Gregory Macalister Mathews (1876–1949) was born at Merrygoen, New South Wales, the son of the surveyor and ethnologist R.H. Mathews. He was educated at Singleton Grammar School and The King’s School, Parramatta. He worked for six years on a cattle station in Queensland, observing birds on droving trips, and then became an orchardist in New South Wales. In 1902 he married a wealthy widow and they sailed for England.

A man of leisure, with a passion for hunting and horse racing, Mathews suddenly decided to compile an exhaustive work on Australian birds. Encouraged by R. Bowdler Sharpe of the British Museum, and assisted by Tom Iredale, he worked on the project for over 20 years, meeting and corresponding with ornithologists, buying and exchanging skins, and amassing a large library covering all aspects of ornithology. The first volume of The Birds of Australia appeared in 1910 and the twelfth and final volume was published in 1927. Mathews settled in a village in Hampshire shortly before World War I and lived the life of a country squire. Apart from the years 1940–45, when he returned to Australia, he remained there until his death. He was awarded the CBE in 1939.

Apart from The Birds of Australia, Mathews was the author of A List of the Birds of Australia (1913), A Manual of the Birds of Australia (with Tom Iredale, 1921), The Birds of Norfolk & Lord Howe Islands and the Australasian South Polar Quadrant(1928) and A List of the Birds of Australasia (1931). He founded and edited theAustral Avian Record (1912–27).

The Birds of Australia (1910)

A List of the Birds of Australia (1913)

A Manual of the Birds of Australia (1921)

The Birds of Norfolk & Lord Howe Islands and the Australasian South Polar Quadrant (1928)

List of the Birds of Australasia (1931)

Austral Avian Record (1912–27)


Mathews first discussed the possible sale of his ornithological library in 1925. In 1938 he offered the library to the Commonwealth Government as a gift and it was gratefully accepted by J.A. Lyons, the Prime Minister. The collection reached Canberra in August 1939. Mathews himself arrived in Australia six months later and in 1940–41 he spent a good deal of time in Canberra assisting with the cataloguing of the collection. Following his death in 1949, his son Alister presented a portrait of Mathews, as well as manuscripts, personal papers and watercolours by Lilian Medland. A number of items were also purchased in 1949, including pattern plates to Gould’s Birds of Australia and a letterbook of Silvester Diggles. Further items, including Mathews’ CBE medal, were donated by Germaine Mathews in 1991.

From 1942 onwards a number of Australian ornithologists donated books and other material on the understanding that they would be added to the Mathews Collection. They included Neville Cayley, E.E. Gostelow, Tom Iredale, S.W. Jackson and H.M. Whittell.


Printed Materials

The Mathews Collection contains approximately 5000 books, pamphlets, reprints and journals published between about 1760 and 1940. They include works in English, French, German, Italian and Russian. They relate to all aspects of ornithology in all parts of the world, with a special focus on Australian birds. In addition to publications dealing exclusively with birds, there are general works on natural history and zoology and also histories, voyages and travels.

Among the many notable ornithologists and zoologists represented in the collection are John Audobon, Arthur Bent, Hans von Boetticher, Charles Bonaparte, Frank Chapman, Frederick Chasen, Elliott Couer, Georges Cuvier, Thomas Eyton, Joseph Grinnell, Sir William Jardine, John Latham, Carl Linneus, William Macgillvray, Ernst Mayr, Alden Miller, Alfred Newton, Eduard Oort, Thomas Pennant, Franz Poche, Leonid Portenko, Heinrich Reichenbach, Lionel Rothschild, Tommaso Salvadori, Henry Seebohm, William Swainson and Percy Taverner. Australian ornithologists and naturalists include George Bennett, Gracius Broinowski, Archibald Campbell, Neville Cayley, Alex Chisholm, Silvester Diggles, John Gould, Keith Hindwood, Tom Iredale, John Lewin, Alfred North and Edward Ramsay.

Among the many rare books in the collection are the following:

Bechstein, Johann, Getreue Abbildungen naturhistorischer Gegenstände in Hinsicht auf Bechsteins Kurzgefasste gemeinnützige Naturgesschichte des In–und Auslandes (8 vols, 1793–1809)

Boddaert, Pieter, Table des planches enluminéez d’Histoire naturelle de M. d’Aubenton (1783)

Brünnich, Morten, Ornithologia borealis, sistens collectionem avium ex omnibus (1764)

Buller, Walter, A History of the Birds of New Zealand (1873)

Diggles, Silvester, The Ornithology of Australia (21 parts, 1866–70)

Dresser, Henry, A History of the Birds of Europe (8 vols, 1871–81)

Gould, John, The Birds of Australia (36 parts, 1840–48)

Latham, John, A General History of Birds ;(10 vols, 1821–24)

Latreille, Pierre, Natürliche Familien des Thierreichs (1827)

Lewin, John, Birds of New Holland with their Natural History (1808)

Lewin, John, Birds of New South Wales, With their Natural History (1813)

Rafinesque, Constantine, Analyse de la nature (1815)

Shaw, George, Zoology of New Holland (1794)

Vroeg, Adrian, Catalogue raisonne d’une collection supérieurement belle d’oiseaux, tant exotiques qu’Europe’ens, de quadrepedes at d’insectes (1764).

Mathews assembled a strong collection of Pacific voyages, including first or early editions of the voyages of Louis Antoine de Bougainville, James Cook, William Dampier, L.I. Duperrey, Matthew Flinders, Louis de Freycinet, Johann Forster, John Grant, Phillip Parker King, Jacques-Julien Labillardière, Per Osbeck, Sydney Parkinson, Pierre Sonnerat and George Vancouver. His collection includes the foundation Australian texts by Arthur Phillip, Watkin Tench, John White, John Hunter and David Collins, as well as the published accounts of most of the principal Australian land explorers.

A remarkable feature of the collection are the long runs of ornithological and zoological journals. They include:

Transactions of the Linnean Society of London (1791–1835

Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (1837–1916)

Journal für Ornithologie (1853–1932)

Ibis (1859–1938)

Transactions of the Philosophical Society of New South Wales (1862–65

Zoological Record (1870–1933)

Novitates Zoologicae (1894–1937)

Emu (1901–38


The collection contains extensive manuscripts of books, articles and unpublished writings by Mathews. They include the manuscripts of The Handbook of the Birds of Australia, The Birds of Norfolk & Lord Howe Islands and Systema Avium Australasianarum, notes on bird genera, and manuscripts and notes on petrels. In addition, there are manuscripts collected by Mathews, such as a letterbook of Silvester Diggles (1871–77), a manuscript on petrels by R. Bowdler Sharpe, the Norfolk Island journal of Roy Bell (1912–13), notebooks and notes of George Gray, Thomas Bowyer-Bower and Tom Iredale, and copies of letters of John Gilbert and John and Elizabeth Gould (1838–69).


The principal pictorial items in the collection are a portrait of Mathews by Basil Otto (1929), 70 watercolours of Australian and New Zealand birds by Lilian Medland, and watercolours of J.K. Keulemans, Neville Cayley, A. Stahl, F. Jaques, R. Kemp and others. A few collections acquired from other sources were added to the Mathews Collection, such as 122 watercolours of Neville Cayley, 820 watercolours of E.E. Gostelow and 155 photographs on ornithological subjects by H.M. Whittell.

Personal Papers

The personal papers of Mathews are not extensive, but they include some personal letters, correspondence with ornithologists such as Tom Iredale, Alex Chisholm and Keith Hindwood, newspaper cutting books, photographs and an illuminated testimonial presented to Mathews by the Library (1941).


The books, pamphlets and journals in the Mathews Collection have been kept together as a formed collection within the Australian Collections. They have been catalogued individually and the call numbers have the prefix GMM. In addition, they are described in a 309-page handlist published by the Library in 1966.

With a few exceptions, the manuscripts and personal papers are held in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 1465. Some of the pictures are also filed with the papers. A listing of the papers is available online at The letterbook of Silvester Diggles is held at MS 1551 and the typescript of Mathews’ ‘My life story’ is held at MS 1134.

Most of the paintings and photographs are held at various locations within the Pictures Collection. The portrait of Mathews, the watercolours of Lilian Medland, the photographs of H.M. Whittell, and several photographs of Mathews and other ornithologists have been individually catalogued and digitised. The paintings of Neville Cayley and E.E. Gostelow have been catalogued and digitised selectively.

Related Collections

Mathews sold his collection of 30 000 bird skins to Lord Rothschild in the 1920s. It is now in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.


Checklist to the Mathews Ornithological Collection, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1966 (with introduction by D.L. Serventy).

Kloot, Tess, Mathews, Gregory Macalister (1876–1949), Australian Dictionary of Biography online

Mathews, Gregory, Birds and Books: The Story of the Mathews Ornithological Library, Verity Hewitt Bookshop, Canberra, 1942.

Obituary of Gregory Mathews, Ibis, vol. 91 (3), 1949, pp. 521–4.

Serventy, D.L., Taxonomic Trends in Australian Ornithology: With Special Reference to the Work of Gregory Mathews, Emu, vol. 49 (4), April 1950, pp. 257–67.

First posted 2008 (revised 2019)