06 January, 2018

Gellibrand and Hesse

One of the most hotly debated tales of the early European settlement of the Barwon River is the story of "Gellibrand and Hesse". Over the years, much has been written about the disappearance of  Joseph Tice Gellibrand and George Brooks Legrew Hesse, somewhere near Birregurra early in 1837. From modern scholarly papers to the romantic but factually dubious accounts of the 19th century, the topic is well beyond the scope of a single or even a series of blog posts, however a general account may still be of interest.
 Gellibrand was born in London, England in about 1786 where he was admitted as an attorney in 1816. On 1st August, 1823 he was appointed the attorney-general of Van Diemen's Land and arrived in the colony to take up his post in March the following year, however his tenure in the position was short-lived. Within months of his arrival he came into conflict with Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur and by February, 1826 had been suspended from his position.
Joseph Tice Gellibrand
After his removal from office he continued to practise as a barrister, purchased land and in 1835 was one of the investors who formed the Port Phillip Association. It was Gellibrand who drafted the terms of what became known as the "Batman Treaty", signed by John Batman and elders of the Wurundjeri Tribe.
The "Batman Treaty"of 1835, also known as the 'Batman Land Deed'.
Item held by the National Museum of Australia
By early 1836 Gellibrand was in the Port Phillip District and undertook a number of exploratory trips before returning to Van Diemen's Land. In February, 1837 he once again crossed Bass Strait, this time accompanied by his colleague George Hesse. Like Gellibrand, Hesse was a lawyer. Born at Chichester, England on 1st July, 1798, he was a Cambridge graduate who was admitted to the bar in 1819. On 5th March, 1833 The Hobart Town Chronicle carried a notice declaring Hesse's intention to be admitted to practise law in Van Diemen's Land as a "Barrister, Attorney, Solicitor and Proctor" of the Supreme Court.
The pair, along with Mr John Sinclair from Launceston, landed at Point Henry, near Geelong on the 21st February, intending to spend a couple of days following the Barwon and then the Leigh Rivers upstream before turning east and passing behind the You Yangs to reach Gellibrand's own run on the Werribee River near present day Wyndhamvale. From there, they would return to the brig Henry which by then was expected to have finished unloading sheep and be waiting for them at Williamstown.
"Map of Port Phillip from the survey of Mr Wedge and others" 1836. This
image from the National Library of Australia produced from the work of the
surveyor John Helder Wedge gives an indication of the existing tracks around
the You Yangs and the extent to which the country was known at that time
From Point Henry, they headed to Dr Alexander Thomson's property 'Kardinia' on the south bank of the Barwon, however owing to an injury to his ankle, Sinclair was forced to turn back. Gellibrand and Hesse continued on to Pollock's, further up the Barwon where they obtained a guide, named variously as Akers, Akehurst or Aikers according to different sources. From Pollock's station, the party of three followed the Barwon with the intention of crossing the river at its confluence with the Leigh River and then following the latter upstream probably to George Russell's then outpost at today's Shelford. From there, they planned on returning east behind the You Yangs to the Exe (Werribee) River where both Gellibrand and Captain Swanston held land. As they only intended that their journey would be a short one, they carried very little in the way of provisions and equipment.
The confluence of the Barwon and Leigh Rivers today is a clear t-junction with high water levels and it is hard to imagine how a mistake was made, but this was prior to the construction of the various dams and weirs or the advent of water licences which today affect the flow of both rivers. In 1837 there clearly was not much to distinguish between the Leigh and the various other creeks which enter the Barwon from the north and so the party continued upriver throughout the day, despite Akers' protestations that they had missed the crossing point which they had expected to find around nine miles upstream of Pollock's station.
The confluence of the Leigh and Barwon Rivers at Inverleigh, 2017. In this
photo the Leigh flows from the left and the Barwon from the right and the
combined streams flow away from the camera towards Geelong
Instead, having travelled around 35 miles, the party camped for the night on the banks of the Barwon and the following morning, refusing to go further, Akers turned back, reaching Pollock's station the next day. Hesse it seems also shared some of Akers' concerns, but these were dismissed by Gellibrand who by that time was convinced that the Warrion Hills which lie to the north west of Lake Colac were instead, the You Yangs (George Thomas Lloyd, Thrity-Three Years in Tasmania and Victoria, Being the Actual Experience of the Author Interspersed with Historic Jottings, Etc, Houlston and Wright, 1862, pp 485-486). This was not the first time that Gellibrand had expressed a confidence in his own knowledge and abilities which proved unfounded. In The narrative of George Russell of Golf hill, with Russellania and selected papers (Russell George (1812-1888) and Brown, Phillip L, 1935) Russell claimed that "he [Gellibrand] was under the impression that he knew a great deal of the country and of the names of the different landmarks in the neighbourhood of Geelong". Subsequent conversation revealed to Russell that this was not the case.
This 1858 sketch by Eugene von Guerard shows the Warrion Hills which
Gellibrand most likely mistook for the You Yangs. Image held by the
National Gallery of Victoria
Despite Akers' untimely return, it was around a fortnight before those at Geelong who were in a position to help, learned of the non-arrival of Gellibrand and Hesse at their intended destination. At that point a mounted search party consisting of Captain Pollock, John Cowie, David Stead, Thomas Roadknight and Thomas Armytage along with Akers set off to begin the search. Their first day's travel saw them reach the point at which Akers turned back, after which they followed the tracks of Gellibrand and Hesse a further four miles upriver before their path turned westward across a plain, finally losing all trace of them about 50 miles from their starting point at Pollock's. After searching the surrounding area for a further day, they returned empty-handed. Not long after, on the 31st March, a second search party which included Gellibrand's son Thomas, the escaped convict William Buckley and two members of the local Wathaurong tribe set out (Launceston Advertiser, 13th April, 1837) but they also returned, unsuccessful.
By April, reports had begun to circulate that the missing men had been killed by "natives" (The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 25th April, 1837), that they had been murdered and the bodies found (The Sydney Monitor, 19th April, 1837), that Buckley had returned from searching but no trace of either men or horses had been found (The Australian, 25th April, 1837) and so on. On 18th April, a third search party led by Joseph Beazley Naylor and Charles Octavius Parsons, with the backing of the men's families set off for the Lake Colac district, accompanied by native guides and armed with the information that two white men had been killed by Aboriginals in that area.
The above image shows the likely route through the lands of the local indigenous
tribes taken by Gellibrand and Hesse after leaving Point Henry. Image taken from
Donovan, Paul Michael F, Clark, Ian D and Cahir, Fred , 'The remarkable
disappearance of Messrs Gellibrand and Hesse'. What really happened in 1837?:
a re-examination of the historical evidence
, Victorian Historical Journal, Vol. 87,
No. 2, Dec 2016: 278-297
At this point, inter-tribal politics came into play when two members of the Lake Colac Guldijin Tribe were murdered by armed members of the Wathaurong Tribe from the Winchelsea area who had joined the search party and were known to be in conflict with the former. The Wathaurong tribesmen captured a Guldijin tribesman by the name of Tanapia  on the shores of Lake Colac from whom, they claimed to have extracted a "confession" for the killings. The bodies it was claimed, had been disposed of in a lake. Upon receiving this information the search party returned to Geelong (Rogers, Thomas, 'Friendly' and 'hostile' Aboriginal clans: the search for Gellibrand and Hesse, History Australia, (2016),Vol. 13, Iss. 2, pp 275-285). Tanapia was later found to be innocent of murder, however he did admit to having speared the horses and other members of the tribe were found with some of the men's belongings.
And there perhaps, things rested until 10th July, 1844 when the Geelong Advertiser published the recollections of a squatter by the name of Henry Allan who - along with his brother - had settled on the Hopkins River. Allan claimed that a group of natives had shown him the location of a grave near Moonlight Heads a few months earlier. The description of the man fitted that of Gellibrand and the tribe claimed that he had lived with them for around two months after stumbling upon them, starving and exhausted, saying that his companion had died about 20 miles further upriver. Their horses it was presumed had been turned loose as they entered the thick bush some 20 miles or more to the north where presumably they were then found wandering by the Guldijin tribe of Tanapia.
This image of logging in the Otways during the 1890s shows how heavily
wooded was the forest to the south of Lake Colac through which Gellibrand
and Hesse struggled. Image from a collection of lantern slides by Roger
Holdsworth, image held by the State Library of Victoria
A similar article published in The Dispatch on 27th July, 1844 (taken from the Port Phillip Herald) gave a corroborative statement provided by John Allan, brother of Henry in which he claimed that an indigenous woman married to a tribesman who lived near the Allans remembered the killing of Gellibrand which had been perpetrated by members of a rival clan which lived a few miles to the east of Cape Otway. He sought the woman out, heard her story and arranged for Henry to travel to the site
where he exhumed the body and took with him the skull and and some personal effects which had also been buried. The general location of Hesse's body was indicated but the weather did not at that time permit travelling to the site. The same information, along with the opinion of a medical practitioner was sent in a letter to Captain Foster Fyans. The letter and details of the report were published in the Geelong Advertiser, 24th June, 1844 and as far as the Advertiser was concerned, solved the mystery of what had become of Gellibrand and Hesse.
Then in 1846, whilst on his third expedition attempting to reach Cape Otway (Clark, Ian D., Scars in the landscape: a register of massacre sites in Western Victoria 1803-1859, Canberra Aboriginal Studies Press for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 1995) Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe noted that the Allans showed him what they believed to be the burial sites of Gellibrand and Hesse (Donovan et al., 'The remarkable disappearance of Messrs Gellibrand and Hesse'. What really happened in 1837?a re-examination of the historical evidence, Victorian Historical Journal, Vol. 87, No. 2, Dec 2016: 278-297).
This however, was far from the end of the story. For about three years following Allan's discovery, the skull is said to have hung from the roof of his hut (The Colonial Times, 25th August, 1846) and it was not until that time that it was sent to Tasmania for further examination. Furthermore but somewhat at odds with this account is another, earlier description given by a traveller who met the Allans in September, 1839 and claimed that he was shown a skull with fractures - supposed to be from a tomahawk - which they believed to be that of one of the missing explorers (The Austral-Asiatic Review, Tasmanian and Australian Advertiser, 8th October, 1839).
In The Argus of 13th November, 1909 Donald Macdonald published several letters he had received all purporting to give some information on the fate of Gellibrand and Hesse. Mrs Jones indicated that she was shown a box containing Gellibrand's body during a visit to the Allans in 1846 whilst George Somerville recalls hearing that Joseph Gellibrand's son had arrived from Tasmania in 1847 and with the assistance of Allan and the local indigenous tribe had located the body which he was taking back to Tasmania.
And from there, things continue to get muddier, with differing reports of bodies being shipped to Tasmania or remaining some time with the Allans and with some even claiming that numerous skulls were sent for examination with no conclusive proof being found. Of course, Gellibrand and Hesse were not the only white settlers to have disappeared in the area over the years so it is not unlikely that other Caucasian skulls may have been discovered in the district.
It would seem however that by the end of 1837 it was generally accepted that the pair had perished as on 27th November notice was given of the intent to apply for probate of George's will in the Supreme Court (The Austral-Asiatic Review, Tasmanian and Australian Advertiser, 12th December, 1837). Things were a little more difficult in the case of Gellibrand whose life was the subject of an £10,000 insurance policy - the first in Australia it is claimed according to Asteron Life (formerly Alliance Assurance). It was also the first life insurance policy paid out - albeit after a three year wait as no proof of death was available. The payment was eventually made however, to Gellibrand's widow Isabella.
A mahogany and rosewood writing case belonging to Joseph Tice
Gellibrand. Item and photo from the Joseph Tice Gellibrand Collection,
National Museum of Australia
So, despite or perhaps because of the many claims to have found the remains of the two men in the years following their disappearance, the general impression developed that Gellibrand and Hesse vanished without trace and their bodies were never found. Whether deliberately or not, various researchers have contributed to this impression and in the process created one of the most enduring legends of the 19th century Victoria.
One such was Isaac Hebb who, styling himself as IZAAK, in November, 1888 wrote an account of the disappearance of Gellibrand and Hesse which appeared in consecutive editions of the Colac Herald. Dramatically titled "ROMANCE OF THE OTWAY--MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF MESSRS GELLIBRAND AND HESSE", it made the claim that no reliable evidence existed that the bodies were ever found, however more recently, there have been scholarly articles which cast the events surrounding the disappearance in a different light, particularly with respect to the role played by the various indigenous tribes of the region, whose oral testimony was of course not considered admissible evidence (Rogers, Thomas, 'Friendly' and 'hostile' Aboriginal clans: the search for Gellibrand and Hesse, History Australia, (2016),Vol. 13, Iss. 2, pp 275-285). Likewise, Donovan et al., 'The remarkable disappearance of Messrs Gellibrand and Hesse'. What really happened in 1837?a re-examination of the historical evidence, Victorian Historical Journal, Vol. 87, No. 2, Dec 2016: 278-297 re-examines the available sources through modern eyes, concluding that there is significant evidence to suggest that the mystery of Gellibrand and Hesse is not as much of a mystery as we have been led to believe.
Hesse St, Queenscliff, January, 2018
Whilst most may not realise it today, there are still many reminders of this episode in Victoria's colonial past, from the towns of Gellibrand and Gellibrand Lower; the Gellibrand River which rises in the Otway Ranges near the Barwon River, flowing west and south where the Barwon flows north and east; Mounts Gellibrand and Hesse on the plains west of the Barwon between Inverleigh and Winchelsea and the 19th century squatting runs of the same names which surrounded them; the town of Hesse; the Australian Electoral Division of Gellibrand incorporating many of the western suburbs of Melbourne; Point Gellibrand at Williamstown where the earliest European settlers landed their sheep and the associated Fort Gellibrand; to numerous Hesse and Gellibrand Streets including those in Colac and the coastal town of Queenscliff. The men themselves may be long gone, but their names live on.


  1. I have included your blog in INTERESTING BLOGS in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at


    Thank you, Chris

  2. Note my photograph of myself and a local lady at Gellibrand's grave site with the story evidenced. The Colac branch of events can also be explained.My meticulous research over 15 years will be published shortly.

    1. I have posted a few comments on the J.T.G site.
      I am presently working on and putting the final touch's together for a presentation of my research which began in 1985.

  3. Is your source for JTG birth the A.B.S.? His family deputes this. They believe he was born in 1792.

  4. Don't know how I am listed as 'unknown". I am David Harris.