Secret Lives Forgotten Stories – Discerning Melbourne’s Past

Memorial to David Collins in St David's Park at Hobart in Tasmania. He is said to be either 30 metres from his tomb or almost over the top of it, although no one really knows.

Former British born naval captain David Collins (1756-1810) story is all around us in Melbourne, Collins Street being its most famous chic boulevard at the centre and heart of the CBD in the city, which is named after him.

Why would a man, whom people in Melbourne every day probably refer to without them even knowing who he was, be buried in St David’s Park in Hobart I asked myself when first viewing his stone memorial recently while staying in that splendid historical city for the Hobart Baroque music festival. The park was opposite where I was staying. Collins it seems had also been the first Governor of Tasmania* and there is a Collins Street in Hobart too.

Each day I traversed the town walking through St David’s Park on the way. It is a haven of peace and quiet filled with old fashion plants such as fuschias and hydrangeas and dotted with magnificent mature trees and it is also filled with the stone tombs and memorials of past Tasmanian heroes.

Ceramic plate (with Summer Flowers pattern) England, c. 1828–1860 Excavated Viewbank Homestead, Heidelberg Collection of Heritage Victoria

Reading their inscriptions they served to inspire my continuing interest in archaeology and my search for knowledge of the past so that the stories of the people who helped invent our future can be told.

Talk about Déjà vu! You can well imagine my surprise when I arrived home in Melbourne and the answer and details about Collins, as if by design, crossed my desk almost immediately!

Often the most dynamic aspects of any city in our world today are based on its very early ‘grassroots contexts’ of its establishment, including the activities of its earlier indigenous communities and all those people whose lives were lived and lost; the many individuals and their families who helped found the city itself.

Melbourne, just like other cities around the world are currently promoting the examination of their own identity through exhibitions that highlight the civic aspirations that gave them birth.

Wine bottle, found by a scuba diver, Collection of Heritage Victoria

The Ian Potter Museum of Art, at the University of Melbourne will mount a unique exhibition starting on 16th April to 12th October, 2014.

Secret Lives, Forgotten Stories: Highlights from Heritage Victoria’s Archaeological Collection will give the locals in particular, as well as visitors from interstate or internationally, an opportunity to see objects that have never been displayed before.

In so doing they can discover the many ‘secret lives and forgotten stories’ of the people whose desires were not any different to our own; securing a future for their family, which takes us back to David Collins.

The period of time covered by the show is fifty years, from 1803 when the first attempts at settlement began until 1880 and the Ned Kelly saga.

One of the oldest objects is a 1790 champagne or wine bottle, which was found by a local scuba diver 40 years ago and handed in to Heritage Victoria. It would have arrived with those being directed by David Collins, who had been sent to construct the first settlement in Victoria.

Stoneware bottle with encrustations, Australia, c. 19th century (c. 1860s)Excavated SS City of Launceston, Collection of Heritage Victoria

Curator of the Secret Lives, Forgotten Stories show Dr Andrew Jamieson, says “the exhibition represents a ‘coming of age’ of historical archaeology in Victoria. Never before has it been possible to see Victoria’s history so richly presented through the lens of archaeology”.

Artefacts from eight of Victoria’s oldest sites will be on display, tracing what the city was all about from white settlement including its architectural achievements, through to convict times, the whaling industry as well as the excitement and growth of Goldrush days and to the establishment of the cosmopolitan city we know today.

Dr Jamieson points out that for the “first time it is now possible to see the evolving story of Victoria’s 19th century settlement and development” –  it is all reflected in the archaeology, which interestingly has really only taken place during the past 20 years.

An important aspect of the recent NGV exhibition Melbourne Now was the call by contemporary artists to the people of Melbourne to start all ‘new conversations about, and commemoration of, specific sites of social, cultural, political and architectural relevance’ in their city.

David Collins perhaps is one good place perhaps to start. For all those who are curious, his tomb was refound, when the unused burial ground of St David’s Cathedral just up the road was turned into St David’s Park in 1925. An account of that time says

The tomb, or vault, was covered with a three tonne stone. It was lined with brick, surrounding a Huon pine coffin, which contained a lead coffin which in turn contained another Huon pine coffin. Once they got through all the layers of coffins, they found a large amount of native vegetation piled on top of the body is full regimental dress, which Dr Whitebeach describes as being: “Perfectly persevered as though he had died the week before, the handsome Lt Governor with his fair waving hair with barely a tinge of grey.” It said the native plants and herbs used in Collins’ burial had a strong embalming affect, preserving the body of the Englishman. “They only had the grave open for half an hour…and then it was all closed up and he was laid to rest again.”

Once the hole was refilled, it seems the exact location of the tomb was promptly forgotten again, as no-one is certain just where in the park it is.

Historic buildings on Collins Street, Melbourne

David Collins was commissioned Deputy-Judge-Advocate of the proposed new colony of New South Wales in 1786 and he sailed from England in the Sirius with the First Fleet, arriving at Botany Bay on 20 January 1788.

He became ultimately responsible under Governor Arthur Philip for the legalities of the establishment of the colony at Sydney, despite having limited knowledge of the law.

He was then engaged as a secretary to the Governor, or as Collins preferred, to the colony where he gained great experience in questions ‘of crime and punishment, convict labour, health, rations and stores’.

Collins became the ‘go to man’ for the celebration of each new year and royal birthday, and on occasions accompanied expeditions to outlying areas proposed for new settlements and places of secondary punishment.

Just like Governor Phillip, he had a compassionate interest in the Aboriginal population, deploring each racial clash, blaming the convicts for the disobedience of the governor’s orders rather than like everyone else, the native scapegoats.

Collins suffered many appalling setbacks in his life and career and today is better known as the founder of Hobart town.

He had in 1803 however, because of his exceptional knowledge of the colony’s affairs at Sydney, been chosen to form a new settlement in Bass Strait.

He led an expedition of 308 male convicts, 16 married women, 10 children, 50 soldiers and a number of public servants to establish a settlement near Sorrento on the southern shore of Port Phillip Bay.

He sailed in H.M.S. Calcutta, arriving at Port Phillip Bay on 9 October, where he was dismayed by the lack of timber and water. He began unloading his convicts, settlers and stores at Sullivan Bay (near Sorrento), while Lieutenant Tuckey and George Prideaux Harris explored their surroundings.

Wooden and metal bucket. Place of manufacture unknown, c. 1850–80s. Eureka Historic Precinct excavations, 1997 - Collection of Heritage Victoria

Their reports were not encouraging, so he wrote to Governor Phillip Gidley King suggesting removal of the settlement, which was finally abandoned in 1804. Little evidence exists except for four graves, and excavated artefacts such as leg irons, bottles and parts of barrels.

Collins then moved to the Derwent River in Tasmania where Lieutenant John Bowen had already established a settlement at Risdon and later became first Governor of Tasmania. While that’s his life in a nutshell, it’s only a miniscule amount of the tale, which is more than interesting, although he himself has often been described as being ‘boring’.

The 1697 Coin, found in the ruins of the Viewbank site courtesy Heritage Victoria

Artefacts being showcased at this exhibition at the University of Melbourne, includes more than 70 archaeological objects. They include a pistol from the site of the Eureka rebellion, burial boxes from the mass grave at Pentridge prison where Ned Kelly was laid, objects recovered from two important shipwrecks – the Cheviot and the SS City of Launceston, as well as a 1697 coin found in the homestead ruin near Heidelberg – planted in the foundations, possibly as a good luck charm?

Metal percussion six barrel pepperbox pistol, c. 1850-80s, probably British, Eureka Historic precinct excavations, 1997. Collection of Heritage Victoria, Melbourne

So you can see there are many more secret stories to discover and tell, as well as fascinating facts to find out through this special exhibition, which will provide an exciting insight to the founding of the marvelous Melbourne we love and admire so much today.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

Cameo (possibly shell), Unknown, c. 19th century. Excavated Cohen Place, Melbourne, Collection of Heritage Victoria. Someone's delightful memory!

Secret Lives, Forgotten Stories: Highlights from Heritage Victoria’s Archaeological Collection

Presented in partnership with Heritage Victoria, Department of Transport, Planning and Local Infrastructure

The Ian Potter Museum of Art, The University of Melbourne
16 April–12 October 2014
Tues – Fri 10am – 5pm, Sat & Sun 12 – 5pm

Entry FREE

Timeline for Exhibition

1802 First Europeans (John Murray and Matthew Flinders) sail into Port Phillip
1803 October David Collins settlement site established
1804 May David Collins settlement site abandoned
1827 The Cheviot built and launched in Sunderland, England
1835 Settlement of Melbourne
1839 ‘Viewbank’ homestead constructed, near Heidelberg
1844 Dr Robert Martin acquires ‘Viewbank’
1851 Discovery of gold in Victoria and start of the goldrush
1854 March Cheviot sinks in Waterloo Bay, Wilsons Promontory
1854 December Eureka uprising, Ballarat
1859 October Chinese kiln constructed, Bendigo
1863 April The City of Launceston launched in Glasgow, Scotland
1865 November The City of Launceston wrecked in Port Phillip
1874 Dr Robert Martin dies
1880 November Execution of Ned Kelly, Old Melbourne Gaol
1922 ‘Viewbank’ homestead demolished
1929 April Relocation of prisoner remains from Old Melbourne Gaol to Pentridge Prison


Wednesday 30 April 1-1.30pm
Curator Talk
Dr Andrew Jamieson
Curator, Classics & Archaeology, University of Melbourne

Saturday 3 May 2-2-3.00pm
Good Taste, Fashion, Luxury: a genteel Melbourne family and their rubbish’ on Viewbank Homestead, Heidelberg
Dr Sarah Hayes, ARC Post-doctoral Fellow, Department of Archaeology, Environment and Community Planning, La Trobe University

Wednesday 21 May 1-1.30pm
Needlework and child’s play’ on Cohen Place, Chinatown excavations in 1998
Sarah Myers, Director, ArchLink

Saturday 24 May 2-3pm
Presumed Ned: the discovery of the lost Pentridge burials’
Jeremy Smith, Senior Archaeologist, Heritage Victoria

Wednesday 4 Jun 2014, 1.00- 1.30pm
The artefact behind the artefact[s] on Bendigo Chinese brick kiln site
David Bannear, Archaeologist, Heritage Victoria

Wednesday 18 June 1-1:30pm
The secret artefact collection: Heritage Victoria’s role in preserving the state’s historical‘ archaeology’
Susanna Collis and Annie Muir, Curators, Heritage Victoria

*Inscription on David Collins Memorial, St David’s Park, Hobart, Tasmania

Lieutenant Governor of this Colony and Lt Colonel of the
Royal Marine Forces
On the first establishment of the Colony of New South Wales he was employed as Deputy Judge Advocate
And in the year 1803 he was intrusted by His Majesty’s Government with the command of an expedition destined to form a settlement at Port Philip on the south coast of New Holland but which was subsequently removed to
Van Diemen’s Land
Under his direction as Lieutenant-Governor the site of this town was chosen and the foundation of its first building laid in 1804 He died here on the 28th March 1810
Aged 56 years and this monument long projected was erected to his memory in 1838 by direction of His Excellency Sir John Franklin KCHKR.
Site of the first church erected 1810 in Van Diemen’s land
Built over the grave of
Lieutenant-Governor Collins
Whose body rested beneath the Altar.

TCCC Refs: Media Release University of Melbourne
Essay by Max Delany – Metro-cosmo-polis: Melbourne Now
David Collins – Australian Dictionary of Biography
Article by Carol Raabus ABC Hobart Website

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