Robert Godfrey, missionary, naturalist and Xhosa lexicographer, studied courses in the Faculties of Arts and Science at the University of Edinburgh and was awarded the degree Master of Arts (MA). He took over his father's business of coal merchant in Edinburgh until his five siblings had been educated and then entered the Divinity School at New College, Edinburgh. In 1907 he came to South Africa as a missionary of the United Free Church of Scotland and was stationed at the Pirie Mission, near King William's Town in the Eastern Cape.
Godfrey had already started his activities as a naturalist in Scotland and continued them in and around the Pirie Forest. During the year after his arrival he presented the South African Museum with examples of the bat species Kerivoula lanasa, which was new to its collections, as well as some rare insects, one of them new to science, which he had collected in ants' nests. That same year he collected sufficient bird skins in the area to lend them to Curator F.A.O. Pym* of the Public Museum, King William's Town, who was doing a survey of the birds of the border region. Godfrey provided further help with this project the next year. He became a member of the South African Ornithologists' Union in 1909 and in 1912 published "Notes on the migratory birds of the Buffalo River Basin" in its Journal (Vol. 8(1), pp. 4-15). That same year he sold a collection of 55 bird skins and 56 eggs to Albany Museum and donated a collection of named false-scorpions. From 1910 to 1913 he donated ants from Pirie to the South African Museum. He also collected land shells at Pirie and in the Maclear district, with the result that the small hunter snail Gulella godfreyi was named after him.
In 1911 Godfrey was asked to prepare a second edition of the Kafir-English Dictionary, first published by A. Kropf in 1899. With the help of several others this Xhosa dictionary was published by the Lovedale Mission Press in 1915. He worked on a third edition to 1944, but it was not published. During the 1920's he also assisted J. McLaren with the publication of a similar work.
Godfrey married Jessie K. McKinnon, also a Scottish missionary, in 1913. Two years later he was transferred to the Somerville mission at Tsolo in the Transkei. While there he became a foundation member of the South African Biological Society in 1916. By 1918 he was furthermore a life member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science.
Between 1918 and 1923 Godfrey published several articles in the first four volumes of the South African Journal of Natural History. These dealt with the birds of the Buffalo basin (1918, 1919, 1920, 1922), the birds of Somerville (1923), false scorpions (1920), the bats of the Buffalo basin (1923), and the book-scorpion [order pseudoscorpionidea] and its South African allies (1923).
In 1920 he moved to the Blythswood Institution, a Presbyterian mission station near Butterworth in the Transkei, where he remained for 16 years as a missionary and teacher. Here he edited a missionary periodical, the Blythswood Review, in which he published many early observations of the naturalist Gordon A. Ranger*, as well as articles of his own. The periodical ceased publication in 1931. During these years he continued to collect birds, birds' eggs, spiders, fleas, bats, scorpions and frogs, donating specimens to Cape Museums and other institutions. In 1929 he was co-author with John Hewitt of a paper on "South African pseudoscorpions of the genus Chelifer Geoffroy" in the Annals of the Natal Museum (Vol. 6(2), pp.305-336.
Around 1936 Godfrey moved to King William's Town as secretary of the South African Mission Council of Scotland. He became in addition secretary of the Xhosa Bible review committee in 1937 and held various other positions in organised religion. From June 1940 to July 1942 he acted as honorary director of the Kaffrarian Museum while the director, Captain G. Shortridge, was on military service. In 1941 he published Bird lore of the Eastern Cape Province, a book on the lore, attitudes and views of the Xhosa in relation to birds and natural history in general. The University of South Africa awarded him an honorary Doctor of Philosophy (D Phil) degree in 1945.
Reverend Robert Godfrey should not be confused with Reverend James Robert Godfrey of Pretoria, who became a member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in 1902.