Oliver St John (civil servant)

Sir Oliver Beauchamp Coventry St John KCSI (21 March 1837 – 3 June 1891) was an administrator in British India, who took a close interest in the zoology of the region. He served as the chief commissioner of Baluchistan for ten years.

Early lifeEdit

Oliver St John was born on 21 March 1837 in Ryde, Isle of Wight. His father was Captain St John of the Madras Army. He studied at the East India Company's Military College at Addiscombe (1855–7),[1] and joined the Bengal Engineers on 12 December 1856.[2]


After serving in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh in the public works department, St John volunteered for work in Persia. This mission was mainly to establish a telegraph line between Persia and India. This mission, along with Patrick Stewart, was meant to lay a cable in the Persian Gulf and a land cable line for telegraphic link to Bosporus. Stewart and his brother Champain had already worked on a survey in Turkey. St John worked on the expedition under Captain Murdoch Smith, RE.

He later took charge of the line from Teheran to Bashahr (March 1866), and during this time a second telegraph line was added. He went home in May 1867 and he was then sent to Abyssinia to organize telegraph lines for the war. This line was 200 miles from the coast and the work led to his promotion. Towards the end of 1868 he returned to Persia and he remained here till 1871. In October 1871, St John was sent to Baluchistan for the survey of the Perso-Kelat frontier. He returned to England in October 1872 and worked on preparing maps at the India Office. These maps were based on longitudes of the Persian telegraph stations fixed in co-operation with General James Walker of the Indian Trigonometric Survey, Captain William Pierson, RE, and Lt Stiffe, IN.

St John published his notes in the Narrative of a Journey through Baluchistan and Southern Persia (1876). He returned to India in 1875 and became principal of the Mayo College in Ajmer. After August 1878 he became part of the staff of Sir Neville Chamberlain's mission to Kabul. He then became chief political officer to the Kandahar Field Force, becoming later Resident in Kandahar. An attempt was made on his life during a trip in southern Afghanistan. He was also posted on special duty in Kashmir (January 1883), acting resident in Hyderabad (April–July 1884), resident in Kashmir (August 1884), agent to the governor-general at Baroda (December 1887), resident at Mysore and chief commissioner in Coorg (January 1889). He was later recalled from southern India to Baluchistan. He died in Quetta of pneumonia after an attack of influenza.[2]

Natural historyEdit

During all his time in Abyssinia, Persia and Baluchistan St John took a keen interest in natural history and hunting. His personal notes from the Persian border commission expedition of 1871 are included in the zoology report of the expedition prepared by William Thomas Blanford. Blanford's own account includes notes on St John's experiences with lions in Persia, while another account is provided of him chasing a tiger that threatened a colleague. St John also corresponded with ornithologists in the region, including Allan Octavian Hume.

A species of woodpecker (Picus sanctijohannis) and a species of snake (Fowlea sanctijohannis) are both named after him.[3]


St John died on 3 June 1891 in Quetta of pneumonia after an attack of influenza during a recurrence of the 1889–90 pandemic.[2]


  1. ^ Vibart, H.M. (1894). Addiscombe: its heroes and men of note. Westminster: Archibald Constable. p. 699.
  2. ^ a b c Goldsmid, Frederic (1891) Obituary: Colonel Sir Oliver Beauchamp Coventry St. John, R. E., K. C. S. I. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, New Monthly Series. 13(7):434-437.
  3. ^ Beolens B, Watkins M, Grayson M. 2011. The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("St. John, O. B. C.", pp. 254-255).

Further readingEdit

  • Prior, Katherine (2004). "St John, Sir Oliver Beauchamp Coventry (1837–1891)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/24505. (subscription required)
Political offices
Preceded by
Chief Commissioner of Balochistan
Succeeded by
Sir Robert Groves Sandeman
Preceded by
Sir Hugh Shakespear Barnes
Chief Commissioner of Balochistan (acting)
Succeeded by
Sir Hugh Shakespear Barnes