There have been just 17 directors in the Australian Museum's 187-year history. Until recently, their photographs hung in two neat rows on the wall just inside the Museum’s William Street entrance. Walking past them each day, I was intrigued that two of the frames – those of William Holmes and William Galvin, the Museum’s first two custodians – were blank. Curiosity got the better of me, and I began to search for a portrait of Holmes or at least something about his life and times.

Col Johnston
Col Johnston researches William Holmes in the Museum archives. Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum


My hopes of finding a portrait soon faded, as photography (invented in 1827) would have been in its infancy, and oil paintings were for the rich and powerful, not minor public servants. Turning to Ronald Strahan’s comprehensive history of the Museum, Rare and Curious Specimens, I was surprised to find only basic information about Holmes and a few pages about his appointment (16 June 1829) and death (23 August 1831, ‘shot by accidental discharge of his gun while at Moreton Bay collecting Birds and other Curiosities’).

The Museum seems to have no record of specimens collected by Holmes, and even the Museum’s Archives hold only one or two documents from his tenure. Undeterred, I searched online. As anyone who’s researched their family tree knows, the web has some amazing resources, such as Trove (the National Library of Australia’s online search engine); digitised newspapers such as the Sydney Gazette, Sydney Herald and Monitor; shipping records; and registers of births, deaths and marriages.

You can also take the hands-on approach of going through old manifests and documents held in archives. There is nothing more exhilarating than finally locating something you have been searching long and hard for, and quite a few times my fellow researcher, Beverley Malone, after visiting NSW State Records, would contact me to say, ‘Guess what I have just found?’. Your heart skips and you know something good is coming, and we have had quite a few of these moments while doing this research.

When we began, we knew little about William Holmes – not even his age, spouse, children or siblings – but these details slowly came to light as we delved deeper.


William Holmes was baptised William Hulme in Ormskirk, Lancashire in the UK on 7 July 1797, the fourth of ten children. In 1818, his older brother James was convicted of larceny and transported to the penal colony of New South Wales for seven years. Returning to England in 1825, James may have inspired William to emigrate in search of a better life. With their younger brother Thomas and James’ son Luke, they left London aboard the Elizabeth on 25 November 1826, leaving William’s wife of just six weeks (also called Elizabeth) behind.

The brothers arrived in Sydney in April 1827 and took up residence at 61 Castlereagh Street to work as carpenters and joiners. William returned to England the following year to bring back his wife, sisters-in-law, their children, his youngest brother and his nephew. The extended family arrived in May 1829 (again on the Elizabeth), just a few weeks before William was to begin his new job at the Colonial Museum, as it was called.

We still don’t know how or why he was appointed as Zoologist in charge of the Museum. William lacked formal qualifications, so was it his cabinet-making skills as a carpenter that got him the job, as Strahan suggests? Or was it the letter of introduction from RW Hays, Under-Secretary of the Colonial Office, to Governor Darling? Or maybe William was something of a lay veterinary, as descendants of Thomas Holmes wrote in a letter to the Museum in 1991.


Holmes presumably set about collecting specimens for the new museum in the Sydney region initially. In November 1829 he travelled to the fledgling penal settlement of Brisbane (settled in 1824) on the brig Amity, carrying a letter from Colonial Secretary Alexander Macleay (himself a keen insect collector) instructing Commandant Patrick Logan to provide Holmes with whatever rations he needed. We found that letter in NSW State Records, which holds Macleay’s correspondence, but there are many blanks in the story of the Museum’s early days.

1830 Bent St Post Office
In early 1830 the museum was in a shed attached to the ‘Judge-Advocate’s Old Office’, formerly the post office, in Macquarie Place. Image: unknown illustrator
© Australian Museum

We know that by 1830 the Museum was housed in the old Post Office in Bent Street where Holmes would politely show the collection ‘to any respectable individuals who may see fit to call’, as an article in the Gazette from August 1830 reported. Another snippet, from the Herald in July 1831, recommended that newcomers should ‘. . . take a look into the Sydney Museum in Bligh-street [sic], which consists entirely of the production of the Colony, scientifically arranged’. Although not mentioning Holmes by name, it reported that ‘the person in charge very politely renders to the visitors every information in his power’.

It’s also clear that Holmes had access to skilled convict labour to assist in cabinet-making, as a request to Macleay found in NSW State Records, shows.


While details of Holmes’ life are sketchy, his demise is well documented. In June 1831, the convict ship Eleanor arrived in Sydney carrying more prisoners destined for Brisbane. Here was an opportunity for a second collecting trip to this relatively unexplored region, which must have been an attractive proposition for any collector. Ominously, the ship’s departure was delayed in Port Jackson due to a disturbance on board. Soldiers had opened fire on prisoners thought to be mutineering (but who were actually clamouring for rations). Two prisoners died and two were wounded, and the Eleanor remained berthed until an inquiry was held. Finally, on 10 August, she set sail for Moreton Bay with Holmes on board.

He arrived on North Stradbroke Island on 23 August 1831 accompanied by a convict helper, Samuel Saunders, and the pilot of Moreton Bay, James Nelson. The three men breakfasted and headed off to collect specimens at Amity Point. Nelson soon turned back, while Holmes and Saunders continued on their collecting quest. Holmes sighted a cockatoo in a gum tree, took out his double-barrelled fowling gun and felled the bird with one shot.

As he was retrieving the specimen, he rested the gun against his right side, but it discharged, shooting him at point blank range. An inquiry into the shooting took place the following day under the supervision of Commandant James Oliphant Clunie, with statements taken from Saunders and Nelson.

Saunders told the inquiry that on hearing the shot, he rushed to Holmes’ side to hear him utter his last words, ‘Oh my God, I am dead’. He quickly alerted Nelson, who arrived to find Holmes’ lifeless body. They lifted it into the boat and, after a brief stop at Dunwhich, transported it to Brisbane. Assistant Surgeon James Murray concluded that the death was accidental, as the inquiry documents in NSW State Records reveal.


So where is William Holmes’ final resting place? We don’t know for sure, but it’s probably the old Skew Street cemetery in Brisbane (now covered by a park); unfortunately, the earliest burial records in the Queensland State Archives don’t begin until July 1832. The body is unlikely to have been returned to Sydney, as the next ship to Moreton Bay was the Governor Phillip, which docked in Brisbane on 9 September 1831, 17 days after the shooting, and arrived in Sydney on 15 October 1831 with two crates of Holmes’ belongings. NSW State Records has the inventory that accompanied them, but there is no mention of his remains. Nor were there any bird skins or other specimens, as he died on the first day of his ill-fated trip.

So the empty photo frames remain empty. Our knowledge of William Galvin, Holmes’ replacement, is similarly sketchy, though Rare and Curious Specimens provides a few juicy biographical nuggets. Our research has at least helped flesh out the (missing) bones of our first custodian. Who knows what further details remain to be uncovered?

First published in Explore 36(1), April 2014