Caught and Coloured: Zoology Illustrations from Colonial Victoria

John Bracebridge Wilson

Long-serving and well-respected headmaster of Geelong Grammar School from 1863 to 1895, John Bracebridge Wilson was also an accomplished marine naturalist.

Born on 13 September 1828 in Norfolk, England, Wilson was educated at Cambridge University. While his family hoped he would enter the diplomatic service, John was much more interested in natural sciences, deciding upon a teaching career.

Migrating to Melbourne in 1857, he soon established a small school in Geelong, which eventually developed into Geelong Grammar School. By 1878 the school roll had grown to 150 boys, with Headmaster Wilson teaching and encouraging students toward outdoor activities. However once term ended and pupils returned to their homes in Geelong and the Western District, Wilson's attention turned to marine science.

A proficient yachtsman, over the years Wilson sailed a succession of yachts around the vicinity of Port Phillip Heads. Given the treacherous reputation of the narrow passage known as 'The Rip', this was a tricky task in itself, made more so by towing a naturalist's dredge to gather marine animals from the sea floor.

In spite of the hazards, Wilson brought a large amount of material back to 'Atherstone', his seaside cottage at Sorrento, much of it new to science. Able to identify and describe some animal groups by himself, he published several papers on molluscs and algae. Less familiar with other animal groups, he distributed these to various specialists: for example, he collected many of the bryozoans (lace corals) described in the Prodromus by P.H. MacGillivray.

Wilson was also a key figure in the Port Phillip Biological Survey, conducted from c.1886-1895 by the Royal Society of Victoria. The survey's aim was to prepare a report on the biology of the Bay, building up a catalogue of animals and plants taken from a series of sampling stations. The program was progressing well, but suffered a blow when Wilson died in Geelong on 22 October 1895.

Portrait of John Bracebridge Wilson.
Hydroid, Clathrozoon wilsoni, collected by John Bracebridge Wilson.
John Bracebridge Wilson's skiff, the Oriana off Sorrento. This was used to collect specimens in Port Phillip Bay.