Obfuscations of Bird Painters

In Australia, one of the best-known Cayleys is not connected with the Cayley baronets: he is Neville William Cayley, a prolific painter of Australian birds and wildlife and author of what was, I think, the most popular Australian bird guide, editions of which were published over several decades – What Bird is That? (It was first published in 1931 and reissued as late as 1991.) But Neville William Cayley and his father – another bird painter, Neville Henry Peniston (or Penniston) Cayley – seem to have laid a number of false trails about the family origins.

Many sources state that Neville Henry Peniston Cayley was born in Dover, or on a ship off the town, and some add that his father was a sea captain. These stories appear to have emanated from Neville Henry Peniston Cayley himself, and his death certificate gives the place of his birth as “at sea off Dover”. Neville William Cayley himself is reported to have told an amateur historian that his paternal grandfather bought his way out of the Royal Navy.

The birth in or off Dover is a myth. And there is no evidence that Neville Henry Peniston Cayley’s father served in the Royal Navy.

Several other factors suggest that there may have been a deliberate concealment of the facts relating to the family origins. First, a trail seems to have been laid to suggest that he came to Australia in about 1880, a date given in a number of sources. A few sources give the immigration year as 1882. In fact it was 1877 (several of Neville Henry Peniston Cayley’s siblings came with him). Second, on arrival in Australia, the surname spelling was changed from Caley to Cayley. It has been stated that this was to distance the family from genteel Caley connections: this seems improbable, given the fact that so many Cayleys were linked to the Cayley baronets. Third, there was confusion about the date of Neville Henry Peniston’s birth: it is shown as 1853 in his death certificate but was in fact 1854. Finally, art catalogues etc give his third name variously as Peniston and Pennington.

The facts are firmly established. Birth, baptismal and census records show that Neville Henry Cayley was born and baptised in Norwich with the names Neville Henry Penniston Caley; his father was a silk mercer, Nathaniel Caley, who died in Norwich in 1867; and in 1871 he himself was working as an assistant draper in Norwich.

Neville Henry Peniston Cayley had a reputation as a hard-drinker, and it is possible that he was given to inebriated romancing about his origins. But my suspicious mind wonders whether there was a deliberate attempt to conceal the facts: whether something happened in Norwich which precipitated his emigration, along with two of his sisters and two of his brothers, to Australia and which he wanted to conceal or distance himself from. Is there some disreputable secret? Was there a big quarrel which split the family? If anyone can throw light on this, I would love to hear!



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