S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Shelley, Captain George Ernest (ornithology)

Born: 1840, England.
Died: 29 November 1910, England.

G. Ernest Shelley, British ornithologist, was the son of John Shelley, who was a younger brother of the famous poet Percy B. Shelley (1792-1822). Ernest may have been trained as a geologist, but in 1863 joined the Grenadier Guards. After a few years, having attained the rank of captain, he resigned his commission to become an ornithologist. He started publishing in The Ibis in 1870, describing two new birds from Egypt. In 1872 he and T.E. Buckley described their "Two months bird collecting on the Gold Coast" (now Ghana) and during the next two years he described various new birds from West Africa. According to his obituary (1911) he was then sent to South Africa to do a geological survey, but I have found no record of any geological work that he might have done. Whatever the case may be, he wrote "Three months on the coast of South Africa", with reference to the birds he saw there, in The Ibis (1875).

Shelley was a good shot and enjoyed collecting birds. Most of his time in South Africa appears to have been spent in Natal, while at some time he also travelled in Ethiopia. He published some 40 papers, most of them in The Ibis. From about 1880 these dealt mainly with birds from East and Central Africa, particularly Malawi. The Zoological Society of London elected him as one of its Fellows and he published a number of papers in its Proceedings between 1878 and 1889. One of these was "On some new species of birds from South Africa: Anthus butleri; Sphenoeacus natalensis (1882). He also published several important ornithological books, starting with A handbook to the birds of Egypt (London, 1872), which was intended for hunters and collectors and was illustrated by G. Keulemans. This was followed by A monograph of the Nectariniidae, or family of Sun-birds (published in 12 parts, London, 1876-1880), illustrated by coloured plates, again based on Keulemans's drawings. The book refers to the work of South African collectors and authors such as E.L. Layard*, C.J. Andersson* and F. le Vaillant*. He was assisted in its compilation by another British ornithologist, Dr B.Sharpe of the British Museum, and had access to the collection of Sun-birds of the Marquis of Tweeddale. Originally he named the family Cinnyridae, but changed the name to Nectariniidae shortly before final publication.

In 1896 Shelley published the first volume of his monumental work The birds of Africa, comprising all the species which occur in the Ethiopian region (1896-1912, 5 vols). The first part of Volume 5 appeared in 1906, but soon thereafter he suffered a paralysing stroke and died after a long illness. Volume 5, Part 2 was completed and edited by W.L. Sclater* and published in 1912. Naturally the volumes include many references to the birds of southern Africa. Shelley had a very good memory, was painstaking in his work and an excellent writer. The South African Ornithologists' Union elected him as an honorary member in 1904. The southern African bird species Scleroptila shelleyi (Shelley's Francolin, of which his collection contained the type specimen) and Cinnyris shelleyi (Shelley's Sunbird) were named after him, as were other African species. In 1889 he married Janet Andrewes, with whom he had two sons and a daughter.

List of sources:
Clancy, P.A. A one-time Mecca for Ornithologists. Natalia, 1975, Vol. 5, pp. 29-35.

Clinning, C. Southern African bird names explained. Johannesburg: Southern African Ornithological Society, 1989.

Hocky, P.A.R. et al (eds). Robers birds of southern Africa (7th ed.) Cape Town: John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, 2005.

Journal of the South African Ornithologists' Union, 1909, Vol. 5(3), list of members.

McKay, H.M. Who's who in South African ornithology. Bokmakierie (New Series, 1966, Vol. 18, pp. 33-35 and 64-65.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Obituary: Captain George Ernest Shelley, FZS. Journal of the South African Ornithologists' Union, 1911, Vol. 7, pp. 93-94 (reprinted from The Ibis, April 1911).

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers [1800-1900]. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979 (Vols 1-4) and Cape Town: South African Library, 1991 (Vol. 5).

Compiled by: C. Plug