William Saville-Kent


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Saville-Kent, William (1845-1908), marine biologist and author, was born William Savill Kent on 10 July 1845 at Cliff Cottage, Sidmouth, the youngest of ten children of Samuel Kent (1801-1872), sub-inspector of factories, and his first wife Mary Ann (1809-1852), daughter of Thomas Windus, coach builder and Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries. Both his parents were from London but the family moved to Devon in 1833.

Saville-Kent was the most important pre-federation figure in Australian fisheries and one of the first professional fisheries scientists. His early career was in the British museums where he came under the notice of the leading biologists such as Owen, Huxley and Flower. His first professional appointment was to assist William Flower in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons where he first met Thomas Huxley. He then moved to the British Museum under Owen and John Gray and in 1870, with the support of lions of the London biological community, he received a grant from the Royal Society to survey for sponges and corals in the waters off Portugal in the yacht Norna. This work initiated his commitment to living marine fauna and, around the same time, Frank Buckland introduced him to aquaculture. Frustrated by lack of promotion, he left the Museum in 1873 and struck out in a new direction. He saw in the new public aquaria, then under construction in a number of British cities, great potential for experimental marine biology and accepted an appointment as resident naturalist at the Brighton Aquarium. After Brighton he held similar positions in Manchester and at the Westminster Aquarium in London. From his experience in these facilities grew an ambition to establish a national marine laboratory and in 1877 he floated a company, backed by prominent biologists such as Owen, to achieve this objective. When this venture, and a second involving the Brighton Aquarium, failed he accepted his first appointment in Australia in 1884.

William Saville-Kent
At work on Barrier Reef photographing live coral.


He was 38 years old when offered the post of Superintendent and Inspector of Fisheries in Tasmania. There he surveyed resources, built a research laboratory, established oyster culture and re-wrote legislation. (For details of his role in Tasmania see also.) After clashing with those promoting salmonid culture he moved to Victoria where he again surveyed resources and recommended a program of development. With an established reputation on managing oyster fisheries it was natural that the Queensland Government should seek he assistance to address problems in that colony. There he renewed his interest in corals and sponges. After three years in Queensland he was persuaded to accept a similar position in Western Australia. His two decades in Australia set the foundations for fisheries development and conservation in Tasmania, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia and provided the material for two major books –The Great Barrier Reef and The Naturalist in Australia.

In parallel with his official appointments Saville-Kent maintained private research interests, initially in microscopic forms, then into corals and sponges, and finally lizards. His interest in microscopy and lizards was stimulated by Huxley to whom his three volume work A Manual of the Infusoria is dedicated. Flower introduced him to corals and in view of their importance to his life it was appropriate that corals should adorn his grave in Milford on Sea. After leaving Government service he was contracted by Lever Pacific Plantations to develop pearl farms in the Cook Islands and then in the Solomom Islands. Levers specifically tasked him to culture spherical pearls. After this developmental work he established a company to culture pearls off Somerset in far north Queensland. The secrecy of this endeavour and his sudden death in 1908 left uncertainty as to whether he should be credited with the discovery of the technique to culture pearls.

His books remain the only visible memorial to his work, yet his pioneering studies of Australian fishery resources deserve greater recognition. In all the Australian colonies except New South Wales and South Australia his surveys, recommendations, and reports were the foundation for the development of the modern fishing industry. His proposals to revive and restore oyster fisheries were appropriate and farsighted. Unfortunately, after his departure, State Governments failed to provide follow-up assistance and guidance to those committed oyster growers prepared to follow sustainable practices.


Dates Address, city/town/county/country

1845 1848 Cliff Cottage Sidmouth Devon England

1848 1852 Walton Manor Walton-in-Gordano Somerset England

1852 1855 Baynton House E Coulston Wiltshire England

1855 1861 Road Hill House, Rode Somerset England

1861 1866 Camden Villa Weston-Super-Mare Avon England

1867 1870 56 Queens Rd Notting Hill, London England

1870 1872 Various London England

1872 1873 13 Clissold Rd Stoke Newington, London England

1873 1874 1 Upper Rock Garden Brighton Sussex England

1874 1876 Alexander Rd Whalley Range Withington, Manchester Lancashire England

1876 1878 various London England

1878 1879 St. Helier Jersey UK

1879 1884 Aston House, 87 St Stephens Ave Shepherds Bush England

1884 1884 84 Davey St. Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

1884 1885 Milton House, Gore St Sth Hobart, Australia

1885 1887 Napolean St Battery Point Hobart, Australia

1887 1889 Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

1889 1892 Ellan Yannin, Cnr Shafton Rd & Main St. Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, Qld, Australia

1892 1893 Glenmore Chiswick Lane Chiswick London England

1893 1895 Perth, Western Australia , Australia

1895 1899 The Rowans 3, Beddington Gardens Wallington Surrey England

1898 The Elms Elmwood Rd Croydon England

1898 Belsito, Milford on Sea Hampshire England

1904 Australia, Cook Islands, Solomon Islands

1906 Belsito, Milford on Sea Hampshire England

1906 1908 Albany Is. North Queensland, Australia

Jul -Sep.1908 Belsito, Milford on Sea Hampshire England

Source of data and comments A.J. Harrison, Savant of the Australian Seas, Tas. Hist. Res. Assoc. Hobart 1997

Saville-Kent correspondence.

The Linnean Society of London. Membership Registers.


Death 11 Oct 1908 House of Good Hope Hospital, Bournemouth, England

Date: day/month/year Address, city/town/county/country

Cause of death Cardiac failure following surgery for 'intestinal blockage'

Burial Oct 1908 All Saints Churyard, Milford-on-Sea, Hants. England

Date: day/month/year Address, city/town/county/country

Note 1.

The subject was named William Savill KENT by his parents but in his later life used slightly differing styles; this has led to some confusion amongst librarians. In a letter of 14 February 1919 to a Edgar Smith his elder sister Elizabeth comments on the variations in his name. She stated that the style William Saville-Kent was his "nom-de-plume". His marriage certificate of 1872 records William Savill KENT, yet when his first wife died less than three years later an "e" has been added to Savill. In letters to Waterhouse at the British Museum he signed himself William S Kent or W S Kent until Nov. 1870 when, in a deeply personal letter concerning his engagement he uses his second name, with the added "e" (W Saville Kent) for the first time. It would not be surprising if, when seeking social advancement, he should want to distance himself from the horrific events of the past. (His sister was confessed the murder of her infant stepbrother Savill.) "William Kent" was quite well known before he had left school and the public's memory was refreshed in 1865 after his sister's sensational confession. As the murdered child was known as Savill the alteration in spelling is understandable so that ambitious William might employ a mild disguise without disowning his heritage. Thereafter he mixes the usage but always uses Saville. In his early published papers he used the title "W Saville Kent"; the qualifications "FLS FZS FRMS" were added in A Manual of Infusoria and in his publications for the International Fisheries Exhibition in 1883. His first report to the Tasmanian Government in 1884 is signed W Saville-Kent and this form is applied to papers and books published after that time. However in private correspondence, such as the copy of his first Tasmanian report which he sent to Prof. Flower at the British Museum and an 1886 letter from Tasmania to P L Sclater, there is no hyphenated surname. After his return to England he used the hyphenated form in private and public and in his will made in 1892.


Esteban GF, Corliss JO, Finlay BJ. Saville-Kent's String of Pearls. Protist 153, p 413-430, 2002.

Esteban GF and Harrison A J, The Saville-Kent Centre: Research in Paradise, Protist 155, p 269-270, 2004

Harrison, A.J. The Savant of Australian Seas. Tasmanian Historical Research Association. Hobart, Uniprint, 1997.

Saville-Kent, W. A Manual of the Infusoria. Three volumes. London, W H Allen, 1880, 1881, 1882.

Saville-Kent, W. The Great Barrier Reef. London, W H Allen, 1893.

Saville-Kent, W. The Naturalist in Australia. London, Chapman & Hall, 1897.

Stapleton, J.W.E. The Great Crime of 1860. London, Marlborough & Co., 1861.

Taylor, Bernard. Cruelly Murdered. London, Souvenir Press, 1979.


In London private papers were found in:

The British Museum of Natural History London:

Administrative records including minutes of meetings of the Trustees.

Letterbooks containing incoming correspondence to Directors (Owen - 2 letters, and Flower - 3 letters), to the Keepers (G.B. Waterhouse - 19 letters and Albert Gunther - 16 letters) and to the curators H.M. Bernard and Edgar Smith.

Biographical file on W. Saville-Kent.

The Linnean Society of London.

Correspondence with W. Saville-Kent.

Membership Registers.

The Royal Society London: correspondence relating to grants for research.

The Zoological Society London: correspondence to the Secretary (P.L. Sclater)

Elsewhere in England manuscripts relating to William Saville-Kent and his family were found in

The Bournemouth and District Society for Natural History - Minute books.

The Milford-on-Sea History Society.

The Milford-on-Sea Women’s Institute - Scrapbooks.


In Sydney

The Australian Museum holds letters from Saville-Kent to the Directors E.P. Ramsay and R.G. Etheridge. G 6401, AMS 6 vol.14, AMS 9/K19.

The Mitchell Library : Papers of Henry Parkes and John Douglas.

In Brisbane

Royal Historical Society of Queensland: Papers on Cape York collected by the Jardine Family.

Royal Society of Queensland: correspondence and unpublished minutes and papers. Outwards Correspondence copy book 1883-90.

Government archives relating to William Saville-Kent may be found in:


The Public Records Office:

Files of the Science Museum

Records of the Natural Pearl Oyster Company

Australian Archives (Canberra)

CRS CP661/2: Judge Dashwood’s Report on Queensland Pearling Industry.

CRS A1715 item 6: Application for copyright by W Saville-Kent.

Queensland State Archives

Colonial Secretary (COL), Treasury (TRE), Marine Board, Harbours and Marine Department (HAR) and Home Office (HOM). Particularly valuable were COL A802, 1896/115, and 1896/116; TRE A volumes 30, 41 and 46. and HAR series 48 volume 197.

Archives Office of Tasmania

Chief Secretary’s Department (CSD) series 13, volume 14, file 144 (Salmon Commissioners) and series 13, volume 78, file 1504 (W.S. Kent); series 16, volume 18, files 69 (oysters) and 122; and series 19, volume 7, file 33 (Fisheries Commissioners).

Public Records Office of Victoria

Premiers Correspondence 1888, VPRS 1161 and 1163.

State Archives of Western Australia

Fisheries records 108/52 (Appointment of W. Saville-Kent) and 114/52 (Pearling in Shark’s Bay).


Savant of the Australian Seas
Research in Tasmania 1884-1985
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