Buller, Walter Lawry (DNB12)

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BULLER, Sir WALTER LAWRY (1838–1906), ornithologist, born on 9 Oct. 1838, at Newark, Bay of Islands, New Zealand, was eldest surviving son of the Rev. James Buller, who, born in Cornwall in December 1812, went out to New Zealand as a Wesleyan missionary in 1835, was successively president of the Australasian and of the New Zealand Wesleyan Methodist Conferences, and wrote ‘Forty Years in New Zealand’ (1878) and ‘New Zealand, Past and Present’ (1880), dying at Christchurch, N.Z., on 6 Nov. 1884.

Buller was educated at Wesley College, Auckland, and received scientific instruction from William Swainson [q.v.] the naturalist. Having learnt the Maori language, he was appointed government interpreter at Wellington in 1855, and started a weekly Maori paper. In 1861 he was made editor-in-chief of the ‘Maori Messenger,’ a bilingual journal; in 1862 he became a resident magistrate, and in 1865 a judge of the native land court. In the same year he engaged in the Maori war as a volunteer on the staff of Sir George Grey, and received the New Zealand war medal for his gallantry in carrying without escort Grey's despatches by night through forty miles of the enemy's country. In 1871 he came to England as secretary to the agent-general for New Zealand, and was called to the bar at the Inner Temple on 6 June 1874. He then returned to New Zealand, and practised in the Supreme Court till 1886. In 1875 he was made C.M.G., in recognition of his work on New Zealand ornithology, being elected F.R.S. for the same reason in 1876. He was already a fellow of the Linnean, Geological, and other scientific societies. In 1886 he came back to England as a commissioner for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, and was made K.C.M.G. He was a member of the Mansion House committee for the Paris Exhibition of 1889, and was given the legion of honour. On his return to New Zealand he was involved in some land transactions concerning the Horowhenna block which were made the subject of serious charges in the house of representatives by the Hon. J. McKenzie, minister of lands in October 1895. An action in the supreme court in August 1897 vindicated Buller, though Mr. McKenzie persisted in his charges. On another visit to England in 1900 Buller was made hon. Sc.D. of Cambridge. He had already received the same degree from the university of Tübingen and had been awarded many foreign decorations.

Buller's principal claim to notice is his complete study of the ornithology of New Zealand, on which he contributed sixty-one papers to scientific periodicals. His chief works were the ‘History of the Birds of New Zealand’ (1873; 2nd and enlarged edition 1888), and a ‘Manual of the Birds of New Zealand’ (1882). He was engaged on a supplement to his ‘History’ when he died. His work, at once accurate, complete, and well illustrated, ranks among the most magnificent contributions to ornithological literature.

He died at Pontdail Lodge, Fleet, Hampshire, on 19 July 1906, and was buried at Fleet. He married in 1862 Charlotte (d 1 Nov. 1891), third daughter of Gilbert Mair, J.P., of Auckland, N.Z., and left two sons and a daughter. There is a bronze tablet to his memory in the St. Michael and St. George chapel in St. Paul's Cathedral.

[Mennell, Dict. of Australasian Biog.; Nature, lxxiv. 354; The Times, 23 July 1906.]

R. S.