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The mysterious memorial for William Collins

William Collins was a free settler in the expedition to establish a convict settlement in Bass Strait in 1803 and 1804 commanded by Colonel David Collins.

The two men weren’t related and William Collins’ official role in the expedition is unclear.

However, as an experienced former Royal Navy ship’s master he volunteered for hazardous voyages and made marine surveys of Port Phillip in 1803, and Port Dalrymple and the River Derwent in January 1804.

William Collins was actively involved in the selection of settlement sites at the three places.

On 1 January 1804, he sailed the vessel Lady Nelson into Port Dalrymple to survey the Tamar estuary first visited by British explorers Matthew Flinders and George Bass in November 1798.

His crew included agricultural superintendent Thomas Clark, mineralogist Adolarious Humphrey and botanist Robert Brown. They reached the upriver limit of Flinders’ chart of the estuary on 7 January.

Two days later the Lady Nelson anchored near today’s Tamar Island and Collins took a ship’s boat to the head of the estuary. Late in the day they rowed into a steep-sided, narrow river running to the west.

William Collins named the place The Cataract in his report and he and his companions were almost certainly the first Europeans to set eyes on the rugged gorge with its “large fall of water”.

His name of The Cataract or Cataract Gorge was used from then on. On Saturday, November 13, 1954, a plaque was unveiled in Kings Park to commemorate the visit. It says: THIS PLAQUE MARKS THE FIRST LANDING IN TASMANIA BY WM. COLLINS FROM THE BRIG LADY NELSON 1804-1954.

The Examiner said about 2,000 people watched the celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of British settlement but under the headline QUESTIONS ON LANDING "AMBIGUOUS" it reported community concerns on the plaque wording.

Readers told the newspaper it was not only ambiguous but incorrect and there were a number of historical inaccuracies in the celebrations.

The Examiner later reported that it was understood the wording on the plaque was decided on by “some members of the Royal Society in conference with members of the city architect's department.”

The advice of the vice-president of the Royal Society, K. R. (Karl) von Stieglitz, of Evandale, was obviously ignored as he pointed out that William Collins had landed numerous times before reaching the Cataract Gorge.

The Examiner said some readers criticised the fact there was no mention on the plaque of Launceston, which had been settled following Collins' survey and favourable reports on the area.

The plaque has been moved over the years and it’s not that easy to find but today the wording remains unchanged. It really needs more information to explain the significance of the visit for the later British occupation by Colonel William Paterson and subsequent devastating effects on the original inhabitants.

IMAGES -- Top: The plaque in Kings Park, Launceston (picture Julian Burgess). Middle: Sketch of the Lady Nelson in England (picture Public Domain Image, State Library of New South Wales). Bottom: The Examiner article about William Collins’ re-enacted landing at Kings Park, Launceston (picture The Examiner, 15 November 1954).

Written for the Launceston Historical Society and published in The Sunday Examiner, 27 August 2023, page 23.


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