice here, for there are so many different barks that are very strong astringents. Iron abounds here in great abundance. I have lately received a small specimen of stone which contains copper. I have been told by a Cornish miner that he has met with tin. Coal, I am told, has been met with in several places ; indeed, I have great reason to believe that there are immense veins of it throughout the whole colony.'

Caley's Requirements

'Manchester goods would sell remarkably well here, such as ginghams, dark-coloured nankeens, prints, or what are called damaged ones by the printers, consisting of shawls, gown-pieces, and pocket-handkerchiefs ; in fact, everything of that manufactory would find a market in both light and heavy goods ; and, as I said before, I would rather have the worth of £5 in such property than I would £15 here.

Through my being indebted to many people for matters that I might not meet with, together with giving bread to the different natives - as I find I can gain their affections, and get information from them - makes me want to have something to traffic with. I have home for a fustian jacket and some shoes, for the woods tear everything to pieces. My next remittances, if I get paper, I expect will be worth receiving, for what I have now sent is a mere trifle.

I am, etc George Caley.'

'P.S. I have wrote to a gunsmith, who I am well acquainted with, and will get me up the articles on reasonable terms. I told him I wanted plain work, for them to use as little ammunition as possible. His address is William Aston, gunsmith, corner of Robinson 8 Lane, King's Road, Chelsea. In articles that I should want to dispose of, I should not crave an exorbitant price, for I detest the monopoly that has here been used. Your Furze kills remarkably well at a short distance ; but I should like it better if It took less powder to load it. I have not sent any seeds to either Mr. Colvill or Mr. Watson.

I have not yet seen any plants in seed whose flowers I could recommend to them. There are some seeds that I have sent whose blossoms I have not seen. In the course of the summer I expect to get some that will be of some service to them, and shall likewise not forget Mr. Dickson.'

'Note, in the handwriting of Sir Joseph Banks.
22nd June. If you choose to proceed with the discovery ships, I have no objection. All such matters as you may discover likely to be useful to commerce, I wish you to have exclusive advantage of ; but on the voyage you must not be allowed to trade in seed or living plants. All that can be collected on the voyage must be sent to Kew exclusively, and care will be taken that the nursery-men do not get them at the same time.' [7]


As well as Sydney and Parramatta, George Caley's excursions took him to Western Port and Jervis Bay, Norfolk Island, Van Diemen's Land and the Hunter River Expedition in June 1801 [2]

Botanist Robert Brown

Botanist Robert Brown who in company with Ferdinand Bauer, visited Australia during Caley's residence there, was greatly interested in his labours and such was his opinion of the man and as further testimony of the esteem in which he held him equally with his patron, he named a newly discovered (afterwards cultivated at Kew), Banksia Caleyi and also one of the orchideous genus, Caleana. [5]

Return to England

Caley's Residence Parramatta

Caley's Residence Parramatta. Sydney Gazette 24 March 1810

In the aftermath of the William Bligh affair Caley returned to England, perhaps on H.M.S. Hindostan departing in May 1810 with others who would later give evidence at the at the court-martial of George Johnston.

For the voyage home, Caley had loaded himself with a great store of specimens of plants and a fine collection of the birds, and quadrupeds of Australia which was purchased by the Linnean Society.

West Indies

Caley lived in England, presumably on a small pension from Banks, until 1816, when he was appointed superintendent of the botanical gardens at St Vincent, West Indies. He took up the position at St. Vincent on 1 August 1816. His wife passed away while they were in West Indies - I have lately had a most severe loss, by the death of my wife, in which I have lost an industrious woman and may also say, my right hand and have been almost distracted ever since. [10]

Like earlier superintendents Caley was harassed in his work by the residents. He resigned on 24 December 1822 [2]


George Caley became ill and suffered greatly with an injury or disease contracted at St. Vincent and his health gradually declined. Knowing that death was near he arranged his worldy affairs. In his Will dated 16 May 1829, he bequeathed to William Anderson, botanist of Chelsea and David Don, librarian of the Linnean Society of London one thousand pounds in trust and to pay his servant Maria who had attended him in his sickness, the dividends for life. On her demise the principal was to be divided among the children of his four brothers; also in their care was to be a white cockatoo that he had 'caught in the woods in New South Wales and had deprived of its liberty for twenty years' (a sulphur crested cockatoo named Jack) He also bequeathed £100 each to his brothers.

In addition he bequeathed freedom to a native slave named Washington he had owned in the West Indies. [8]

Burial Record of George Caley

Burial Record of George Caley

br> George Caley died aged 59 at Morrow Cottages, Paddington on 23 May 1829 and was buried at St. George's Hanover Square, London.[9]

Notes and Links

1). Proceedings of a General Court-martial Held at Chelsea Hospital, By George Johnston

2). Select here to read one of Margaret Catchpole's Letters in which she writes of her friendship with a botanist - who she describes thus - I have at this time a man that keeps me company and would marry me if I like but I am not for marrying. He is a gardener, he came out as a Botnes (botanist) and to be allowed one hundred pounds per year- Note - This letter, a tracing of which is in the Mitchell Library, is one Margaret Catchpole wrote from Sydney to her aunt and uncle in England in 1803. At that time she was as she says, the Commissary's cook. Who the 'botnes' (botanist) was that was keeping her company is not known, but the only one to whom the description could have applied was George Caley, who was sent out as collector for the Royal Gardens at Kew. - The Sun 12 July 1911

3). A Bid to Cross the Mountains - Sydney Morning Herald 30 October 1954

4). Image of Dr C. Pearson, of the Defence Standards Laboratories in Melbourne, inspecting restoration work on one of the six four-pounder cannon from Captain Cook's ship, the Endeavour. The guns, of cast iron and each weighing about 12 hundredweight, were jettisoned in June, 1770, to re-float the Endeavour when she went aground on the Great Barrier Reef about 40 miles from the present site of Cooktown. One of the restored cannon will come permanently to Canberra. The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995) Sat 7 Feb 1970


[1] Quote. Magazine of Natural History, Volume 2 edited by John Claudius Loudon, Edward Charlesworth, John Denson, p. 312

[2] R. Else-Mitchell, 'Caley, George (1770–1829)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966

[3] National Museum of Australia

[4] Wikipedia - Joseph Banks

[5] Cash, James, Where There's a Will There's a Way!, 1873

[6] HRA Series 1, Vol 2, p. 241

[7] Historical Records of NSW. Vol. IV, Hunter and King, p. 239

[8] The National Archives Kew, England; Prerogative Court of Canterbury and Related Probate Jurisdictions Will Registers; Class: PROB 11 Piece 1762

[9] Magazine of Natural History, Volume 2 edited by John Claudius Loudon, Edward Charlesworth, John Denson

[10] Reflections on the colony of New South Wales / George Caley ; edited by J.E.B. Currey, p. 201