S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Hellier, Mr James Bisdee (agriculture)

Born: 1819, Place not known.
Died: 1901, Grahamstown, South Africa.

James (sometimes John) B. Hellier, naturalist and agriculturalist, arrived in the Eastern Cape from England around 1865. That year he applied for permission to practise as a chemist. He actively conducted and promoted agricultural and related research in the Eastern Cape for the rest of his life, communicating his ideas and findings to local scientific societies. By 1867 he resided in Grahamstown and was a member of the newly formed but short-lived Eastern Province Silk and Cotton Growing Association. At an early meeting of the association on 20 September 1867 he advocated the establishment of a Chamber of Agriculture, the object of which would be to direct local agricultural research by farmers and other members of the public, but nothing seems to have come of the proposal. He was an active member also of the Albany Natural History Society (Grahamstown, 1867-1875, 1890-1892). At a meeting in March 1868 he exhibited specimens of the cultivated silk worm, Bombyx mori, as well as cocoons of a silk producing moth that feeds on fig trees in the Transkei [genus Ocinara]. In April 1872 he spoke to members on ladybirds (fam. Coccinellidae). In February 1875 he reported on smut, a parasitic fungus of the genus Ustilago that had just been found to attack wheat crops in the Queenstown region, and offered advice on how to combat it. Later that year he reported his investigation of fruit fly maggots. The maggots attacking peaches, figs, apricots and pears all developed into the same kind of fly, which was thought to belong to the genus Trypeta. Hellier deplored the fact that catapult-wielding boys killed so many insectivorous birds, as these could help to keep the insect pest under control.

In 1872 Hellier became a foundation member of the Eastern Province Cotton Association and served on the sub-committee that was to draft rules and solicit subscriptions for it. He also edited a serial publication called The Farm, published in Grahamstown during the 1870's for stock farmers and agriculturalists. Later this publication was reduced to a column in the Grahamstown Journal for several years. At some time after the introduction of the so-called Australian bug (the cottony cushion scale, a citrus pest) to the Cape in 1873, Hellier identified it as Dorthesia, a name widely used at the Cape but later replaced by Icerya purchasi. He was a city councillor of Grahamstown from 1868 to 1870.

Hellier had some knowledge of mineralogy and chemistry, as he was thanked for his assistance in these two fields in the annual reports of the Albany Museum for 1872 and 1873. He investigated and reported on some bituminous coal samples from the Stormberg and from Butterworth to the Albany Natural History Society in 1870; the next year he reported to the same society on his analysis of bituminous shale, brought from the diamond fields by Dr W.G. Atherstone*.

In December 1875 Hellier left Grahamstown for Queenstown. The Wesleyan Young Men's Association of Grahamstown took leave of him at a special function, at which he was described as a person of "sedate demeanor" and a valuable mentor, known for his scientific achievements. He appears to have been less scientifically active during the next ten years or so, although he served on the commission appointed to inquire into and report upon diseases of cattle and sheep in the Cape Colony in 1877. Later he contributed an article on "Stock breeding" to The South African Exhibition, Port Elizabeth, 1885, edited by Charles Cowen. In September 1889 he was appointed as agricultural assistant to King William's Town, East London and the rest of the border region. Residing in King William's Town for the next four years, he contributed regularly to the Agricultural Journal of the Cape of Good Hope. One of his articles dealt with "The American aloe" (1890, Vol. 2, pp. 303-304) and he requested farmers to report on its use as a fodder plant. In July 1893 he was appointed editor of the Agricultural Journal in Grahamstown. Upon his departure from King William's Town he was presented with a clock on which the names of nine Eastern Cape farmers' associations were inscribed, in recognition of his 25 years of service to farming in the region, and was described as the "father of agriculture" in the Eastern Cape. He later moved to Cape Town and continued his editorial duties until 1900, when he applied for a pension. He died the next year.

List of sources:
Agricultural Journal of the Cape of Good Hope, 1890-1892, Vol. 2-5.

Cape Monthly Magazine, Series 2, December 1871, pp. 382-384; and June 1872, Vol. 4, pp. 382-384: Albany Natural History Society.

Cape of Good Hope. Civil service list, 1896-1898.

Cape of Good Hope. Report of the Commission appointed to inquire into and report upon diseases of cattle and sheep in this Colony. Parliamentary Report G3-1877.

Cape of Good Hope. Report of the committee of the Albany Museum, 1872, 1873, 1875.

Gibbens, M. Two decades in the life of a city: Grahamstown 1862-1882. MA dissertation, Rhodes University, 1982.

Grahamstown Journal, 20 September 1867, p. 2: E.P. Silk and Cotton Growing Association; 20 March 1868, p. 4; 8 August 1870, p. 3; 19 February 1875, p. 3; and 15 November 1875, p. 3: Albany Natural History Society; 17 April 1872, p. 2: Eastern Province Cotton Association; 13 December 1875, p. 2: Testimonial to Mr J.B. Hellier; 8 July 1893, p. 3: Presentation to Mr Hellier.

Grocott's Penny Mail, 5 September 1889, p. 2: Our diary - Mr J.B. Hellier.

Lounsbury, C.P. The pioneer period of economic entomology in South Africa. Journal of the Entomological Society of South Africa, 1940, Vol. 3, pp. 9-29.

Mendelssohn, S. South African bibliography. London: 1910.

National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System (NAAIRS). http://www.national.archives.gov.za/naairs.htm Documents relating to Hellier, James Bisdee/Hellier, J.B.

Compiled by: C. Plug