Today is the anniversary of the unfortunate death of the Museum's first employee, William Holmes.

William Holmes arrived in Sydney with his extended family in 1827 and initially worked as a carpenter and joiner. He applied for a grant of land but the grant was not forthcoming.

Our first employee

Instead, on 16th June 1829 William was appointed as a 'Zoologist' or 'Keeper' at the new Colonial Museum.

Family legend has it that William was anxious to take up a rural life and not overly pleased with the appointment. His cabinet making skills may have been useful in the new museum, but it seems he knew little about collecting or natural history.

'A beautiful collection of Australian curiosities'

Holmes was available to show respectable visitors around the small collection of 'Australian curiosities' held in a room behind the Post Office in Bent St between the hours of 10am and 3pm.

William Holmes, Zoologist, 1829-1831
William Holmes, Zoologist, 1829-1831 Image: Australian Museum
© Australian Museum

We know little of Holmes work and he left no written records of his own, but Holmes also occupied at least some of his time collecting specimens, including two trips to the new settlement at Moreton Bay. The second journey proved fatal.

'Oh, my God, I'm dead'

On 23rd August 1831, just after breakfast on a collecting trip near Amity Point on Stradbroke Island, Holmes accidentally shot himself in his right chest with his own double-barrelled fowling gun whilst collecting a cockatoo. He died there before his companion, Samuel Saunders, returned with help. Saunders stated that Holmes' final words were, "Oh, my God, I'm dead."

Holmes's body was taken to Brisbane by the Moreton Bay pilot, James Nelson. An inquest was held the following day before Captain James Clunie. It is not certain where William was buried, possibly the old burial ground in Brisbane (to be confirmed), and none of the bird specimens he collected on the trip were returned to the Museum.

Museum Exhibition Production Coordinator, Colin Johnston, is keen to see Holmes' recognised for his contribution to our early natural history and has been researching Holmes' life and very short Museum career. He is still on the trail of Holmes' last birds -- Colin's best current guess is that they may have ended up in the Edinburgh Museum.