Notes to my Short Story WTFR6 – Who the Governor Left Behind
When the first Governor of Hobart died in 1810 he was buried in State in an evergreen Hobart park. Rumour had it that his papers were buried with him.
In 1925, one hundred and fifteen years later his coffin was exhumed, specifically to retrieve his papers.
Why? Was he hiding something? What secrets? Whose? Why would his descendants be so desperate to read the secrets he took to his grave?
His family back in England were left a cache of historical documents collected by his grandfather, the historian and writer of peerages, Arthur Collins.
His correspondence with his family and the wife he left behind were in their possession. His Account of the English Settlement in New South Wales, being a recount of the first decade of the first Australian colony at Port Jackson, had been published and translated into four foreign languages.
What more was there to say? What were they expecting to find?
After pottering about with history books and pondering over historical volumes, I was faced with three alternatives:
- An extramarital affair – or two
- The guarded family secret of a well-heeled aristocrat unearthed but unexploited by his grandfather
- A 17th Century smoking gun
1. Extramarital Affairs
David Collins (1754-1810) was born in Exeter, the son of Major General, Arthur Tooker Collins (1718-1793) and grandson of the genaeologist-historian Arthur Collins (1682-1760). He entered the marines at the age of 14 and distinguished himself fighting for the British at the Battle for Bunker’s Hill during the American Revolution. In 1777 he married Maria Stuart (or it could have been Maria Proctor – she used both names- couldn’t make her mind up?) of Hallifax, Nova Scotia in Canada and by 1779 he had made Captain.
He and wife Maria settled in Devon and sometime in their marriage suffered the death of their only child in infancy. In 1786, having left the marines and taking his father’s advice, he became part of Arthur Phillips staff, accompanying the first Governor of New South Wales to establish a settlement in the land that would come to be called Australia. He left Maria in England.
Overcoming sea sickness, he arrived in New South Wales aboard the Sirius in 1788 and remained in the new colony for 9 years. Despite never having studied law, he performed the role of Judge Advocate – it seems they had problems getting qualified help to make the arduous journey.
Maria apparently wrote many novels showing her ‘considerable literary talent’ in his absence – something she neglected to write to him about. No grief, he neglected to tell her of his mistress in Sydney, Ann Yeats, and the son, George, she bore him. It seems the Judge Advocate – advocated for himself where marital laws were being enforced or not.
Returning to England in July 1797, he set to work on his only publication, An Account of the English Settlement in New South Wales. History admits that his wife helped him to edit and abridge the work – if that was all she did. His mistress, Ann, stayed in the colony – having been swept off her feet, it seems she was being swept under the carpet in remote Norfolk Island in the big tidy up before he went back home.
During the ensuing five years he tried to find employment that would be commensurate with his lately acquired experience in New South Wales. It was suggested to the Under-Secretary for War that he be appointed to the department as a Special Officer in Charge of NSW Affairs. That failed to come to fruition. He and his mother tried to enlist the aid of several aristocrats including the Duke of Portland and Lord Sydney to obtain for him some kind of compensation or new post. As a mollification the ancient and curious documents of his grandfather, mouldering away in the attic may have been brought out and sent off with their requests for introductions. This was the way his historian-grandfather would have doors opened for him.
In 1803 he returned to the antipodean colony as Lieutenant Governor of a new settlement to be established in Port Phillip (present day Melbourne). Finding the conditions there not to his liking he moved farther south to Van Dieman’s Land and instead founded a settlement on the Derwent, Hobart. Our ladies man also founded another family while he was at it. This time with Margaret Eddington with whom he had two or three children (Eliza, Mary and Samuel).
In 1808 after the Rum Rebellion the infamous Governor Bligh (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame) came to Hobart seeking Collins support, which he refused. When Governor Macquarie was sent out to replace Bligh, he heard only Bligh’s logic and arguments. Collins suffered a presumed heart attack and died in 1810 before punishment could be meted out.
Immediately after his death, the books and documents of the settlement of Hobart were burnt. One report states by a couple members of his staff, another names Edward Lord and a Dr Hood, two of Hobart Town’s leading citizens who protecting themselves against documents unfavourable to certain grants of theirs.
In 1925, a legal firm representing David Collins’ descendants – although it is unclear which ones – hired a lawyer to have his body exhumed. Not to decorate the living room with his embalmed cadaver – King Tut style – but to obtain valuable papers – or retrieve them.
Were gravediggers employed to prove family lineage? Could it be he had hidden wealth – having ordered the account books to be burnt? Or did they realise that missing papers from grandfather, Arthur Collins cache were priceless historic documents? What promise of what manner of wealth would justify the employment of a legal firm, on the other side of the planet – or the steamboat trip out from mother England and the arrangement and exhumation of a 115 year old corpse of a VIP from a public park? What papers were sought? What power did they hold?
Could legitimacy be the answer? And if it were, was it in relation to Collins family or could it have been something older, more historic? More along the line of Grandad Arthur’s work?
Coming Soon – possibility #2 The guarded family secret of a well-heeled aristocrat unearthed but unexploited by his grandfather
Australian Broadcasting Commission, Interview by Mr Jim Adnum with Mr John Reynolds, 1979.
Derwent Star, Tuesday April 3, 1810.
Herald, Byways of History: The Man Who Failed – An Australian Birthday Story, (26/01/1956)
The Mercury, Old Letters Shed New Light on Life of Hobart’s Founder, Phillip Kingsley,(18/06/1982)
The Mercury, David Collins: Fickle, Lonely, Deep in Debt, (01/04/1986)
Sydney Morning Herald, Relics Throw Light on Early Settlement, Alec H. Chisholm (23/03/1963)
Sydney Morning Herald, David Collins: Founder of Hobart, (28/03/1931)
Collins Family Papers, Mitchell Library, CY1450; CY2120; CY2119