Update on William Saville-Kent

added 9 January 2011

In writing my biography of Saville-Kent in 1997 I wrote on page 135 that
‘While working at Albany Passage Saville-Kent became ill and hurried back to England....’

Recently digitised newspapers show this to be not entirely accurate. He did return to England on the vessel
Guthrie in the middle of 1908 but probably fell ill in England in September. He was apparently not ill when he landed in Darwin at the end of May where he spoke of his plans to return to his pearl farm later in the year.

NT Times 29 May 1908

MR. SAVILLE: Kent, the well-known scientist who was a through passenger recently by the steamer
Guthrie on his way to England, appears to have perfected a valuable idea-not only in the cultivation of pearlshell, which seems likely to develop into as settled an industry as the growing of wheat, but also iii the more alluring direction of the reported successful growth of real pearls. If this be so, Mr. Kent would appear to have practically solved a riddle which the alchemists of olden days spent their lives in trying to read. They attempted to transmute the baser metals into pure gold, and if Mr. Kent can cultivate marketable pearls at will, and is alone in his possession of the secret of 'how it is done’, he has practically achieved the end aimed at by the scientists of a past age.

When passing through here in the
Guthrie. Mr. Kent spent some hours on shore, and is said to have shown to one or two specimen pearl which he has succeeded in producing in its natural habitat on his cultivation lease at Albany Island, This is described "as being the size of a pea and of good lustre and shape.

Singularly enough, whilst on shore in Darwin Mr. Kent lost this very pearl, which was subsequently picked up by a local resident (a lady) and handed by her to a gentleman with whom Mr. Kent had left word of his loss.

Our Thursday Island contemporary, (the
Torres Straits Pilot) has the following interesting reference to this matter, viz :

" Mr. Saville Kent, who has been for the past month or so working at his cultivation lease at Albany Island, left by the
Guthrie on Sunday last en route for England, his intention being to return here in about a year. We hear that his experiments have been most successful so far, and warrant the further pursuit of his venture - indeed, so far is he said to have progressed that the shell laid down only some five months ago are thriving splendidly and spatting most prolifically ; besides which his experiments in pearl production are assured. It is also said that offers from Hatton Garden, London, have been made for his products in this way, and his accomplished results are fetching a satisfactory figure.''

John Ruffels drew my attention to above and this letter to the Editor "The Cairns Post." in 1947 that describes the structure of the farm and what happened when news of his death came to Thursday Island.



The interesting article in last Thursday's issue on the above subject recalls my experience with some such scheme in Torres Strait many years ago.

The late W. Saville Kent, who had been Commissioner of fisheries for the State Government in earlier days, returned to Torres Strait, and thence went to Japan to learn what he could about the cultivation of pearls. On his return he formed a station on Albany Island right opposite Somerset. He had a large vessel and a number of half casks, all connected up by piping. Through these a stream of sea water was pumped by the air of a Ryder Ericksen hot-air engine. He had an Italian diver, in dress, collecting pearl shell in the surrounding areas and placed while still alive on the reef opposite the station, whence they could be taken at low tide as required.

Mr. Saville Kent produced several small pearls about the size of a pea, and then proceeded to England to raise capital to extend operations very much. He left Mr. Bert Jardine with an kanaka as assistant to carry on the work in his absence, and I agreed to finance operations until he came back.

In its natural state the pearl oyster lies on the sea bed at an angle with its bivalves open to pick up its food I when the tides pass along. When required for treatment the shell was kept in the casks, and a wooden wedge was placed between the bivalves to keep its "mouth" open. Up to this point all was very easy, but the difficulty then arose how to keen the small object used as a base for nacreous matter to gather on so that the oyster would not "spit" it out when the wedge was withdrawn and the oyster placed back in the tubs. If the small object could be placed behind the muscle holding the valves together all was well; but if places in front without any adhering substance it would, of a certainty, be vomited.

The station on Albany Island was 30 miles from Thursday Island, with a two-day thrash with the sailing craft then in use, and thus, I did not see much of the actual operations. All that was expected of me was to find the cash to pay the wages of the two employees. The diver had been discharged, as there was ample shell gathered on the reef for a long time. |

Advices were received from Mr. Saville-Kent from London, stating he had made arrangement for the capital and that he had booked his berth to return by the
Moldavia via Sydney. Shortly afterwards, a cable was received from his wife stating he had succumbed to an attack of pneumonia. On receipt of this sad news I proceeded to Albany Island and arranged to continue financing the work for at least 12 months more, by which time there should be ample proof to place the work in the hands of a company without capital.

I am impressed with the possibilities of pearl cultivation, but I was too tied up with my business to carry on any of the work personally.

Some time after I had made arrangement for the work to continue I heard indirectly all the pearl shell had been removed from the reef and transferred to Goode Island, close to Thursday Island. On learning this I sent a party down to gather all it could of what I had supplied, and it returned with the Ryder-Ericksen hot air engine. This and two pearl shells, with artificial, pearls attached, are all for my expenditure of over £500.
Yours, etc.

Cairns, March 3."

Hodel owned a trading company on Thursday Island and was engaged in the pearling industry. The letter casts doubt on the idea that Bertie Jardine or his family were investors in the project. I have investigated the claim in the second sentence that Saville-Kent went to Japan to learn about pearl culture. I can find no evidence for such a visit and in the light of the subsequent debate about the pearl culture patents doubt that such an important fact could have gone unnoticed by others. C Dennis George would surely have learnt of it before, during , or after his time in Japan.
Debunking a Widely Held Japanese Myth (Pearl Guide.com)

added 1 Sep 2010

Further details on William’s life will be found in Noeline Kyle’s new biography of Constance Kent. A Greater Guilt. (Brisbane, Qld. : Boolarong Press, 2009). This is also available on-line in Google Books.

added 4 May 2006


William Saville-Kent was a noted photographer and I am indebted to Ray Williams for this letter written by Saville-Kent that throws light on the subject

The Rowans, Wallington
Surrey - 22.1.'98

Dear Mr Morton Middleton

Thank you for yours of the 20th inst. I shall look [at] your Notes to Nature on the Camaeleons [sic] at the earliest opportunity*. I had five myself this last summer and autumn; in fact only lost the last about two weeks ago. They all proved to be females and after laying a number of eggs (unfertilised) died. I wonder whether your experiences were in any way analogous.
[The paragraph below, as a side-note marked by an asterisk, is written along the left-hand side of the page at right-angles to the rest of the letter.]
* Anger and fear evinced in Chamaeleons [sic] (as observed by myself) by puffing up of their bodies, gaping mouths, hissing, and a rocking to and fro on two stilt-stiff legs. Have made some characteristic sketches ther[e]anent.
I am contributing a paper mostly on Lizard life in Australia with lantern illustrations at the Camera Club Meeting on Thursday. They have put a liberal number of Invitation Cards at my disposal. In case you or friends may care to make use of them I enclose a couple.
Yours very sincerely
W. Saville-Kent

PS The C.C. Meetings are I regret for members only. I enclose a fairly successful little snapshot which will appear among the slides, as a solatium.
R. Morton Middleton Esqr

"Founded in 1885, The Camera Club is one of the oldest and most distinguished photographic societies in Englnad, and many notable figures in the history of photography have been members. The club owns its' own London clubhouse This enables it to offer the outstanding facilities to members, which many might otherwise find almost unavailable or unaffordable. The club promotes interest in all aspects of photography as an art form accessible to all, and welcomes members who enjoy photography at all experience levels, young and old, amateur and professional.
To find out more about the club, and the facilities, events and services which it offers to members, please click on the index pages to your left.
16 Bowden Street, London SE11 4DS. _Phone: 020 7587 1809_www.thecameraclub.co.uk"

Regrettably the Clubs records were destroyed by German bombs in World War II so we have no record of WSK's membership.

Saville-Kent in Darwin in 1888

I have just discovered a photograph of
HMS Myrmidon in Darwin taken by Foescher. The note accompanying the photo in the South Australian Musuem on line exhibition says that the photographer,Paul Foelsche, assisted Saville-Kent in his surveys of the coasts off Port Darwin. Foelsche was the Northern Territory's first police inspector, commanding its police force from 1870 to 1904. He not only policed the Top End - he also recorded it, in meticulous detail.

Pearl Culture

Now that the National Library has begun to digitise old newspapers more information is emerging on the visit to Australia of Tokichi Nishikawa and of Saville-Kent’s voyage back to England in 1908.

For the original material on Saville-Kent
Please click here then choose Fisheries Pages and scroll down to Biographies. William Saville-Kent is the first on the list.