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BELCHER, Sir Charles Frederick

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A Geelong Biographical Register entry reproduced with the kind permission of the Geelong Historical Society.  [© 2000 Geelong Historical Society, Geelong, Victoria]

Sir Charles Frederic BELCHER
(1876 - 1970)

BELCHER, Sir Charles Frederic (1876-1970), solicitor and colonial administrator, was born in Geelong at 'Merchiston Hall', Garden St, on July 11, 1876.  He was the eldest of four sons of George Frederick Belcher and his second wife Frederica Thorne (1846-1881).  Frederica died in March 1881 when she was only 34 and Charles not yet five.  As a boy living at 'Merchiston' and at 'Allanvale', Leopold, he was afforded easy access to the wilder places of the Bellarine Peninsula and the Connewarre Lakes system which underpinned his lifelong enjoyment of the outdoors.

On the death of his mother he was sent to relatives in Melbourne where he had some home-tuition.  His formal education commenced in February 1886 when, on returning to Geelong, he was enrolled at Rowcroft's Preparatory School where he was named dux.  In 1888 at the age of 11 he commenced as a day-boy at Geelong Grammar School, though for about six months he became a boarder because of recalcitrant behaviour at home; symptomatic perhaps of a sometimes strained relationship with his father.  He qualified to matriculate in 1890, going on to Trinity College, University of Melbourne (1894-1898) where his assiduous scholarliness earned a string of First Class Honours, Exhibitions in English and Classics, and a number of scholarships.

In school sport he intensely disliked football and cricket but enjoyed rifle shooting, swimming, running, rowing, tennis and athletics.  Later he rowed for Trinity (1896-98) and the 1897 University crew.  He demonstrated his stamina on one occasion by riding his bicycle on a Friday afternoon from the university to Geelong, dancing until 3.00 am, cycling back to Melbourne, attending lectures, winning a 440 yard handicap from scratch, then dancing until midnight.

He took his LL.B. in 1898 and MA in 1901.  The Geelong legal firm with which he commenced his articles collapsed six months later when one of its members defalcated with substantial funds.  Fortunately for Belcher the remnant of the practice was taken over by Harwood and Pincott, who without further fee, allowed him to complete his articles; he was admitted to the Victorian bar in 1902.  He continued with Harwood and Pincott for several more years, and in addition performed some family legal work in Melbourne.

In 1905 he established a solo law practice in Kyabram which he sold in 1907 to go to London to read in a barrister's chambers.  In 1909 he was called to the bar by Gray's Inn with a Certificate of Honour in the final examination.  He put his name down to join the Colonial Service but the illness then death of his father brought him back to Geelong.  On October 1, 1913, he joined with Charles Horace Birdsey to form the legal partnership of Birdsey and Belcher at 53 Yarra Street, Geelong.  As a term of the partnership Belcher had the right to 12 months leave of absence which he exercised to go to England to pursue a legal appointment with the British Colonial Service.  He subsequently retired from the partnership on September 30, 1914.

Throughout his life he sustained an abiding interest in birds.  He remembered finding his first bird's egg (Noisy Miner) at the age of four under a tree at 'Allanvale' - the victim of a Pallid Cuckoo he later suspected.  From childhood he got to know the Salt Works, farms about Moolap and Leopold, Lakes Reedy and Connewarre, Drysdale, the Queenscliff Bush, Lake Victoria, coastal areas from Bream Creek to Lorne, eastern borders of the Otways, Mount Duneed to Mount Moriac, Lara, You Yangs, Batesford, and Barwonside to Pollocksford.  In 1905 he became a foundation member of The Bird Observers Club.  He was a member of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists' Union, and for some time editor of the Emu.

Working in the Reading Room at the British Museum from "wisps of material" which he had begun gathering in bird notebooks from the age of ten, he wrote a very personal account of 244 species in Birds of the District of Geelong, Australia (374 pp., 50 photographs) which he published privately in 1914.  A major work to complete in just three months.  He later reflected

" ... if I was to leave anything behind me that should appear worth doing, here was my field ... I had the songs and nesting of those birds in my blood ... I wanted to get something of that down on to paper so that a fragment of my real self might appear in it and survive my personal span."

In the same year he joined the British Colonial Service.  His initial appointment was as Conveyancer to the Government of Uganda.  The notable judicial career which then developed took him to Zanzibar, Mombassa, Nyasaland, Cyprus (Chief Justice 1927 - 1930), Trinidad and Tobago (Chief Justice 1930 - 1937), and President of the Appeal Court of the West Indies.  He was made MBE in 1919, OBE in 1923, and knighted in 1931.  Wide travel fostered his interest in birds and he visited places as far apart as Argentina and Norway to see rare species.  His status as a serious ornithologist is reflected in the names of two birds with which he is associated: Slender Billed Prion Pachyptila belcheri; and Belcher's Barbet Buccanodon belcheri.

In 1930 he published Birds of Nyasaland (356 pp., map).  It was a classified list of species recorded in the Nyasaland Protectorate (Malawi) with a fold out map, but no photographs.  He based it on field notes compiled between September 1920, when he first arrived in the Protectorate, and 1927, when to his expressed "great regret" he left on transfer.  He dealt with 521 species, more than double Birds of Geelong, and mostly new to him.  With a colleague he also prepared an annotated list of the birds of Cyprus for a new edition of a local handbook.

In 1908 in London he married Sara Visger of Bristol (October 22, 1885, - November 20, 1965).  They had three children: Elizabeth (1909), William (1912), and in 1924 Barbara who survived only a few months.  Thursday, December 17, 1936, was his last day in court, and though he retired soon after, he subsequently served on many public committees.  In retirement Sir Charles and Lady Sara settled in the Highlands of Kenya, but the disruption of the independence movement caused them to move in 1954 to Kokstadt, South Africa, where he died February 7, 1970.

He visited Australia briefly in 1923, 1937 and 1950.  Though he spent 60 years of his life outside Australia, he remembered with affection the timber cottage at Torquay to which he had taken his young family at weekends; the perch he caught at Aireys Inlet - "the first to that time" he claimed; even the occasion of his brother Norman being instructed to "give the horse a blow, thus accidentally giving a party of intending campers and all their kit a dowsing in the creek.

In return his splendid legacy is Birds of Geelong.

September, 1999.
Written by J.G.H. White who used : Geelong Advertiser 10/2/1970; Investigator, Vol. 15, No 2; Vol. 34, No 3; Bird Observer, Obituary (WRW), March 1970 p. 8; Emu, RAOU, Obituary (AHC), 70, p. 91; London Gazette, 27/6/1919, 2/6/1923, 2/6/1931; Who Was Who : a companion to Who's Who, containing biographies of those who died; Belcher, Charles F., Autobiography, n.d.. MS unpub. Copyright Estate C F Belcher (392 pp); Belcher. Charles F., The Birds of the District of Geelong, Australia, 1914 (374 pp.); Belcher, Charles F., The Birds of Nyasaland, 1930 (356 pp.); Belcher, Charles F., Genealogical Notes Relating to William Belcher of Kells, 1944 (60 pp.); Corfield. J J and Persse. M C, Geelong Grammarians Biographical Register, (Vol. 1), 1996; Geelong Grammar School, Corian, Dec. 1930, p. 268-269; Jun. 1970, p. 334-336; personal communication - Belcher/White (Feb. 1966 to May 1967); Birdsey, Dedman & Bartlett (4 June, 1999); Harwood Andrews (3 June 1999); Vivian and Ruth Hill (June 1999)

 


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