The Unresolved Disappearance of Frederick Valentich

“It seems to me that he’s playing some sort of game, he’s flying over me, 2, 3 times at a time, at speeds I could not identify”.

On 21st of October, 1978, 20 year old Frederick Valentich is flying a Cessna 182 light aeroplane from Moorabbin Airport to King Island.  Not long after commencing the over water section of the flight, between Cape Otway and King Island, at 7:06 in the evening, just before sunset, Valentich contacts Air Services at Tullamarine Airport with an unexpected request. “Melbourne, this is Delta Sierra Juliet, is there any known traffic below 5,000 feet?”  Working that evening for Air Services is Steve Robey, whose job it is to control air traffic outside of restricted airspace.  Robey quickly confirms in the negative that there should be no traffic before Valentich continues: “There seems to be a large aircraft below 5,000.”  Robey asks Valentich what type of aircraft it is before the young pilot replies: “I cannot affirm, it is 4 bright, it seems to me like landing lights”.  Here he pauses for a few seconds before adding: “The aircraft has just passed over me at least a thousand feet above”.  Robey asks Valentich if it is a large aircraft and the young man replies: “er unknown due to the speed it’s travelling, is there any airforce aircraft in the vicinity?”  Robey replies in the negative and a few seconds later Valentich says: “it’s approaching now from due east towards me”.  About 30 seconds pass as Valentich observes the mysterious craft, before he adds: “It seems to me that he’s playing some sort of game, he’s flying over me, 2, 3 times at a time, at speeds I could not identify”.  Robey asks Valentich what his altitude is and the 20 year old replies that he is at four and a half thousand feet.  The flight services officer then asks the young pilot to confirm that he cannot identify the aircraft.  “Affirmative”, Valentich replies.  Some seconds pass before Valentich says: “It’s not an aircraft, it’s (…2 seconds…). Robey then asks Valentich if he can describe the aircraft.  Valentich answers with: “as it’s flying past, it’s a long shape(…3 seconds…) cannot identify more than that (that it has such speed) (…3 seconds…) before me right now Melbourne…”.  Robey interrupts the pilot here, as he says “roger, and how large would the er object be.”   A few moments pass before Valentich gives his response: “it seems like it’s stationary.  What I’m doing right now is orbiting and the thing is just orbiting on top of me.  Also, it’s got a green light and sort of metallic like.  It’s all shiny on the outside.  Twenty seconds later Valentich holds down the microphone for 5 seconds before adding “it’s just vanished”. A few seconds later he asks Robey if he would know what type of aircraft he’s got, is it a military aircraft?  Robey asks Valentich to confirm that the aircraft has just vanished, but Valentich doesn’t hear this message and asks Robey to repeat it which Robey does.  Valentich must see the craft again at this point though as he says: “now approaching from the southwest”. Distressingly, about 30 seconds later Valentich reports “the engine is rough idling.  I’ve got it set at 23, 24 and the thing is coughing”.  Robey responds “Roger, what are your intentions?“  The next reply Valentich speaks down the microphone is the last thing Valentich is known to have spoken to another human being: “my intentions are ah to go to King Island.  Ah Melbourne, that strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again(…2 seconds…) it is hovering and it’s not an aircraft.”  The audio tape of this conversation has never been released to the public, as it is classified by the Department of Defence.  The Department of Transport did however release the final 17 seconds of Valentich’s call before he and his light aircraft disappeared and were never heard from again.  The following is those final 17 seconds.

Audio of last 17 seconds of radio transmission that was released by the Department of Transport.
1st page of transcript of radio transmission
2nd page of transcript
3rd page of audio transcript

Frederick Valentich went missing that day and despite protracted air, land and sea search, neither he nor his cessna 182 L have ever been found.

Planned route of flight

Frederick Valentich was born in Melbourne on June 9th 1958 to Italian immigrant parents Guido and Alberta Valentich who hailed from the multicultural city of Trieste in the north east of the country.  Fred was the eldest of four children, who included his younger brother Ricky and his younger twin sisters Olivia and Lara.  The family lived in the Melbourne suburb of Avondale Heights, where they enjoyed a happy, suburban life like many other European immigrant families who lived in the same area. 

In 1974, Fred left school after completing year 10 at Keilor Heights High school.  While he was noted as being an excellent athlete by his P.E. teacher, his results in his other subjects were all average or below average, and he failed both of the maths subjects he took that year.   However, he did not want to let this stop him from fulfilling his dream of joining the Royal Australian Airforce.  Unfortunately for Fred, his poor academic results from school and his performance in the entrance examination he took for entry into the RAAF in 1976, meant that he failed in his application.  An examiner noted about Fred’s test results: “very low scores, indicative low I.Q. fit for unskilled work only”.  

Class photo of Fred from 1974 Keilor Heights High School

While disappointed with failing in his application to the RAAF, Fred was determined to prove that he could still become a civilian pilot, and so in February of 1977 he gained his student’s pilot licence, with a view to later gaining his commercial pilot’s licence.  Throughout 1977, Fred took and failed many of the testing components that are prerequisites for gaining one’s commercial pilot’s licence.  While he passed many of these components at subsequent attempts, he failed all 5 of his CPL theory exams, in both October 1977 and April 1978.  Despite failing in his attempts to become a commercial pilot, throughout 1978, Fred possessed the legal documentation required to pilot single-engine cessna aircraft by himself and carry passengers.  While he continued to study for another attempt at the CPL examinations throughout 1978, Fred built up his flying hours by flying light aeroplanes out of Moorabbin Airport on weekends.   Meanwhile, after Fred had failed all his CPL examinations in April of ‘78 he requested assistance from one Edwin Robert Barnes, a Squadron Leader attached to the Air Training Corps that Fred was studying in.  Fred had begun volunteering for no pay at the Air Training Corps in order to gain more experience.  Barnes saw his enthusiasm for his work and after Fred requested the squadron leader become his private tutor, Barnes agreed to help him in navigation and aircraft performance.  Thus Fred would regularly visit Barnes at his home on Sundays for his lessons, where Barnes was impressed with Fred’s enthusiasm and politeness.  Barnes noted that, while Fred was particularly bad at spelling, he felt that the young man had the capability and responsibility required to pass his next examinations in July of that year.  Barnes further noted that Fred was “of sober habits” and never partook in the consumption of more than one alcoholic beverage on the evenings in question.  

Fred in his Air Training Corps uniform

In July of 1978 Fred took 2 of his 5 CPL examinations for the 3rd time and the following Sunday, he turned up to Barnes’ home with his girlfriend Rhonda Rushton and two bottles of wine saying he wished to celebrate as he believed he had passed his two examinations.  Barnes declined a drink because he was on “reserve”, and told Fred that they would drink them when he was told that he had passed all of his exams.  In September of ‘78, Barnes returned from a holiday and received a telephone call from Fred in which the trainee pilot informed him that he had passed all 5 of his CPL examinations.  Fred had in fact failed 3 examinations for the third time and not taken the final 2, a fact Barnes only discovered after Fred’s disappearance when the Air Safety Investigation Branch of the Department of Transport wrote to him to request his assistance in providing a character reference for Fred.  In his letter to the ASIB, Barnes expressed extreme disappointment at Fred’s dishonesty and wondered whether Fred’s failure had something to do with his disappearance. 

Letter to ASIB from (Edwin) Robert Barnes 1
to ASIB from (Edwin) Robert Barnes 2

Throughout 1978, Fred was dating the formerly mentioned 16 year old girl, Rhonda Rushton.  On a number of occasions she had flown with Fred, and she considered her boyfriend to be a diligent and responsible pilot who understood the importance of being disciplined while flying.  About two months before his disappearance they had flown together to Newcastle.  On the return flight Fred had accidentally strayed into restricted airspace in the Sydney suburb of Bankstown.  Rhonda later recalled that Fred had become extremely agitated during this incident and remembered using a handkerchief to dab the sweat off his forehead.  Fred received a letter reprimanding him for this incident for his poor navigation skills.  

When Rhonda was interviewed by the Department of Transport 3 days after Fred’s disappearance, investigators were keen to understand Fred’s mental state in the days leading up to the 21st.  While Rhonda told the interviewers that Fred was a very sober young man, rarely drinking more than two beers on nights out, she also mentioned a couple of things which stood out to the investigators as unusual.  Firstly, about one week before the incident, she and Fred had driven out to the Dandenong Ranges where they had discussed the topic of UFOs and Fred had said “If a UFO landed in front of me now, I would go in it, but never without you”.  When pressed as to whether UFOs were a topic he often discussed or was heavily interested in, she said that they had talked about them only occasionally, and never in any depth and denied that he was any more interested in them than the average person.  The interviewer also claimed that Rhonda said she had seen newspaper clippings of UFOs that Fred kept as a hobby, something she denied 40 years later when questioned about this at an anniversary event held by the Victorian UFO Action group.  

Furthermore, according to Rhonda, Fred had lied to her previously about passing his meteorology subject.  According to her he had told her this false information when he first met her, but that 4 months later he had admitted to his lie.  But, perhaps the most significant piece of information that Rhonda later revealed was that, the weekend prior to his disappearance, 2 days before the trip to the Dandenong Ranges mentioned previously, Fred had asked Rhonda to marry him.  According to her he had proposed to her and given her ‘a friendship ring’, which was to be replaced at a later date by a more expensive ring which he had placed on layby.  He told her she could keep the friendship ring until he had enough money to pay the amount owing on the more expensive ring on layby at a jewellers near where he worked in Moonee Ponds.  He also told Rhonda to keep the engagement secret because he didn’t want to announce it until he had enough money to pay out the remainder of the layby which he was planning to do that Christmas.    Furthermore, he had planned to be engaged to her for 1 year because Rhonda was to turn 17 in the December and then after 1 year she would be 18 and she would have reached the legal age for marriage.  On the one hand, Fred’s plans to marry Rhonda may well be seen by some to be a sign of a young man who was looking forward to the future.  On the other hand, his tutor Edwin Robert Barnes, in his letter to the Department of Transport, saw his actions in proposing to Rhonda and giving her a temporary friendship ring as the behaviour of someone who was acting very strangely indeed and wondered whether he did it because he had planned to commit suicide on the 21st October.

Rhonda Rushton and Fred Valentich 1978

Years later at the 40th anniversary event of the incident held by the Victorian UFO Action group at Moorabbin Airport in 2018, Rhonda told a live audience that the Department of Transport had asked her some extremely inappropriate personal questions, the nature of which she was not willing to disclose.  Needless to say, this would be very unprofessional behaviour by a Government Department when questioning the grieving girlfriend of a missing man, especially since she was just 16 years old at the time and not accompanied by her parents.  In addition,, while she was being interviewed she felt intimidated because a bright spotlight was shone in her face throughout so that she could not see who was interviewing her.  

On the evening prior to Fred’s disappearance, Fred visited Rhonda at her home in Preston at about 9:15pm.  Rhonda told the DoT in her interview that Fred wasn’t his usual-cheerful-self that evening and appeared as though something was bothering him.  According to the DoT interview report of Rhonda’s interview he had agreed to take her out on the Saturday night after he returned from his flight. “In their conversation it became evident to her that he had forgotten he had agreed to take her out on Saturday night.  The forthcoming flight to King Island was discussed and together they evolved the schedule of departure: Moorabbin 4 o’clock; land King Island 5:30pm; pick up crayfish, leave 6 o’clock; land Moorabbin 7:30.  As it was a 20 minute drive from the airport to Preston she suggested Valentich put his good clothes in which to take her out, in his car when he left home early on Saturday.  Since the aircraft went missing, she had seen the car at Moorabbin, and was aware that no clothes were in it.”  

There are a couple of strange things about this information.  Firstly, it is at least a 40 minute drive from Moorabbin Airport in Cheltenham to Preston.  But, more significantly, Rhonda now denies that she ever told the investigators that she told Fred to put his good clothes in his car.  She denies that she ever told them that they had agreed for him to pick her up at her house in Preston to go out that night.  In fact, at the 40 year anniversary event, Rhonda Rushton spoke publicly about how she and Fred had agreed to fly to King Island together.  That later they were going to go out for dinner to celebrate their 6 months anniversary together.

Interview with Rhonda starts at 1:05:00
ASIB interview report of meeting with Rhonda Rushton 24 October 1978 1
ASIB interview report of meeting with Rhonda Rushton 24 October 1978 2

In fact, in its final report summary written on 24th of August 1981, almost two years after the incident, investigator Barry Mahony also made a slanderous accusation about Rhonda with the following comment: “Frederick’s girlfriend seemed to enjoy the publicity limelight surrounding the disappearance.  She did not appear to be unduly concerned and gave the impression that she expected to see him again.”  

Fred’s father, Guido Valentich, was interviewed by the Department of Transport on October 25th 1978, the day after Rhonda Rushton’s interview.  Among other things he told them that Fred was a firm believer in UFOs and had read the book Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, by Swiss author Elrich Von Danniken.  Published in 1968, the central tenet of the book was that many of the technological advances made by ancient civilisations were introduced to them by extraterrestrial beings.  Furthermore, Guido told the investigators that Fred’s beliefs in UFOs had not long ago been strengthened during a recent camping trip he had made to Gippsland with the Air Training Corps, when he had been allowed to view the RAAF’s secret files on UFOs.  However, Fred had refused to reveal the contents of those files to his family as they were classified and he took his duty not to reveal its contents very seriously.  Guido also told the investigators that Fred’s mother Alberta had recently seen a UFO and had called Fred and he had seen it too.  They described it as a large light, its size about ten times that of the largest star.  The object had remained stationary for some time before shooting off at a high speed. While Guido had not been present during this incident himself, his wife and son’s explanation of it convinced him that UFOs were real, and that the planet was regularly being visited by some sort of extraterrestrial intelligence.  Lastly, Guido revealed that Fred had worried about attack by UFOs, so his father had attempted to assuage his fears by telling him that if aliens did attack there was nothing they could do, so there would be no point in worrying about it.  

Guido Valentich
Guido interview with ASIB DOT 25 October 1978 1
Guido interview with ASIB DOT 25 October 1978 2

According to Guido, Fred had gone to bed at about 10:30 on the night of the 20th of October 1978.  In the morning he had a light breakfast of coffee, orange juice and cereal with his family.  He then drove to Puckle Street in Moonee Ponds where he worked as the Assistant Manager of an Army Disposals shop, a store which specialises in camping and outdoor equipment.  He started his shift here at 9am before finishing at noon, when he immediately drove from Moonee Ponds to Moorabbin Airport, where he had his first lecture at 1pm.  This meant that he would not have had time to get lunch before the start of his classes.  

Meanwhile, at Moorabbin Airport that morning, Vince Alfonso carried out the daily inspection of the Cessna 182, DH-VSJ, Fred would later that day fly to King Island.  The inspection was begun before 6am when Alfonso flew the aircraft to French Island as part of the routine examination that was to check the performance of the aeroplane.  Alfonso noted the plane performed “ok”.  There was a smell emanating from the heater, which soon dissipated, but this was not considered unusual.  More alarmingly, on the return flight to Moorabbin Airport a passenger noticed fuel emanating from the fuel tank on the right hand side of the aircraft.  After landing it was discovered that the cap was out of the tank and hanging from the chain, so Alfonso reported this anomaly to Southern Air Services.  The next morning when discussing the disappearance of Fred at S.A.S. he discovered that the cap had been repaired before Fred’s flight.  

Interview with Vince Alfonso

Fred’s classes finished at 5pm, after which he headed to the briefing office to submit his flight plan.  Fred lodged the flight plan at 5:23pm, and it stated a take off time of 5:45pm.  However, he did not actually take off until later as he was so hungry, having not eaten anything since morning. Later, both Rhonda and Guido told investigators as it was his normal practice to do so, he would have driven to the local McDonalds restaurant on the Nepean Highway near the Southland Shopping Centre and eaten a large meal that usually consisted of “2 Big Macs, 2 Cheeseburgers, a fillet-o-fish and some chips and most likely would have drunk a carton of coca-cola”.  Rhonda later said she believed Fred would have gotten take away and would have driven his car to the beach where he would have eaten his large meal while looking out to sea.  

It is believed Fred took the Cessna for refuelling at 6:10pm and waited in the cessna as it was being refuelled by mechanic Ronald Tyson.  Once done he was given the ok for take off.  Crucially, Fred did not actually take off from Moorabbin Airport until 6:19pm, a full 34 minutes after he had indicated he would in the flight plan.  This meant that by the time his cessna was to arrive at King Island the sun would have set and it would be almost completely dark.  Despite this, Fred made no phone call to the airport on the island requesting them to turn on the runway landing lights, as was standard procedure at the time.  In fact, there were a number of contradictions in what Fred told to different people in regards to his intentions for this flight. In the days after the incident the Department of Transport was told by Bob Hope, an instructor with Southern Air Services, that Fred had told him on the day that he had planned to pick people up on King Island.   He also told Darcy Hogan his briefing officer that he was going to pick up passengers on the Island, but no such passengers existed.   Yet, according to the Department of Transport he had told Guido and his friend Greg Reaburn that he was picking up crayfish on the island.  This was also strange, as the crayfisherman on the island, Cliff Day, said he had no contact with Fred regarding procuring any crayfish, and that they had sold out of cray fish early in the afternoon anyway.

It is not clear why he told different people different things about the purpose of his flight.  His girlfriend Rhonda Rushton, now believes he had no intention of landing at all and was just building up flight hours.  

It is believed Fred flew towards Frankston before heading out over Port Phillip Bay towards Point Lonsdale.  From here Fred flew along the coastline towards Cape Otway which he reached at 7pm.  Here he contacted Steve Robey at Air Services in Tullamarine Airport by radio to inform him he was commencing the over water section of his flight.  

Fred had been flying for 6 minutes over the open water before his first contact with Steve Robey, in which he enquired about whether there was “any known traffic below 5,000 feet”.  The 17 seconds of indecipherable static that is heard at the end of the tape occurred at 7:12pm.  It is not known what happened to Fred’s plane, but if he did crash into the ocean at this point, and assuming he was flying in largely a straight line from Cape Otway, the crash site would have been located about 40 km south south east of Cape Otway, not quite halfway to King Island.  This however, is disputed as we shall see later.

After the transmission of the 17 seconds at the end of the call from Fred’s plane, Steve Robey made numerous attempts to communicate with Fred, but received no reply.  He therefore initiated a safety measure known as an Alert Phase that would require a King Island Flight Service officer to duty, as the last employee had gone home for the day at 5 o’clock.  This alert phase also involved the activation of the island’s emergency procedures, one of which included turning on the landing lights at the runway. 
When Fred’s cessna failed to arrive at King Island at 7:33pm, the Distress Phase was declared, and an immediate ground, sea and air search was commenced.  

Brian Jones, the officer in charge at King Island Airport was called back to duty at 7:15pm after the Alert Phase was initiated.  He arrived at the airport, and put the landing lights on at 7:35pm.  At the same time that he arrived, his assistant Graeme Smyth also arrived to put the landing lights on for a cessna that was flying out of the airport, but had been delayed while waiting for passengers.  This other cessna was then used to fly around the island to search for Fred’s plane.  Despite the fact that there was excellent visibility, and they could see all the way to the Cape Otway lighthouse, they did not sight Fred’s plane.  That night a ship in the area was notified of the missing aircraft and conducted a search for Fred’s plane, but did not see anything.  Planes were also sent along the route Fred’s aircraft took, but as it was night it was difficult to spot anything in the darkness.  

With daylight, the search was given renewed impetus.  One aircraft conducted a land search of the island and another a coastal search, but found nothing.  3 vessels searched off the west coast and islands off King Island and the RAAF Orion searched off the north coast.  An oil slick was found here, but no wreckage could be located.  The next day the vessel ‘Nomad’ was sent to the area and a sample of the oil slick was taken for testing, to determine whether it could be from Fred’s cessna.  However, later it was determined that the oil was not of the type that would come from an aircraft. Debris consisting of fruit and vegetable boxes was also located near this site, but this was determined not to be from Fred’s Cessna 182.

A light aircraft also located some more debris to the north west of King Island, but as this plane was not fixed with integral navigation systems it needed to rise in altitude in order to sight land before fixing its position, and in doing so it lost sight of the debris and could not locate it again.  

After 3 full days of searching, the search and rescue operation by sea vessels was called off on the 25th of October.  Nevertheless, volunteers and friends of Fred’s continued to search by air and land.  Many of Fred’s friends felt that since no wreckage had been found in the ocean search, he must have turned the aeroplane around and crash landed somewhere on the heavily forested Cape Otway Peninsula.  Therefore, on the 26th a group of his flying buddies travelled down to the region and spent a number of days performing flyovers and searching the area by foot, which was also to prove fruitless.

The media became aware of the unusual nature of Fred’s disappearance as soon as the search and rescue operation was put in place on the night of the 21st, and the general public was able to eavesdrop on the radio transmissions.  This prompted the DoT to publicly release the transcript of the radio conversation between Fred and Air Services controller Steve Robey on the 22nd.  The fact that Fred had witnessed an unidentified aerial phenomenon right before he and his plane went missing became a huge story, and newspaper and radio journalists scrambled to interview all those who were close to Fred.  

On the 23rd of October, an article appeared in the Bendigo Advertiser titled ‘UFO Took Our Boy – Pilot’s Parents’ detailing Guido and Alberta Valentich’s belief that Fred may have been abducted by the UFO.  The interview, which had been conducted on the evening of the 22nd, after the first full day’s search had ended in failure, also explained that Guido and Alberta did not believe a proposed explanation that Fred may have turned the plane upside down or entered into an uncontrolled spiral after becoming disoriented.  Fred’s parents also expressed the view that the Department of Transport was attempting to cover up what really happened to their son.  

Bendigo Advertiser 23 Oct 1978 “UFO Took our boy – Pilot’s parents”

In the days after Fred’s disappearance, it became evident that one month earlier, a woman had written a letter to the editor, published in the King Island News on September 20 concerning recent accounts of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.  It stated: “We saw our first sighting two months ago.  We were driving into Currie and a slow moving light followed us down the North Road, and finally disappeared toward the lighthouse.  There were other sightings in Currie on the same night.  Some people further up north also saw a strange light passing over their house.  Then another (told) of seeing beautiful strange lights outside.  On going out to investigate the lights suddenly disappeared. Then last night…the strange light appeared again just up from Camp Creek.  On each of these occasions, the light has been very large and bright, and seems to light up the area as if it were daylight.”

The Courier 24 Oct 1978 “Hopes Fade for Pilot”

Soon other stories of sightings of unexplained aerial phenomena emerged.  A man by the name of John Snow contacted the Department of Transport investigators on the 23rd of October to inform them that, at about 11:45pm on the night of Fred’s disappearance, his 11 year old son had witnessed a long streak of greenish white light flash across the sky to the south of the Barwon Heads area, about 120km from Cape Otway.  A Mr P. Farr of Burwood, an officer in the RAAF reserve, contacted investigators to inform them that on the night in question he had witnessed what he described as “a shower of very bright metallic scintillations, to the south, high in the sky..about 30 bright centres.”  The Australian published an article describing a sighting by a technician who worked with the CSIRO named Wayne Bellew who witnessed a UAP whilst camping with his wife at Bateman’s Bay NSW on the night in question.  He described seeing a “bright white object performing wild stunts over the ocean…the thing was performing such incredible manoeuvers that any conventional pilot who tried it would have been guts over kneecaps”.

Perhaps the most startling UAP sighting made on the night of Fred’s disappearance came from a man named Don Cox and his wife from Valley View, South Australia, in a detailed letter to the RAAF.  Describing a bright shining object he and his wife witnessed from the garden of their home he wrote in his letter: “Having got my binoculars from within the house I focussed (on) this object…What I saw was a large triangular, yellow white light, laying on it’s (sic) side, with one side of the triangle in a vertical position. Within this triangle were iridescent lights.  I can only positively remember three of the colours, which were blue, blue green and orange, but feel sure there were also others.  My wife watched it for near enough ten minutes, and myself for a total of roughly forty-five minutes before losing sight of it behind a large gum tree two gardens away.  During the last stage of viewing this assortment of colours it transformed into a V shape, still on it’s (sic) side with the top half appearing to be the reflection of the lower portion, as one might view a boat sitting on the surface of the water.  I reported this matter to Edinburgh Airport at 5:45pm Monday the 23rd of October, and was told by a girl that this information would be passed onto the UFO investigations officer in the morning.  By now I was aware I had seen word for word exactly as the missing Melbourne pilot (meaning Fred) had described.  I rang again Edinburgh Airport the following day October 24th and spoke to an officer who told me he would try either to see me at my place of work or at my home in the evening.  As by the following day, the 25th, he had not made the effort to interview me, I again phoned and told him of my concern, pleading with him to heed this information which I felt so vital in the case of the missing pilot.  After confirming my statement with my wife over the phone, this officer subsequently visited my home and took a signed statement from me along with a diagram of the three stages that this moving light had taken.  I have no doubt in my mind that whatsoever I witnessed was exactly as the young pilot described who has gone missing…I am prepared to swear an oath or submit myself to any lie detector test to substantiate this my statement.”

One week after Fred’s disappearance, Air Services controller Steve Robey was involved in another UAP sighting incident.  In the vicinity of Sale, Gippsland a pilot reported seeing an extremely bright light heading from west to east.  A few minutes later the same pilot reported the same phenomenon and told Robey that if it happened again he would land the aircraft.  It happened again, an extremely bright light, travelling quickly from west to east, this time it was travelling below him.  As a result, the pilot landed the aircraft out of fear of being impacted by any similar objects.  At the time there was a military phone number that was provided to all Air Services personnel to report such incidents.  Robey contacted the number and soon afterwards he was interviewed by a man from the military about the incident.  

Meanwhile, the Department of Transport set about investigating the cause of Fred’s disappearance, an investigation that would not be completed for 2 and a half years.  It was this process that led to the interviewing of Fred’s girlfriend Rhonda Rushtion on the 24th of October, Fred’s father Guido on the 25th of October and many of Fred’s friends and peers.  As time went on and Fred and his plane were nowhere to be found, speculation mounted in the media as to whether the six minute transcript of the radio contact between Fred and Steve Robey was a full account of the conversation that transpired between the pair.  Despite the fact a number of UAP research organisations based in both Australia and the United States wrote to the Department of Transport urging them to release the full audio tape recording of the conversation. The DoT responded by declaring it had never been its policy to release audio tapes related to accident investigations.   

In January 1979, Fred’s father, Guido Valentich, wrote a letter to the Director of the Department of Transport for the Victoria and Tasmania region, G.Hughes, requesting a copy of the audio tape of Fred’s radio transmission with Steve Robey.  The department privately expressed reluctance to release the tape, expressing the view that it went against their normal procedures to release audio tapes from accident investigations, particularly ongoing investigations which had not yet concluded.  Guido was suspicious that the Department was trying to hide something, and believing that Fred had been abducted by alien spacecraft, he requested the help of veteran American UFO researcher Paul Norman.  Norman and Australian UFO researcher John Auchettl established a dialogue with the Department on Guido’s behalf and arranged a meeting with the DoT in which they requested a full, unedited copy of the tape.  The Department however, agreed only to supply an edited version which only included only the parts of the tape between 7:06 and 7:12pm – from when Fred had first reported the unusual aerial sighting until the final indiscernible 17 seconds.  Furthermore, the edited tape would not include any of the parts of the tape in which Steve Robey was speaking, nor the part of the tape that was recorded prior to 7:06pm.  While, Guido and UFO researchers Auchettl and Norman tried to insist on the full tape the DoT insisted that this would not be possible as those other parts of the tape were deemed confidential and it was only releasing the 6 minutes of Fred’s voice out of sympathy to Guido and his family.  Furthermore, they asked Guido to sign a document stating that he would not release the audio tape to the media and that he was to play it for family members only.  After much back and forth, in March 1979 the DoT finally released this edited version of the tape to Guido and the Valentich family.

Paul Norman and John Auchettl were both members of VUFORS or Victorian Unidentified Flying Object Research Society, a research group which professed an agnostic stance towards UFOs, but considered the phenomenon deserved closer scientific scrutiny than was offered by mainstream science or sceptical explanations for UFOs.  While VUFORS was simply seeking all available evidence in order to find out the truth of what had happened to Fred, the story was also ripe for charlatans and shysters to make a quick buck with pseudo-scientific explanations and false narratives of what had become of the 20 year old.

On 23rd April 1979 an article by reporter David Elias appeared in the Australian which detailed the claims of a New Zealand confidence trickster by the name of Colin Amery who falsely claimed to be a clairvoyant.  According to the article, Amery claimed that he had conducted a seance the previous Saturday in which he had communed with Fred.  Amery further claimed that Fred had told him during this seance that he had been “taken by a community in space and that the reason his aircraft had not been found is that it disappeared from any physical existence”. Amery also reported that Fred had told him that sixty seconds of the radio transcript of his conversation with Steve Robey had been “edited out and suppressed” and that Fred was “safe, but no longer (has) a physical body, I am in light, but can move to wherever I want to be”.  

The Australia 23 Apr 1979 “Seance ‘reaches’ UFO kidnap pilot”

Despite Amery’s claims, others suggested that he was simply trying to publicise his book New Atlantis: The Secret of the Sphinx a book that “looks forward to a new and golden age of Aquarius that will succeed the present cycle of chaos and destruction”. 

“New Atlantis the Secret of the Sphinx” by Colin Amery

In October 1979 Michael Fields, writing for the American magazine “Ideal UFO Quarterly” made the false claim that the Department of Transport had released only an edited version of the true transcript and published a story that they claimed was the true version of Fred’s radio conversation with Steve Robey.  Strangely the narrative of this article was written like a long comic book story, but interspersed with some of the real dialogue from the transcript the Department of Transport had released one year previously.  Furthermore, there were extra details included that were not in the original transcript, most notably the parts in which Fred describes the unidentified aerial phenomenon as being a 100 feet long tube, with green gas emanating from it, windows showing lights on in the interior and that just before the call ends in indecipherable noise, Fred reports suffering from a scorching pain.  

Idea UFO Quarterly “UFO Collides with Plane in Australia” by Michael Fields 1979

Local Melbourne based charlatans also attempted to profit from Fred’s story by giving credence to Ideal UFO Quarterly’s bogus story.  That same month, author John Pinkney, who has made a career out of writing books about ghosts, the supernatural and conspiracy theories, wrote an article published in Rupert Murdoch owned Melbourne Tabloid, Truth.  Now disbanded, Truth was a British style weekly tabloid newspaper that contained photos of bare-breasted page 3 models and usually published sensational scoops on personal scandals.  Pinkney’s article was included in a section of the newspaper titled “The Outer Limits” next to a photograph of him which was captioned “John Pinkney: Australia’s Leading UFO and Supernatural Investigator”.  The article reported on the publication of the story in Ideal UFO Quarterly, and Pinkney mysteriously concludes his article with the line “Some of the pilot’s comments in the American magazine tally with notes I was given last October”.   

Truth Weekend Magazine 24 Oct 1979, “Pilot ‘censored'”, John Pinkney

Despite the publication of these two articles, Ideal UFO Quarterly’s completely fictitious account was quickly dismissed by the one person who had first-hand knowledge of the nature of the conversation with Fred. Steve Robey himself has always maintained that the transcript released by the Department of Transport is exactly how the call played out.

In 1980, a book named the The Devil’s Meridian, which included a section on the Valentich disappearance, was written by authors Kevin Killey and Gary Lester.  The central thesis of the book was the idea that there was an area of the Bass Strait, the so-called Bass Strait Triangle, in which a number of unexplained disappearances of both ships and aircraft had occurred.  It provided a historical analysis of other ships and aircraft that had gone missing without a trace in the previous 150 years.  

On the 28th February 1981 Melbourne tabloid newspaper, Truth, published an article in which they claimed that a filmmaker by the name of Brian Morris intended to make an expensive documentary about Fred’s disappearance.  The article, by Brian Blackwell stated that Morris intended to import the same type of cessna 182 L aircraft from the United States before hiring a helicopter to tow the plane over the Bass Strait and ditch it into the sea.  This would be done to see what happened to the wreckage of the plane.  The film was to be largely based on the previously mentioned book by Kevin Killey and Gary Lester, The Devil’s Meridian.  Morris stated that it was his intention to include an interview with former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, who claimed to have seen a UFO.  He also expressed his belief that the documentary would cost in the region of $600,000 to produce.  It is not known what happened to Morris’ film project, but it was never made.  

Melbourne Truth 28 Feb 1981, “New Bid to Solve UFO Riddle”, Brian Blackwell

The Department of Transport finally released their accident investigation report summary of the Valentich Disappearance in August 1981.  It stated that it could not be determined what happened to Frederick Valentich and his aircraft, but it did offer 5 possible hypotheses. 

1. That Fred experienced disorientation which caused him to crash the plane into the sea.  However, it noted that if this had been the case that it was unusual that there had been no wreckage discovered.

2. That Fred intentionally landed the cessna on the sea, before attempting to escape, either successfully or unsuccessfully.  It implied that if this had been the case the aircraft may have sunk to the bottom of the sea completely intact, either with or without Fred’s body inside.

3.  A controlled landing elsewhere.  It suggested the possibility that Fred was not where he said he was and that he may have intentionally deceived the public by intentionally landing elsewhere.  

4. Crashing on land while attempting a controlled landing.  It suggested this as a possibility, and that if this was the case, the wreckage simply had not been found yet.  

5. UFO intervention.  The DoT then falsely added to this item, in a comment that is uncharacteristically speculative of a goverment department, that there were: “no sighting observations of a brightly illuminated craft large enough to take on board a cessna 182”.  In fact there were at least 15 sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena reported to either the Department of Transport investigators, news media or to the RAAF, on the night in question.  

Summary of accident investigation in to Valentich disappearance by the Air Safety Investigation Bureau of the Department of Transport

The summary report was delivered by hand to the Valentich family on 12th May 1982.  A copy was also sent to the owner of the aircraft Dr. C.Day, Southern Air Service, and the Victorian Coroner that month.  

In 1982 the Air Safety Investigation Bureau (ASIB), which had been a branch of the Department of Transport, had its name changed to the Bureau of Air Safety Investigation (BASI), an operationally independent unit, no longer of the Department of Transport (DoT), but now a branch of the Department of Aviation (DoA).  

In December 1982, Fred’s father Guido Valentich received a telephone call from a filmmaker by the name of Ron Cameron.  In the phone call, Cameron claimed that two divers contacted him to inform him that they had located 3 or 4 aircraft wrecks off Cape Otway, and that they had identified one as Fred’s Cessna 182 L, DSJ.  Cameron claimed that the divers had requested $10,000 in return for revealing the location of Fred’s plane.  A story in the ‘Herald’ evening newspaper on the 15th of December then elaborated on this story.  Cameron claimed to have seen photographs taken of the underwater aircraft and believed one of them bore the same markings as Fred’s plane.  He further claimed that the photograph revealed the cockpit of the cessna, but that Fred was not inside.  Cameron told the newspaper that he intended to make a documentary film about the disappearance, and conduct a salvage operation in recovering the aircraft.  

The Herald, 15 Dec 1982 “Film Man: I’ll Find Riddle Plane, Bill Hitchings

After this article was published the Coroner’s Court of Victoria contacted BASI expressing concern that these private individuals were publicly declaring a desire to interfere with possible evidence in determining the cause of a deceased person.  Therefore, in January 1983, the J.Sandercock, the director of BASI, contacted Ron Cameron to explain to him the sensitivity of the issue at hand and to arrange a meeting where he hoped to explain to him that any salvage operation could only be carried out in the presence of both someone from the Coroner’s Court and a member of BASI.  

Then, on 11th January 1983, on the day Sandercock was to meet Ron Cameron to discuss the salvage operation, another article appeared in the press, this time in the Sun titled: ‘UFO Plane Photos Upset Father’.  In the article written by John Beveridge, Guido expressed his dismay that the divers were attempting to profit from the salvage operation of Fred’s plane.  Filmmaker Ron Cameron was also interviewed again where he stated: “The plane was a little bit twisted, but in one piece.  Once we get a line down to it we will be able to bring it to the surface in half a day.”  

BASI director J.Sandercock immediately cancelled his meeting with Ron Cameron on seeing the article, expressing dismay that there had been so much media attention around the planned salvage operation.   Then, according to Ron Cameron, the two divers in question pulled out of the deal to show him the location of the wreck, as they were unhappy that he seemed to suggest that he did not fully trust them in a radio interview on the topic.  

BASI memos imply scepticism about Ron Cameron’s claims, and they expressed the opinion that he was simply trying to drum up publicity about the affair in order to attract funding for his film.  Regardless, like Brian Morris’, the film was never produced and there were to be no more newspaper articles about the supposed wrecks.

The Valentich disappearance was back in the news for different reasons however, in May of 1983, when BASI received a package from Arthur Withers the Airport Manager of Flinders Island, a similarly sized island to King Island, but lying 350km to its east.  The package contained some debris, an engine cowl flap from a Cessna aircraft that had washed up on the beach on Flinders Island, very close to that island’s airport runway.  The debris had been found by Withers’ son Robert, and it was accompanied by a letter that stated that they believed it to be from Fred’s cessna 182 L – DSJ.  The debris was in 3 pieces and heavily eroded, but BASI immediately set about attempting to determine whether it was in fact from Fred’s plane.

Engine cowl flap debris found off Flinders Island in May 1983, was it from Frederick Valentich’s plane?

The partial serial number visible on the debris, indicated that it came from a range within which DSJ’s serial number fell, meaning it was definitely possible that it was DSJ, but not certain.  The debris however, was not buoyant and so Sandercock wrote to the Royal Australian Navy Research Laboratory to try to understand if it was possible for a piece of debris which could not float to be transported over such a long distance and end up at Flinders Island.  

In October of 1983, Ian Jones of the Ocean Sciences Division of the RAN Research Laboratory replied that indeed it would be possible for the debris in question to have travelled across the bottom of the sea particularly during days when the ocean currents were strong.  Since almost 5 years had passed since Fred went missing it would have been entirely possible that this debris could have been carried to Flinders Island in that time. 

While some are convinced that this cowl flap is almost certainly from Fred’s plane, others are not.  There had been two other known events when cessna aircraft taking off from Flinders Island airport had lost the same piece of engine cowl flap.  Given that this piece was found so close to the runway, it is believed to be more likely to have come from one of these planes.  Modern scientific analysis would be capable of determining whether the piece had been in salt water for 5 years, but unfortunately the debris in question has been lost by the Department of Aviation and so unavailable for testing.  

In October 1988 Guido received a telephone call from celebrated Australian journalist and television personality, Ray Martin.  On the phone call, Martin urged Guido to release his copy of the audio tape of Fred’s last radio transmission.  Guido, unsure as to the legality of such an action contacted BASI to enquire as to whether he was still bound by having signed the agreement six years previously not to release the audio tape beyond his own immediate family.  Sandercock told Guido that the agreement still stood, and as result the latter had to disappoint Ray Martin.

In 1998, VUFORS researcher Paul Norman interviewed an anonymous man who claimed to be witness to a startling sighting on the night of Fred’s disappearance 20 years previously, which he had.  The sighting, which the man had not reported at the time, took place on the Great Ocean Road, at Barham River, about a kilometre south of Apollo Bay.  The anonymous man stated that just beyond the bridge here, he pulled over his car where he and his two nieces, looking in an easterly direction towards the sea, observed a cessna aeroplane slowly descending in a diagonal direction.  While light was fading, as it was dusk, he could clearly make out the cessna and its distinctive white navigation light and red wingtip light.  But, more astonishingly, the cessna was being pursued by a much larger craft, illuminated by a green, circular light travelling on top of and slightly to the rear of the cessna.  He and his nieces stood watching this event for half a minute until both aircraft disappeared from view to the northeast  It was clear that if the cessna had continued on its diagonally downward trajectory it would have splashed down in the sea just off the coast near Apollo Bay.  

Researchers Paul Norman and Richard Haines then wrote a paper about this sighting in which they suggested that, based on this witness description, it was highly probable that Fred had changed course when he encountered the UAP.  They hypothesised that Fred become somewhat disoriented when he first saw it, and turned away from King Island and back towards the coast of Victoria.  Then, at 7:10pm on the transcript Fred states: “what I’m doing right now is orbiting and thing is just orbiting on top of me”.  Normans and Haines suggested at this point Fred was facing towards the Victorian coast before doing a complete 360 degree orbit and continuing towards the coast.

It was soon after this that Fred reported his engine coughing, at which time Norman and Haines suggested, Fred began to lose altitude.  The 17 seconds of indecipherable sounds, they suggested, was possibly caused by Fred’s plane dropping to an altitude when ground to air radio transmission was made impossible due to the curvature of the earth preventing a direct line of sight between the radio tower and the aircraft.  It is believed Fred continued towards the Victorian coast for several more minutes, all the time losing altitude and then turned to the right at 7:16pm heading towards the northeast about 1 to 2 kilometres from the Victorian coast.  It was soon after this, they believe, Fred and the UAP were brseen by the anonymous man and his nieces while continuing a gradual diagonal descent, before disappearing beyond their line of sight and splashing down about 6km out from Apollo Bay at roughly 7:21pm.  

The Norman and Haines paper concluded by recommending an underwater search be conducted at this location, but as of July 2020, this has not occurred. 

Sadly, in the year 2000, Fred’s father Guido passed away, without ever having found an answer as to what happened to his son on that day in 1978.  His mother Alberta and his brother Ricky and sisters Lara and Olivia, still travel to Cape Otway each year to remember Fred and are still looking for answers as to what happened to him.

In researching this episode I was contacted by a source who informed me that, while it has never been released publicly by what is now called the Air Safety Transport Bureau (formely BASI), there are in fact multiple copies of the original 13 minutes Valentich/Robey audio tape.  This source made the claim that an anonymous person who had previously worked for the Department of Transport at Tullamarine Airport had taken recording equipment into their place of work and made a recording of the original, non-edited tape.  This tape has since fallen into the hands of certain anonymous private UAP researchers.  Despite this, these individuals have never released the tape publicly, as technically, the tape is the property of the Department of Transport.

As of July 2020, Frederick Valentich is still officially listed as a missing person, and as far as we know, nobody knows what happened to him.  His family members still hold out hope that one day some evidence will come to light revealing what his fate was.

My name is Eamonn and you’re listening to Melbourne Marvels, a podcast about interesting events that have happened in the Melbourne area throughout history.  I am releasing this podcast in recognition of national missing person’s week in order to highlight the plight of families who suffer from not knowing what happened to their missing loved one, as is very much the case with Frederick Valentich.  I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to the podcast. 

If you would like to reach out to me to ask me about anything in the podcast, please feel free to do so.  You can contact me by email on or you can follow me, on Facebook at Melbourne Marvels, on Instagram at melbinmarvels, or on Twitter on @melbinmarvels.  If you would like to support this show, please do so by either leaving a 5 star review for the podcast on itunes, or writing a positive review on the Facebook Page.  Leaving these positive reviews will mean that the show is exposed to more people online.  You can also support the show financially by seeking out the podcast on Patreon and donating as little as $1 per episode.  This really helps with the expenses of the upkeep of the show.  For example, I must pay an annual fee for the webpage, I have also paid for equipment I’m using to record the show and I also pay for monthly subscriptions to  I really appreciate any support you can manage, but don’t feel like you have to donate, especially in these difficult financial times, as I wouldn’t want anybody to pay who is not able to afford it.  

I would also like to thank independent researcher Paul Dean for being a valuable source of information on this incident.  Thank you also to George Simpson of VUFOA for giving his time to discuss this case. I would also like to thank Rhonda Rushton for answering the questions I put to her about Fred.  I would like to thank the following musicians from for allowing their productions to be used as part of the soundtrack to the podcast: Erokia; Ispeakwaves; samplingsamthemarylandman; josefpres; erh.

Eamonn Gunning 4/8/2020


Valentich 40, a video record of an event marking the 40th anniversary of the Valentich disappearance

Haines, Richard F., and Norman, Paul, 2000. Valentich disappearance: New evidence and a new conclusion. Journal of Scientific Exploration (Vol. 14 No. 1, 2000)

National Archives of Australia: File numbers:

V116/783/1047; (Includes Department of Transport Investigation Report and newspaper reports about incident)

M116/783/1047 PART 1; (Includes Department of Transport Investigation Report and newspaper reports about incident)

A9755 parts 1-24 (RAAF UAS Reports)

NB: After completing this podcast and blogpost I learnt that researcher Keith Basterfield was largely responsible for the digitisation of the above files. While I didn’t rely on his blog in my research for this work, he is probably the most important researcher on this topic and you can view what he has to say on it by visiting his blog here.

Newspapers: The Australian; Melbourne Truth; The Herald; The Sun; Bendigo Advertiser; Courier (Ballarat)

Magazines: Idea UFO Quarterly

Music Sources Artists from

Erokia; Ispeakwaves; samplingsamthemarylandman; josefpres; erh

The Cranbourne Meteorite

The Bunurong aboriginal people, a tribe of the Kulin nation, have for thousands of years inhabited the land south-east of the modern city of Melbourne.  Their country, covering about 8000 square kilometres, stretches from Werribee at its westernmost point, to Wilson’s Promontory in the south east and all the land in between including the Mornington Peninsula and the land south of the Yarra River, including the Dandenong Ranges.  Although this land was only sparsely populated with between 300 and 500 Bunurong by the time of British settlement in the 1830s, they had a rich culture with an oral tradition that had managed to pass down stories of significant environmental events that had occurred in the region. The Bunurong had been in the area so long they had witnessed the formation of Port Phillip Bay 8000 years previously caused by rising sea levels which were occurring globally due to the demise of the last glacial period.  The Bunurong oral traditions tell stories of their ancestors hunting kangaroo and emu in the valley where this body of water now lies.  

One wonders therefore what significance the Bunurong gave to an incredible event that occurred in their country sometime in the late 1700s some 50 years before the devastation of their culture that British settlement was to bring.  Roughly around the same time that Captain James Cook was sailing the Endeavour up the east coast of Australia an iron bolide from space, about the size of a truck, pierced the earth’s atmosphere in Bunurong country, coming from the North East and breaking up over a wide area between modern day Pakenham and Pearcedale.  The event would have been spectacular visually, even if it had occurred in daytime the larger pieces of the breakup would have appeared brighter than the sun. Had it occurred during the night, the event would have turned night into day creating a magnificent spectacle for Bunurong witnesses. This would have been followed by incredible sonic booms and shock waves that could have knocked people to the ground for kilometres around.  Indeed, there is no doubt the local Bunurong people would have attached a large amount of significance to the event.

From what is known about other cases of impact events being witnessed by Australian aboriginal groups, they tend to be accompanied by myths which portent catastrophe.  Indeed, the aboriginal tribe who border the Bunurong to the north, the Wurundjeri have a myth about a separate impact site at Lilydale, known in the Wurundjeri language as Bukkertillibe.  The story goes that Bunjil, the creator deity was displeased by the people’s behaviour and so became angry and punished them by causing a star to fall from the sky and strike the earth resulting in an explosion that killed many people.  What is more, across Australia there are many other such accounts of impact events being explained by stories of deities punishing humans by flinging fiery rocks at them in what were no doubt meteor impact events.

Unfortunately, it seems that any myth surrounding the later impact event to occur in Bunurong land was lost by the almost complete devastation of Bunurong culture that was to occur upon British settlement in their lands.  Bunurong alive today descend from a handful of aboriginal women who were abducted as sex slaves by Westernport Bay sealers who invaded the area in the early 1800s and any oral tradition about the event has been lost. So, one can only wonder how this incredible incident was viewed by the Bunurong in the late 1700s.  

What is clear is that it was to prove to be an extremely inauspicious occurrence, as Bunurong culture, which had continued in a consistent manner for thousands of years, was to be laid waste in the form of British vices, murder and diseases within 100 years.

One surviving account of what the Bunurong thought of the large iron meteorites in their country seems to suggest a more positive perspective of the incident.  The area of the strewnfield where the meteorites fell, between Pakenham and Pearcedale, while today a mixture of farmland and residential land, at the time of the impact in the late 1700s was largely swamp.  Once Melbourne was settled by entrepreneurs from Launceston in 1835 squatters immediately set about transforming the surrounding swamplands into pasture land for cattle grazing, including at what was later to be known as Cranbourne about 40km to the south east of Melbourne.  Here, protruding from some land owned by a Mr McKay there was a large body of iron and, years before it was identified as a meteorite, contemporary colonial reports state the local Bunurong people would:

“dance around it, beating their serpentine tomahawks against it, and apparently much pleased with the metallic sound thus produced”. 

Other unsubstantiated reports suggest the iron meteorite was revered as a symbol of fertility, and that the Bunurong performed fertility rituals around it.  This was apparently because, though the main mass was mostly buried, at the top of it there was a large protruding spur of nickel iron that, it is claimed, was in the shape of a phallus.  This, the largest of more than a dozen meteorites that would eventually be discovered, would later be referred to as the Bruce meteorite or Cranbourne no.1.

When the impact event occurred the main mass, due to the extremely high temperatures generated and the extreme air pressure it was subjected to on entering the earth’s atmosphere at such a high speed, broke up into a number of smaller pieces which were strewn in more or less a straight line stretching about 25km from modern day Pakenham to Pearcedale.

In 1853 a settler who was travelling by horseback through McKay’s land attempted to tether his horse to what he thought was a tree stump sticking out of the ground.  It was then that he realised that it was a mass of iron. Later that year a second iron mass about half the size of the first was also discovered about 6km to the north east on the land of James Lineham in what is today the suburb of Clyde. This mass would later be referred to as the Abel Meteorite or Cranbourne no. 2.  

In 1854, the phallus-shaped  spur on Cranbourne number 1 was cut off and 2 horseshoes were forged out of it.  These were then exhibited at the Melbourne Exhibition by a farrier named James Scott. It is not known what the Bunurong thought of this emasculating action, but the deed would certainly be viewed unfavourably by everybody concerned when it was established later that a priceless meteorite had in fact been defaced to make some horseshoes.

In about 1857, a farmhand discovered a much smaller iron near the location of Cranbourne number 1.  Even though the iron could fit in the palm of his hand it weighed 7kg because of its extremely dense composition of iron and nickel and was later to be known as Cranbourne no. 3.  Not realising its significance, it was used as andiron on a fire where it was exposed to extreme temperatures that caused it to split in two. The owner at this point threw away one half of the meteorite.

It wasn’t until 1860 that the iron masses were, finally, correctly identified as meteorites.  This occurred when a Cranbourne councillor by the name of Alex Cameron visited Melbourne in order to petition the government to build a railway line through the Cranbourne area.  In order to entice interest in his idea he suggested that it would benefit the colony to build the railway through the Cranbourne area because of what he claimed was the huge seem of iron that existed just beneath the surface of the land there.  The Melbourne town clerk at the time, Irishman Edmund Fitzgibbon, was an amateur geologist, and on hearing this bit of trivia knew that the councillor must have been mistaken, as there was no way such a huge seem of iron could have existed on what had been swampy territory.  He decided to inspect the iron for himself. He was shown both Cranbourne numbers 1 and 2 where he made trenches in order to determine their size. Both McKay and Lineham, the owners of the land on which the meteorites rested, offered Fitzgibbon the meteorites for free if he agreed to pay for the cost to deliver them to Melbourne.  He declined both offers, saying he simply wanted to generate interest in them as scientific curiosities and said it was now the government’s responsibility to arrange for their relocation.  

Edmund Gerald Fitzgibbon

In February 1861 the famous German meteorologist Georg von Neumayer, who had, a handful of years earlier, established the first weather observatory in Melbourne at Flagstaff Gardens read a paper about the meteorites by the town clerk Fitzgibbon.  Both he and a German mineralogist named August Theodore Abel, who was based in Ballarat, and some other scientists were fascinated with the account and decided to set out to Cranbourne to visit the meteorites. The men camped the night at the sight of Cranbourne no. 1 on McKay’s farm, performing some magnetic experiments and taking some samples before McKay informed them that he had already sold it to a neighbour of his named James Bruce.  For the next fifty years this meteorite, known now as Cranbourne no. 1, would be known as the Bruce meteorite.  

Von Neumayer and his party continued on the next day and eventually located Cranbourne no.2 on James Lineham’s farm.  Lineham viewed the meteorite as a nuisance and was happy to sell it on, so it was purchased by Abel who made arrangements to have it delivered to Melbourne.  For the next fifty years this mass would be known as the Abel Meteorite.

Georg Balthasar von Neumayer

Abel had it excavated and it weighed in at over 1 and a half metric tonnes, which in 1860 was the second largest meteorite in the world, only after Cranbourne no.1, which was to weigh in at 3 and half metric tonnes. Cranbourne no.2 generated great excitement on delivery to Melbourne where it was exhibited before being quickly shipped to London for the International Exhibition.  Before having it shipped to London, Abel had offered the National Museum, in Melbourne a chance to purchase it from him for 300 pounds, but they declined the offer saying it was too expensive. Instead he agreed to sell it to the British Museum for 300 pounds, which meant he made a profit of 250 pounds having purchased it from Lineham and transported it to Melbourne for fifty pounds.  

Meanwhile Fitzgibbon had obtained the remaining 3.5 kg of Cranbourne no.3 from McKay, exhibited it to the Royal Society, a Melbourne community of scientists and wrote a paper on it.  The publication of this paper gave rise to great interest in the meteorites in Europe. Even the Emperor of Austria at the time, Franz Joseph the first, wrote a letter to Henry Barkly, the Governor of Victoria at the time, asking for more information. Barkly had a sample of no.1 sent to the Emperor through the German-Austrian botanist Ferdinand Von Mueller, who was the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, and he also sent a larger fist sized piece of no.1 to the K.K. Hofmuseums in Vienna.

When it became clear just how important the meteorites were, many in the Royal Society decided it was of utmost importance that the main masses should be kept in the colony.  One member was Irishman Frederick McCoy who was also Director of the the National Museum in Melbourne. Knowing that Abel had already sent his mass to London, McCoy wrote to Mr Bruce as to whether he would be interested in donating Cranbourne no. 1 to his museum.  Bruce, being a proud citizen of the British Empire first and an Antipodean second informed McCoy that his request would be impossible, as he was determined to donate it to the British Museum. However, he told McCoy that he would be willing to have the meteorite cut in two, giving one half to the museum in Melbourne and one to the museum in London.  

He wrote his letter to McCoy in early January 1862, but it seems that McCoy did not reply immediately to this letter, and Bruce, taking this to mean a rejection of his proposal, on January 31st, gave Cranbourne no.1 to Von Mueller in order for him to present it to the British Museum.  Cranbourne no.1 was then moved to the University of Melbourne quadrangel, where it waited to be transported to London. When the Royal Society discovered that Bruce had arranged to send it to the British Museum, debate ensued in public throughout 1862 and many petitioned to have Cranbourne no.1 retained in Melbourne. Many members became outraged and publicly criticised Bruce’s actions in letters that were published in The Argus newspaper.  One in particular, a Dr. MacAdam, criticised Bruce for his lack of “scientific attainments”. Bruce however, wrote his own letter in December of 1862, in which he bitterly defended himself. In it he explained how he informed McCoy that time was of the utmost importance in replying to Bruce’s agreement to split the meteorite in two, but as McCoy hadn’t replied in almost a month, he was well within his right to send the meteorite abroad. He also included a stinging rebuke of MacAdam with the following words:

“As for Dr. MacAdam’s insidious sneer with respect to my scientific attainments, they may or may not be empirical; at all events, I have not thrust myself before the public.  If the great doctor’s last lecture is a fair specimen of his scientific attainments, I scarcely think he is free from the taint.  But, this is beside the question, I have yet to learn that, unless I am possessed of great scientific attainments, I cannot deal with any property I may have possessing a scientific interest, as I see fit, without consulting even the Royal Society.  Let the doctor commence to weed nearer home; there is plenty of room for the knife. I have lived long enough to know that they are not the men of greatest scientific attainments who are continually thrusting themselves before the public. I have spent many a pleasant day in the British Museum, and gained some information, why should I be prevented from making some return?  By what right do the Royal Society attempt to deal with my property against my wish? Would it not be more creditable to them to throw all selfishness aside, take a more cosmopolitan view of the the matter, and lend their aid, instead of throwing obstacles in the way.”

Just when it seemed as if the impasse could not be overcome, Henry Barkly came to the rescue by writing to the British Museum and arranging for them to return Cranbourne no.2  in exchange for Cranbourne no.1. This agreement seemed to appease all parties involved and also saved the larger meteorite from being desecrated by being split into two. 

Cranbourne no.1 was sent to London in 1865, where it is still on display in the Natural History Museum.  Cranbourne no.2 was returned to Melbourne and put on display in the National Museum. It can still be seen in the Melbourne Museum in Carlton to this day.

Cranbourne #1, the Bruce Meteorite being excavated before delivery to Melbourne, February 1862.

In 1876 what came to be known as Cranbourne no.9 was found in a railway cutting, roughly 3km east of Beaconsfield Railway Station, when they were building the train line to Gippsland.  It weighed 75 kg and had apparently been exposed above the ground for many years, unburied, unlike the two main masses. It apparently fell into the possession of a German mineral dealer who destroyed it by greedily cutting it up into many pieces and selling each piece for a profit.

In 1886 Cranbourne no.10 was discovered on the property of a Mr Padley, about 7km south east of the old Langwarrin Railway Station, by an employee who was ploughing an orchard.  Padley saw the rock as a nuisance and simply moved it out of his way, not realising its significance. It was only when a Government geologist by the name of Murray visited the locality that it was Identified as a meteorite.  It was quite a large fragment, weighing in at 914kg. Murray encouraged Padley to donate it to the Melbourne Technological Museum and today it is located at the Melbourne Museum, Carlton.

In 1903 the Pearcedale iron, or what became known as Cranbourne no.11 was found.  It was quite large, weighing in at 760kg. This piece was to prove to be the most westerly fragment discovered as of February 2020.

1923 was a busy year for Cranbourne meteorites as another four were found this year all, nearby the largest fragment Cranbourne no.1.  Cranbourne no. 4 weighed in at almost 1300kg, no.5 356kg, no.7 153kg, and no.8 24kg. All 4 fragments were found in the same paddock, by farmers ploughing the land.

5 years later in 1928, Cranbourne no.6 was discovered, further to the north east, at Pakenham and was a smaller rock at just 40kg.  It was discovered during construction work involved in the widening of the Princes Highway, and like many of the others was buried at a shallow depth.  This piece is the most easterly of the the 13 pieces discovered as of February 2020.
Cranbournes # 4, 5 & 7, The Argus, 24 January 1924

Cranbourne no. 12, a small fragment of some 23 kg was only identified in 1982.  It had actually been found in 1927, but was not identified scientifically until the later date.  

The last piece to be found, Cranbourne no.13, was identified as recently as 2008.  A market gardener in Clyde, not far from the location of the Abel fragment, Cranbourne no.2, dug up a rock that had been annoying him for years.  He had intended to dispose of the 85kg piece at the local tip until a friend suspected there was something special about it and urged him to keep it.  Coincidentally, the man’s son was studying about the Cranbourne Meteorites at Clyde Primary School, and informed his teacher that his father was in possession of an unusual, heavy rock.  When the assistant principal of the school, Maruie Richardson, made enquiries with the parent, the latter agreed to take it to the school, so that the children could study it. The school arranged for a sample to be taken and sent to the Melbourne Museum, and it was confirmed then that the fragment was indeed of meteoric origin.

It should be noted that, while 13 fragments of this meteorite have been discovered there are more out there awaiting discovery.  As mentioned previously all of the pieces of the Cranbourne Meteorite were discovered in locations more or less in a straight line stretching 25km from Pakenham to Pearcedale.  In total, the mass discovered thus far comes to 8,500kg. If one looks at the map of the strewnfield inlcuded in the blogpost about this event, it can clearly be seen that the fragments are clustered together at four different main areas along the 25km flight path.  These areas are at Pakenham, Clyde, Devon Meadows and Pearcedale.  

Within these clusters larger bodies, because of their greater mass, travel further along the flight path.  This can clearly be seen from the cluster at Devon Meadows, where Cranbourne no.1, the heaviest object, was further along the flight path to the south west than were the smaller bodies of Cranbourne numbers 4,5,7 and 8.  The only exception to this theory in this location was Cranbourne no.3 which was located further to the south west than the others, but at just 7.5kg it is possible that this iron was picked up by a human and carried to the area it was found in in the late 1850s.  

At both Pakenham, and Pearcedale the theory plays out as well, but with only 2 and 3 irons found thus far at these locations respectively, it is possible that searching in these locations for further irons may prove fruitful.  

But, perhaps the best chances of success in attempting to find more of the fragments of the Cranbourne Meteorite would be at Clyde, where, until 2008 the only fragment to have been discovered was the massive 1.5 tonne Abel Meteorite, Cranbourne no.2.  The theory predicts that upon separating from the main body, Cranbourne no.2 would have had smaller fragments detach from it, before it finally came to rest. And this theory was proven correct, when Cranbourne no.13 was found in 2008, close by, just to the north east.  However, there are almost certainly more of these smaller fragments out there in the Clyde area.  

Unfortunately, since 2008, much of this area has been rezoned as a residential area and a housing estate has been built on what was until about 3 years ago farmland.  Therefore, an extensive search using metal detectors would be much harder to carry out today.  

Screenshot (50) (1)

In 2001 the Pakenham Gazette interviewed Glenda Tait and Jean Hermon, who were granddaughters of Suzanne Lineham, who was a 9 year old child of James Lineham, on whose property Cranbourne no.2 had been taken from in 1860.  Jean Hermon told the newspaper that her grandmother remembered as a child the impact the transportation of the meteorite had on local members of the Bunurong aboriginal tribe.

“Grandma said the meteor was worshipped by the aborigines who came to the property.  She said it was so special to them that they cried when they saw it being taken away.”

met press rep
Jean Hermon & Glenda Tait, 2001

This account of the importance attached to Cranbourne no.2 by the Bunurong people, as well as the earlier one related by Mr McKay in regards to Cranbourne no.1, leads one to suspect that the impact event was the source of some profundity for the tribe.  It is a terrible shame that, what that significance entailed, was lost. Indeed the Cranbourne Meteorite was to prove to be a particularly inauspicious occurrence for the Bunurong people. That this prized possession of the Bunurong was transported out of their lands to the capital city of the Empire that had so decimated their culture is perhaps symbolic of the British invasion of Bunurong land.  One could view the Cranbourne Meteorite lying in the Natural History Museum in London as the Bunurong’s Elgin Marbles. Perhaps one day, the British government will return this culturally significant artefact to the Bunurong people as a gesture of goodwill.  

Thank you for listening to this episode of Melbourne Marvels on the Cranbourne Meteorite.  My name is Eamonn, the creator of Melbourne Marvels. You can help me out by subscribing to the podcast on itunes, spotify or your Android podcasting app.  You can also help support me on Patreon from as little as $1 US an episode. If you can’t afford that you can support me by giving me a 5 star rating on Itunes, this helps the discoverability of the show.


I would like to personally thank Peter Skilton of the Mornington Peninsula Astronomical Society for answering enquiries I had about this topic.

I got most of my information for this podcast from the journal volume titled Descriptions of the Victorian Meteorites with Notes on the Obsidianites which was in the journal Memoirs of the National Museum, Melbourne.  It was written by R.Henry Walcott, and published in April 1915.

Also, the Transactions of the Royal Society by Royal Society of Victoria, published in 1860, contained the information regarding the display of the horseshoes at the Melbourne Exhibition of 1854, the information regarding the Cranbourne councillor Alex Cameron petitioning the construction of the railway in 1860 and also the information regarding Fitzgibbon’s own visit to sites of the two main masses near Cranbourne.

Other helpful documents were primary sources by the individuals involved in the first assessments of Cranbournes 1 and 2.  Notably Results of the Magnetic Survey of the Colony of Victoria Executed During the Years 1858-1864 by Georg Balthasar von Neumayer, and published in 1869.  This is the document which records the information regarding colonists’ observations of the Bunurong’s relationship with Cranbourne #1.

The information about the Bukkertillible impact event at Lilydale I first learned about by reading On the Astronomical Knowledge and Traditions of Aboriginal Australians by Duane Willis Hammacher II, from December 2011.  He cites Robert Brough Smyth, 1878, in The Aborigines of Victoria: With Notes Relating to the Habits of the Natives of Other Parts of Australia and Tasmania, as to where this information is from.  I should note here that on finding this primary source I noticed that the correct spelling was Bukkertillible, not Bukkertillibe as Hammacher had in his thesis.  I copied this spelling mistake for my podcast and pronounced it wrong in the recording.  I only noticed the error on reading the primary source.

The other main source I used was Australian Gem and Treasure Hunter, Year Book1982, by William Cappadonna.  This contains much of the information regarding the predictions for where future finds of meteorites in the Cranbourne area are likely to be.

Credits: Narration and research by Eamonn Gunning

Music By: James Longley; Klankbeeld; Frankum; Andrewkn

Eamonn Gunning


Historical Fatal Shark Attacks in Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne.

I recently started to research fatal shark attacks that had occurred in Port Phillip Bay.  What I found surprised me.  There have been 7 since 1835.  The contemporary newspaper reports of some of these accounts are quite incredible.

In 1876 the city of Melbourne was a vibrant place with a population of about 250,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the British Empire.  What’s more it was a popular destination for Europeans, Americans and Chinese who were seeking to strike it rich since gold had been discovered in Central Victoria in the 1850s.  

Peter Rooney was born in Melbourne in 1857 to Patrick Rooney an Irish labourer and Rose Rooney who was originally from Berkshire in England.  The Rooneys had married in 1847 at St. Francis’ Roman Catholic Church. By 1876, Peter was 18, and was one of 5 children to Patrick and Rose, he being the only surviving boy.  As was common for the time, 3 of Peter’s siblings, died in infancy, while he had 4 remaining sisters. As the only male heir remaining, he was his parents’ pride and joy, and it was expected he would carry on the Rooney family name.

Peter lived with his parents and sisters in Leichardt Street, a lane off Lonsdale Street.  The area was a slum called “Little Lon” and was a notorious red light district replete with poverty.  Despite this, he worked as an apprentice stonemason in Emerald Hill, what we today refer to as South Melbourne.  Peter was a strong swimmer, and would sometimes swim at the beach after a hard day’s work. The 6th of February 1876 was a Sunday, so while Peter didn’t have work on this day, he was still keen to go for a swim at Emerald Hill with his friend Robert Johnson, and some other young men.  The boys got up very early, and arrived at the beach as early as 6am. Peter and Robert set out to swim straight away, and were seen to be swimming from the Emerald Hill jetty to the Emerald Hill Company’s baths. They took rest here before Peter jumped off the piles and swam out into deeper waters, while Robert swam in the shallow waters back towards the jetty.  

What happened next would haunt Robert for the rest of his life.  Swimming in the shallows he managed to reach the jetty before Peter, and just as he climbed up onto the platform he heard a desperate scream from his mate: “For God’s sake, save me”.  Looking around Robert was horrified to see a monster of a shark, 5 metres in length, its enormous jaws clenched on to his friend’s left leg. Before Robert had a chance to react, the shark appeared to be dragging Peter further out to sea, whilst he struggled against it.  Watching these events unfold was a man by the name of James Pritchard who was riding his horse on the beach. Without thinking Pritichard rode his horse into the sea in an attempt to rescue Peter from the clutches of the shark. Peter was in about 5 feet of water and was just about to sink beneath the bloody waves when Pritchard, on horseback, grabbed his hand.  Pritichard was able to to lift Peter out of the water, but not quite onto the horse, and the shark seemed to hesitate for a second due to the presence of the horse. But, as Pritchard retreated, Peter dangling awkwardly from the horse with blood pumping from the wound to his left thigh, the shark seemed to get its bearings and swam aggressively towards them. This time it bit at Peter’s left calf to the horror of his friends.  The scene was nightmarish with the colour of the water all around turning red due to being diluted with blood.  

Pritchard struggled on though, still managing to pull Peter towards the shore.  At one point the shark swam in between their position and the shore as if to cut them off.  By this stage a small crowd had gathered on the beach and the combination of their clamoring and the horse’s frantic neighing seemed to spook the shark, and it swam out to sea. 

Peter seemed to be barely conscious, perhaps from shock and blood loss, since he had first yelled out for help.  When Pritchard’s horse arrived back on the beach Peter was completely unconscious. They lay him on the sand and rested his head on Robert’s knee.  The majority of the flesh of his left thigh and calf dangled from the bone, and blood pumped onto the sand. There was nothing the young men could do and within a few minutes Peter stopped breathing and died.

The next day an inquest was held at the Black Eagle Hotel on Lonsdale Street.  Peter’s body had been taken to his mother’s house nearby where the jury could view the body.  It was clear from the bite marks that the shark had not taken any of the flesh with it, nevertheless the bones of both the thigh and calf were visible.  Patrick, Peter’s father, spoke first at the inquest, followed by Robert Johnson and finally James Pritchard. The jury was then satisfied that Peter had died from blood loss having been bitten by a shark.

It seems that Peter’s mother Rose took Peter’s death particularly badly.  She slumped into a deep depression after the loss of her only son and died, herself, within two months of his death.  The inscription on her gravestone at Melbourne General Cemetery in Carlton North reads:

Quote ”Erected by Patrick ROONEY in memory of his beloved wife Rose age 51 years who died of excessive grief, 4 Apr 1876 through the loss of their son Peter who was killed by a shark whilst bathing on 6 Feb 1876, age 18 years” end quote.


Peter’s father, Patrick Rooney, would go on to live a very tragic life.  Of his 4 remaining children, 2 of them would be dead within 4 years, 1 would die 12 years later at the age of 35 and the last would die in 1898 at the age of 33.  He would outlive them all and die a lonely death at the age of 77 in 1899.  

As if that wasn’t enough, barely one year later there was another fatal shark attack at a Melbourne beach.  William Marks an American from Chicago had recently arrived in Melbourne. He was working as a ferryman on the Yarra River.  According to a fellow worker, he was 39 years old, a keen violinist and a very strong swimmer. No doubt he was unaware of the attack that had occurred the year before less than 200 yards from where he decided to go swimming at 7am on Sunday the 4th of February 1877.  

On that day, a man by the name of Dorsay Dossor was bathing in the shallows at Emerald Hill.  On walking back to the shore, he observed a man, later to be established as William Marks, taking off his clothes before going for a swim himself.  Dossor noted that Marks swam out quite a distance, about 300 yards, before swimming parallel with the beach. Dossor observed the unfamiliar man swam confidently before he suddenly seemed to jump or was thrown out of the water.  He then seemed to swim a few more yards before he suddenly disappeared beneath the waves. Dossor did not notice any shark, but thought it strange that the man never resurfaced. After waiting some time, he and another man on the beach noticed the swimmer had left some clothes on the beach.  Amongst his possessions were a tuning fork, and a letter with American postage marks, addressed to a, William Marks, care of his employer, the ferry operator, on the Yarra River. The men took the possessions to the St. Kilda police station and the police conducted a search of the water using the quote “local Chinamen’s fishing nets” end quote, to trawl the water, but no body was found.  

Two days later a man by the name of Thomas Coppin, a saddler who lived on Brunswick Street, was bathing in the local Emerald Hill baths.  He noticed a dark object floating in the waves about 300 yards away. Copping reported his discovery to Captain Levens, the owner of the baths.  With the help of a telescope Levens was able to tell that the object was that of a dead body and surmised that it must have been that of the American man who had gone missing two days previously.  The two men took a boat out to retrieve the body, and when they did, it was obvious that the man had been killed by a shark. The flesh on each leg, from the knee up had been eaten away and there was a large bite mark stretching 14 inches on both his chest and back.  

At the inquest into the man’s death, a co-worker from the ferry company he worked at on the Yarra River, identified him as William Marks, a 39 year old American from Chicago, who had been, until his recent arrival in Melbourne, working as a farmer in California.  

This attack coming so soon after the one on Peter Rooney the year before, and at virtually the same location, leads one to assume that it may well have been the same shark that killed both men, perhaps a Great White that lurked in that part of the bay in the late 1870s.  

But, these were not the first shark-caused fatalities in the Bay.  Indeed two had occurred in the bay 20 years earlier in the 1850s. Adolphe Bollander was a 21 year old sailor with the Swedish ship Constance which arrived in Melbourne on March 10th 1858 having left Leith in Scotland on November 25th the previous year.  On Sunday the 14th of March, Bollander and some of his fellow crew, were enjoying a swim under the bow of their 785 ton vessel, where it was anchored 1km off the shore, in Hobson’s Bay, at the Northern tip of Port Phillip Bay, near Williamstown. One by one the men had enough of their swim and returned to the ship until Bollander was the only man left in the water.  Suddenly, a horrific shriek was heard from his direction. The other sailors who were on the deck looked towards him, and saw that he had been seized on the thigh by a large shark that was dragging him under the water. Bollander was a fit strong man, 6 feet in height, and somehow he managed to escape from the shark’s clutches and reach the ship. The shark though seemed to reenergise and took another chunk out of Bollander’s leg as he was being helped onto the ship, to which he screamed out in agony, and blood pumped out all over the side.  It was a horrific scene. The other men used long poles with hooks on the ends and paddles to beat the shark, until it finally relented and they managed to drag him onto the deck. The men immediately took him to the shore in order to seek medical attention, but Bollander died of blood loss before they reached it.

An inquest was held the next day at Williamstown at Rees’s Steam Packet Hotel, where Bollander’s body lay.  The coroner remarked that Bollander was an extremely handsome man, but was horrified to observe that the flesh had been completely torn from his thigh.  The jury found that he had died from the effects of being bitten in the thigh by a shark, and cautioned against bathing in Hobson’s Bay.  

3 years earlier than this incident, in 1855, the earliest recorded confirmed fatal shark attack occurred in Port Phillip Bay.  Not much information has been recorded about this incident, including the name of the victim. However, there were enough contemporary media reports about it to confirm that it was a verifiable shark attack.  It was reported in Sydney’s Empire Newspaper as follows, quote: “Fatal Occurrence – Reported Destruction of a Bather By a Shark. Yesterday afternoon, two seaman belonging to the whaling brig Curlew, lying off Towns’s Wharf, jumped overboard for the purpose of bathing, and having a swim. They had not been many minutes in the water when one of them suddenly disappeared, and the other rapidly returned to the vessel, and reported that his companion had been seized by a shark.” End Quote

Thus far, we have only reported on fatal shark attacks in Port Phillip Bay that occurred in the 19th century, however, there were a handful that also occurred in the 20th century.  27 years after William Marks was killed at South Melbourne, on the 12th of June 1914, Adriah Croxford, had an encounter at Sandringham Beach that would change her life forever. She went to the beach that day with her husband John Croxford.  Mr and Mrs Croxford had eleven children from their marriage, but it is not clear from press reports whether any of the children were with them that day. John Croxford, who was 43 years old, and reportedly an excellent swimmer, was, no doubt, also fairly resistant to cold, considering he chose to swim in the Bay on this day in the middle of winter.  At around 3pm he told his wife he was going to swim in the water. He went into the Ti Tree scrub for privacy, and changed into his bathing suit before swimming out quite a distance. Soon afterwards, John returned, no doubt invigorated by the icy water, as he remarked to Adriah how beautiful it was. He told her he was going in again, and this time swam out about 100 yards.  Little did Adriah know that she would never speak to the father of her 11 children again.  

Mrs Croxford watched her husband enjoy himself for a few moments before seeing a dark object appear in the water behind him.  She recognised it as a shark and called out to her husband, but he did not seem to hear her. Abruptly, the shark disappeared beneath the water, and in the next moment John Croxford completely disappeared from view.  Adriah Croxford was convinced her husband had been taken below the waves by a shark, so immediately rushed to Sandringham Police Station where, in an extremely agitated state, she informed Constables Lane and Raven about what she had witnessed.  The officers arranged for a motor boat to scour the area for Mr Croxford, but they found no sign of him, in fact, despite an extensive search, his body was never found.  

But, perhaps the most notable, and eventful fatal shark attack to occur in Port Phillip Bay, occurred on the 15th of February 1930.  Norman Clark was born in 1910 in Brighton, a Bayside suburb of Melbourne. He was one of 12 children to James Clark a mechanic, who worked for Brighton Council, and Priscilla Clark.  But, James had died in 1924 leaving Priscilla and her 12 children to survive as best they could. By 1930, at just 19, Norman was a winchman at the Melbourne Wharves, where he worked hard to help support his brothers and sisters.  

This day, however, was a Saturday, and Norman intended to enjoy it at the beach with his fiance and his 14 year old younger brother, Russell.  The day was the occasion of the Interstate dinghy race being held by the Brighton Yacht Club and, as a result, there were about 200 people on Middle Brighton pier watching proceedings. 

Norman, his girlfriend, and Russell walked down to the end of the pier, and sat on the lower-level platform which is almost at the level of the sea.  This point of the pier is about 400m from the shoreline, and as such the water level is quite deep. While the three were dressed in bathing suits, witnesses described Norman’s girlfriend and brother Russell as reluctant to enter the water, as Norman seemed to spend a few minutes trying to goad his two companions to enter with him.  

Unable to convince them, Norman dived in alone and swam out about 7 or 8 metres, before returning to the landing.  At this point he began splashing his girlfriend in order to encourage her to jump in with him, but if anything it had the opposite effect to what he intended, as she recoiled away from him because of the cold.  

Norman decided this was not going to ruin his fun though, and dived in again, swimming out some distance.  He returned to his companions and treaded water about 3 metres from the platform. He once again asked them to join him, and this time it seemed like his girlfriend had acquiesced to his insistence as she approached the edge where he was.  Just before she was about to enter though, Norman seemed to raise one hand into the air while shrieking, “Oh!”, before disappearing under the water. 


Norman Clark.

The girlfriend at first thought he was playing games, but a few seconds later, this was proven wrong when Norman reappeared as he was straddling the nose of a huge Great White Shark.  The shark clearly had a hold of one of Norman’s legs, and he was desperately struggling with it, throwing punches in a vain attempt to get the beast to let go. At the same time there was a huge commotion on the pier, as onlookers became aware of the terror unfolding in front of their eyes.  Norman’s girlfriend fainted almost immediately at the shock of what she was witnessing and was carried away, whilst Russell called pitifully to his brother. But, the shark and Norman, disappeared under the water again, and were carried to a spot about 4 metres from the end of the pier, where they could be faintly made out struggling under the water.  

Then, Norman resurfaced again, this time blood diluted the water all around, and he seemed to have been weakened by the shark, as he was not throwing as many punches as he had previously.  Again, he was dragged under and resurfaced in a spot about ten metres to the south west side corner of the end of the pier. Here he resurfaced a few times, all the time struggling more and more feebly.  This went on for about five minutes before he was dragged under and wasn’t seen again.  

Throughout this horrifying experience, about 100 hundred people stood transfixed on the pier, watching the horrifying events unfold.  News spread down the pier as to what was happening and swimmers on Brighton Beach soon exited the water, but nobody on the pier attempted to help Norman throughout his ordeal.  

A few minutes after he last disappeared, news of the incident had finally motivated someone to put 4 motorised boats into the area to search for any sign of his body.  But, they failed to locate neither Norman nor the shark.  

Witnesses, described the shark as a monster, 4 to 5 metres long.  In the weeks following the tragedy, fishermen throughout Port Phillip Bay made extra effort to catch the shark responsible for Norman’s death.  Dozens of sharks were caught and killed, but none of them were the same monster Great White.  

For decades afterwards, tales of Norman’s demise took on an almost mythical quality in Melbourne’s pubs and school playgrounds.  One apocryphal version of the story which seems to have gotten quite widespread traction was the tale of Norman Clark, the kid who jumped off Brighton pier straight into the jaws of a shark.  Of all the incidents detailed in this podcast, it was definitely the one that captured the imagination of Melburnites more than any other. For some reason, his death lived on in memories far longer than any other shark attack.  This is despite, the fact that just 6 years later there was another fatality in Melbourne’s bay.

Early in the morning, on the 30th of November 1936, Charles Frederick Swann, a crippled 46 year old World War I veteran who had taken a bullet to the knee in battle, decided to go fishing for snapper in a small dinghy about 6km off the coast of Mordialloc.  Concerns were raised when he failed to return and one of the oars, and the backseat to his dinghy washed up on the beach at 3pm. The oars were recognised by a friend of his named George Anstey who had lent them to Swan two weeks previously. That night Anstey and some of Swann’s other friends from Parkdale began to search for him on the Bay in a large motor launch, but did not find him.  The next day an R.A.A.F seaplane was sent out to try to find him, and at 11 am it spotted his waterlogged dinghy. A motor boat was sent out to tow the dinghy to shore, and when they arrived they spotted a huge 4 metre Grey Nurse Shark circling the boat. There was a significant 2 by 3 feet hole in the dinghy and a shark’s teeth from the upper and lower jaws were embedded in it. Fisherman believed that the shark had followed a snapper that Swann had hooked, and attacked the boat throwing, him into the water where he was easy pickings for the shark. Numerous sharks were caught in the following weeks in an attempt to find his body, but neither he nor the shark were ever seen again. 

1936 is the last time someone was verifiably killed by a shark inside Port Phillip Bay.  There have been other incidents just outside the bay, such as the 1956 case in which John Wishart was killed by a 12 foot shark whilst surfing at Portsea backbeach.  This is not to mention the infamous case of the disappearance of the Prime Minister of Australia Harold Holt whilst swimming at Portsea backbeach in 1967, there is no evidence he was taken by a shark though.  In an extraordinary coincidence another man by the name of Wishart was killed by a shark off Wilson’s Promontory early in Vicotria’s history in 1839. There have been other claimed shark fatalities in Port Phillip Bay such as that of two teenage boys who disappeared whilst fishing from a boat in Carrum in 1916, but despite the coroner finding they were taken by sharks, there was no physical evidence suggesting this was the case and so I don’t consider it a verifiable shark attack.  So, in the 185 years since Melbourne’s settlement there have been 7 fatal shark attacks in Port Phillip Bay, in 1855 off Port Melbourne, 1858 off Williamstown, 1876 off South Melbourne, 1877 off South Melbourne, 1914 off Sandringham, 1930 off Brighton, and 1936 at Mordialloc. This means there have been 7 verifiable shark fatalities in Port Phillip Bay, since 1835, but none for 84 years. I suspect this may have something to do with the large number of large sharks that were purposely baited and killed right throughout the 20th century, particularly in the wake of these attacks.  There simply may be fewer large sharks in the bay now than there were in the early days of the settlement. Large sharks are rarely sighted in the bay, but they still are occasionally. In 2009, a huge 5 metre Great White Shark was photographed by two fisherman 7km off the coast of Altona. So, while rare, it is clear they do still occasionally frequent the waters of the bay.

In researching the podcast I used Trove and to scour old newspaper reports of shark attacks.  I made a list of the newspaper articles I used.  You can find them here.

Credits: Narration and research by Eamonn Gunning

Music Track 1: elementary-wave-11 by ‘Erokia’ on

Music Track 2: ambient-level-location-sound by ‘Kickhat’ on

Music Track 3: sci-fisurvival-dreamscape by ‘Onderwish’ on

Music Track 4: creepy-background-noice-1-loopable by ‘Osiruswaltz’ on

Music Track 5: intro-electronic-loop by ‘Frankum” on

Eamonn Gunning


The Incredible Story of William Buckley Part 4 (Final)

Today’s episode is the final instalment of a 4 part series on the escaped convict Wlliam Buckley who lived with the Wathaourong aboriginal people for 32 years between 1803 and 1835.  It covers the last few years of his life living with the Wathaurong aboriginal people and what became of him after re-contact with British society. 

When we last left Buckley he was living alone at a place called Mangahawnz.  He had set up a hut here by himself in order to avoid the incessant internecine violence between the different aboriginal mobs. After a few months here Buckley left and made a sturdier hut at the Karaaf River because the area was amply supplied with edible roots. While the area also contained plenty of kangaroo, he was unable to catch any because he had no dog with which to hunt them.  Soon a new winter set in and Buckley, exposed to the elements suffered badly from the cold and wet climate. One day, he noticed a large school of bream swim up the river from the sea. He followed along and noticed when they turned around. Buckley decided to run down river and construct a trap made from branches and faggots to catch them before they arrived. To his delight the plan worked and he caught a large number of the bream.  He had enough fish to last him for a few days, so he dried them in the sun on top of his hut roof.

One day a group of aborginal people arrived, two men, two women and some children.  They were old friends of Buckley’s from his former mob and, though he had sworn to live alone only months previously, he was delighted to see his former kin.  They arrived just after he had caught the fish and Buckley happily shared it with them while they were keen for he to share in their kangaroo meat. They set up their huts near Buckley’s and he was delighted to have their company.  As they days passed it was seen that Buckley’s fishing traps were highly successful and so it was decided that the rest of the mob, who were in another location, should be fetched in order to share in the abundance of food. Despite formerly having sworn off living in a group, it seemed Buckley had relented to the good company of his kin and was in fact relieved to be living in a group setting once again.  During this time Buckley told the mob about his loss at murder of his brother-in-law and other family members and on hearing this the group vowed vengence.  

Eventually the supply of fish in the river diminished and the mob decided to move on to another location where many kangaroo and also the wombat, known in the Wathaurong language as Norngor, could be found.  At this point in the book Buckley gives a fascinating insight into how the wombat were hunted, which he relates thus:

“The wombats are killed in the following way.  A small child is sent crawling backwards into the wombat’s burrows 20 feet long and from 10-20 deep. When the child touches the animal he or she bangs on the ground overhead and calls as loud as they can.  The tribe are listening from above with their ears to the ground and then dig all the way down before they kill them. It involves a lot of work though so the natives are not very fond of this and there is usually only one animal in the burrow unless it has young.”

Buckley’s mob stayed in these hunting grounds for a long time and were eventually joined by two other groups of people who he says were called the Putnaroo and the Warwaroo, with the Warwaroo having travelled along distance to reach the area from the other side of the bay.  It should be noted here that I cannot find any reference to these names in modern day. The groups on the other side of the bay would today either be called the Boonwurrung or the Wurundjeri. It is possible that Morgan simply mistranscribed these Kulin nation tribes or that Buckley’s pronunciation left something to be desired when he told Morgan of them.  It is possible that Putnaroo refers to Boonwurrung who lived south of the Yarra River and in the area now called the Mornington Peninsula. It is also possible the Warwaroo were the Wurundjeri who are also known as the Woiwurrung and lived north of the Yarra River.

Either way, with the presence of these two new groups in the area, it wasn’t long before the internecine violence started up again.  One day, a man from the Putnaroo killed a 20 year old man from Buckley’s mob because a woman he desired had been promised to the victim in marriage.  As the Buckley’s mob were outnumbered by the Putnaroo, they did not at first seek vengeance. Instead, Buckley was asked to travel to another area in order to inform the father of the slain man about the tragic news.  When the father heard about his son’s murder he gathered up a large group of men and they all ochred up with clay to form a raiding party. When they arrived back at the area in question, the Putnaroo, who were now outnumbered themselves, fled in fear.  What happened next though is incredibly interesting and so I will relate it in the way it was written in Morgan’s book:

“We now took up our quarters at a place they called Nullemungobeed, situated in the centre of a very extensive plain, with wells of good water handy.  When we had settled ourselves down there, some of the men went to the sport where we had left the young man’s remains hanging in the tree, and brought away the lower part of the body, leaving the upper quarters and head where they found it suspended.  The usual uproar commenced amongst the women on the arrival of the part of the corpse, lamentation succeeding lamentation, burning with fire-sticks, and all the rest of it, until at length the mangled remains were roasted between heated stones, shared out, and greedily devoured by these savages.  Again I was pressed to join in this horrid repast; but I hope I need not say, that I refused, with indignation and disgust. Strange as all these cannibal ceremonies may appear, it is proper to explain, that many are performed out of what they consider respect for the deceased; the cap bones of whose knees, in this instance, after being carefully cleaned, were tied up in a sort of net of hair and twisted bark.  Under such circumstances, these relics are carried by the mothers, tied round their necks by day, and placed under their heads by night, as affectionate remembrance of the dead”. 

I think it is at this point it is worth remembering the influence Morgan had on the description of some of the events in this book.  Buckley was illiterate and Morgan was writing the book as a means of gaining income for the two of them. Some have speculated that the so-called disgust expressed by the Buckley character expressed here was more about Morgan’s attempt to try to present Buckley as a “civilized” man during the Victorian era when civilization was the highest aspiration any man could hope to strive for.  Buckley always treated his aboriginal kin with the utmost respect and left Port Phillip in disgust years later when he saw how they were being treated in the colony. I think it is more likely that Buckley left the mob on this occasion because he didn’t like the incessant violence than because of some notion of disgust at the cannibalism that occurred. Nonetheless, this is what Morgan will has us believe Buckley did next, returning to his abode on the Karaaf River, trapping fish as he had done previously.

Once again however, he was joined some months later by some friendly former kin,  who encamped near by. It was here and at this time that Buckley was married and he details the entire affair thus:

“And now, reader, I come to a very important period of my life, which was a decision arrived at by my friends that I should take unto myself a wife.  I was not in any way consulted, being considered a sort of instrument in their hands to do with as they might think proper. – My wife was a young widow, about twenty years of age, tolerably good-looking, after a fashion, and apparently very mild tempered.  The marriage feast, the ring, the fees for the ceremony, the bride’s dress, my own, and all the rest of it, did not cost much. I was not obliged to run in debt, or fork out every shilling or pay fifty per cent. For discounting a bill to pay the piper – nothing of the kind; so I took her to myself, to my turf and bark hunting and fishing hut, on the banks of the Karaaf River. – I should here mention, that although previously married, my wife did not present me on the day of our union, with any tender little remembrances of her first husband, my predecessor in her affections.  Affections! – we shall see more about that presently; but, perhaps I may as well say at once, that my dearly beloved played me most abominably false, for at the end of our honeymoon, (perhaps it might have been a few months after that moon had gone down,) one eveing when we were alone in our hut, enjoying our domestic felicity, several men came in, and took her away from me by force; she, however, going very willingly.  The next day – as I had no Supreme Court to go to for damages – I went over to the tribe the intruders belonged to, and told them how I had been treated. I confess I did not make a very great fuss about my loss – if it was one – but endeavoured to whistle it down the wind gaily.  Several of the friendly natives were anxious I should take the usual revenge upon her and the man she had left me to live with, but I refused, and in the end, she was speared by another man, with whom she had been coquetting, and to whom she had also played falsely. Mixed up by relationship, as all these parties were, after a great number of altercations about her having run away from me, and the circumstances of her death, there was another fight, in which many heads were broken.  I however, took no part in these, excepting assuming the defensive, and threatening them with punishment if they interfered with me, being now, and having been for a long time past, quite as expert as any of them with the spear, and boomerang. After a great deal of talk and noise, all became reconciled, and there was another Corrobborree on a large scale.” 

At this stage Buckley says how he had adopted two children – a little blind boy and a girl, orphans supposedly of his late brother-in-law.  I have seen it suggested that these were possibly his own children, but Morgan may have changed this in his book in order to avoid the scandal that that would have inevitably created in the Victorian era, but for now I think I will take the book at face value and refer to them as his adopted children.  It seems the two were very attached Buckley and went everywhere with him, including when he hunted. It seems the two were extremely traumatised from having witnessed their biological father’s murder, and Buckley endeavoured to keep the away from strange men from other mobs in order to protect them, especially since the blind boy had no way of protecting himself should they be attacked.  They eventually settled back at his old hut at the Karaaf River, which had been left just as it was months before.

Not long after this a 20 year old man from another group started staying with Buckley’s and his adopted children at the location of his hut on the Karaaf River.  However, after a few days the young man became ill and died, despite Buckley’s best efforts to care for him. Buckley and the children left soon afterwards and soon came into contact with the man’s mob.  Buckley tried to explain to the strangers what had happened to the man, but they didn’t believe him. When they learnt that the young blind boy had been with the man when he came down with illness it was clear that they suspected his involvement in the death of their kinsman.  The mob forced the young boy away from Buckley and to his great sadness killed him. Despite this, Buckley managed to escape with the young girl. Buckley was deeply saddened by the loss of the blind boy, who he had loved very much. He now endeavoured to do all he could to protect the girl from coming to the same fate.  

As they travelled they came into contact with a mob one of whom had been previously promised in marriage to the young girl.  Buckley explained to them about the untimely demise of the beloved blind boy and the immediately vowed vengeance. Some of the men set off to attack the other mob and returned later having killed 2 or 3 of the mob’s children.  

Buckley stayed with his new mob for a short time before once again returning to his quarters at the Karaaf River, this time with the young girl, the boy to whom she had been promised in marriage and 2 or 3 other families from the mob.  

After some months there, Buckley decided to leave the girl with the man to whom she had been promised in marriage and another wife the man had with him, despite the man’s insistence that the girl remain with Buckley for longer.  Buckley then left alone hoping to avoid the internecine violence that once again that was so common amongst the different groups of aboriginal mobs. 

It seems that Buckley suffered very greatly during this time at the trauma of having lost the blind boy which he relates thus: 

“Although I had parted with the girl from prudential motives, I lamented very bitterly the savage death of her brother, my poor blind boy, for whom I had acquired a great affection; and who, on his part, had so many hundred times clung to me for shelter and protection.”

 One day he was joined by a woman who had run away from her mob who were warring with another mob.  She stayed with Buckley a long time, and during this time he was able to provide an ample amount of food for himself and his new companion including what the Wathaurong called a Koorman or seal.  Buckley goes on to mention how his new girlfriend particularly enjoyed this meal:

“We found the flesh very good eating, and my female friend enjoyed the repast with great gusto: greasing herself all over with the fat, after we had made the most of the carcass, which might well be compared to bacon.”

It seems Buckley then spent a number of cold winter months travelling about with the woman, staying mainly in caves along the coast.  Eventually though the woman returned to her own mob. 

Buckley discusses the linguistic differences between the languages of the different tribes.  He mentions how while he understood his own mob perfectly, there were others he could not understand.  He talks about having once met a man from the Murray River and not only he, but none of the others could understand him.  He then uses this fact to make a point about the importance of understanding aboriginal people in matters of law before the courts.  It seems he thought it important that they were treated justly in court matters and that in order to achieve this they must be understood correctly by translators.

However, he then goes on to inform the reader on the barbarity of one particular tribe: 

“I had almost forgotten to say, that in my wanderings about, I met with the Pallidurgbarrans, a tribe notorious for their cannibal practices; not only eating human flesh greedily after a fight, but on all occasions when it was possible.  They appeared to be the nearest approoach to the brute creation of any I had ever seen or heard of; and, in consequence, they were very much dreaded. Their colour was light copper, their bodies having tremendously large and protruding belleis.  Huts, or artificial places for shelter, were unknown to them, it being their custom to lay about in the scrub, anyhow and anywhere. The women appeared to be most unnaturally ferocious – children being their most valued sacrifice. Their brutality at length became so harrassing, and their assaults so frequent, that it was resolved to set fire to the bush where they had sheltered themselves, and so annihliate them, one and all, by suffocation.  This, in part, succeeded, for I saw no more of them in my time. The belief is, that the last of the race was turned into a stone, or rock, at a place where a figure was found resembling a man, and exceedingly well executed; probably the figure-head of some unfortunate ship.”

One day Buckley was minding his own business when three aboriginal men approached him, one with a flag draped over his shoulders.  When he questioned the man as to where he had procured it, the man told him a story of a ship that was anchored in Port Phillip Bay near Indented Heads.  The men had watched it and when a rowing boat left the ship to explore the land the aboriginal men had swam towards and climbed upon the ship. Morgan, with his cultural superiority, makes this incident sound like a crime, declaring that the aboriginal men “purloined” the flag along with several other items, while the white men were gone, and calls it a “marauding excursion”.  Apparently, when the crew returned they fired their muskets in the direction of the aboriginal men, but were too far away to injure them. They then moved the ship further into the bay. It is then claimed that the aboriginal men instructed Buckley to try to entice the men onto shore so that they and their plunder could be captured, but he warned them against this action for their own safety.  

Soon afterwards Buckley himself saw the vessel in the bay, still at anchor and became extremely excited at the prospect contact with his people after 32 years living in the wild.  Buckley approached they area near were the men were camped but discovered that he had no way to communicate with them because he had forgotten all his English from having not used it for so long.  Apparently, Buckley spent several hours trying to signal to the men, but could not speak so was unable to communicate who he was and looking as he did from a distance with a long beard and hair and naked apart from possum furs the men simply dismissed him as a native.  

In his frustration Buckley looked for some around the area where the men had been to see if they had left anything useful.  He found a mound of earth and on uncovering the top layers accidentally uncovered the grave of a deceased white man wrapped in a blanket.  He thought about taking the blanket because it was extremely cold, but decided not to out of respect for the dead man.  

The vessel continued to anchor in the area for sometime afterward, but Buckley could never communicate with them successfully.  The aboriginal people there told him that previously another vessel had anchored in the same area and landed and taken 2 men ashore, bound them up and shot them leaving their bodies there.  A few months later Buckley found a large boat stranded on the beach. Buckley found someone had used blankets as a sail on this boat and there were oars. He fancied some men had used the boat having been cast away, perhaps whalers.  Buckley dried the blankets on the boat and then saw a fire in the distance. Went to fire and found natives cooking and eating fish. They were overjoyed to see the blankets so, Buckley divided them up as best he could to avoid prevent bickering over the prized possessions.  Buckley was then told by this aboriginal group, two white men had emerged from the area 2 days previously suffering terribly from exposure. The mob had helped the men, and the white men often pointed back towards the direcetion of the boat as if trying to explain that some terrible accident had happened.  After being fed on fish for a couple of days the men soon recovered. The aborigines tried to make the men aware that a white man, meaning Buckley, lived among them, but the men could not cunderstand them and went away soon after towards the Yawang Plains. Some months later, Buckley heard that the same men were murdered by the Waiwaioo while crossing the Yarra River. Buckley grieved very much at this, because if he had arrived earlier, he thinks he could have saved them. 

Several months later Buckley found a large barrel or hogshead washed up on the beach.  It contained an alcoholic beverage, but Buckley couldn’t tell what it was because it had been so long since he had had any drink except water, and tasted and smelt horrible to him.  Buckley decided to cut off the iron handles and divide them amongst the aborigines. This act gave him even more influence with the mob as a result. He spilt the contents of the barrell first to prevent disputes amongst the tribes.
Soon afterwards,several families returned to their previous camping places and proceeded to a lake called Jerringot, one of a group in that area that feeds the Barwon River.  There were a number of sightings of the mythical monster known as the bunyip here and the aboriginal people had a great fear of them, believing them to be some kind of omen of death and disease.    Buckley said he tried to spear a Bunyip several times when alone and it was lucky the mob didn’t see it because they had great fear of said animal and were superstitious about it so that they might have killed him as punishment.  He cites a story the natives told of an aboriginal woman being killed by one.  

One day, two men approached Buckley with spears held up high with coloured handkerchiefs attached to them.  They were trying to attract Buckley’s attention and it was clear they had been in contact with white people.  The men explained they had met with 3 white and 6 black men that they had never seen before. Buckley asked if they had a boat and the men explained they had arrived in a Kooyong (ship), that had since left, leaving the men.  The latter had erected two white houses, and had plenty of provisions, including blankets, tomahawks etc. These two native men asked if they could have tomahawks and were refused, although apparentlt the civilised men had given gifts of knives and scissors to a local tribe in the Indented Heads area.  The two native men said they were leaving to find another tribe so they could return to murder the white men more easily so they could get the possessions.  

Buckley worried as to how he could inform the strangers of their perilous situation without appearing to be betraying the natives.  He was also aware of having forgotten his native language and the difficulty this would present in solving this problem. The two men left to find their friends and Buckley decided to journey to the whereabouts of the strangers.    

At the location Buckley found a camp with a British flag flying from a pole  Overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety and remembering he had absconded from the sentence imposed upon him Buckey worried about what sentence might be imposed on him if he were to return to civilization.  Suddenly a white man got up with a bucket and walked towards a nearby well and Buckley followed him. The following is what transpired thereafter:

“From the well I had a good view of all about me, and observed that the natives had pitched their tents near those of the white men – the former being seated round their fires, evidently in great excitement.  Presently some of the natives saw me, and turning round, pointed me out to one of the white people; and seeing they had done so, I walked away from the well, up to their place, and seated myself there, having my spears and other war and hunting implements between my legs.  The white men could not make me out – my half-cast colour, and extraordinary height and figure – dressed, or rather undressed, as I was – completely confounding them as to my real character. At length one of them came up and asked me some questions which I could not understand; but when he offered me bread – calling it by its name – a cloud appeared to pass from over my brain, and I soon repeated that, and other English words after him.  Somehow or other I soon made myself understood to them as not being a native born, and so the white men took me to their tents, and clothed me, giving me biscuit, tea, and meat; and they were, indeed, all very kind in every way. My sensations that night I cannot describe, and before I closed my eyes I offered p to God fervent prayers of thankfulness for my deliverance; for although I saw great danger to the new comers, in consequence of their weakness in numbers, compared with the strength which could be brought against them, yet I thought it certain they had resources in reserve, which might be made available, even if the first party was doomed to be sacrificed.”

While Buckley was still not able to communicate effectively he showed the men a tattoo of his initials WB, which he had decades before had written on his arm.  The men took pity on him, fancying him for a shipwrecked castaway and treated him with great care. Slowly he started to understand more and more of what they were saying and he was able to understand that they men had designs on staying in the area and settling the country.  He goes on:

“They had seen several of the native chiefs, with whom – as they said they had exchanged all sorts of things for land; but that I knew could not have been, because, unlike other savage communities, or people, they have no chiefs claiming or possessing any superior right over the soil: theirs only being as the heads of families.  I also knew that if any transactions had taken place, it must have been because the natives knew nothing of the value of the country, except as hunting grounds, supplying them with the means of present existence. I therefore looked upon the land dealing spoken of, as another hoax of the white man, to possess the inheritance of the uncivilized natives of the forest, whose tread on the vast Australian continent will very soon be no more heard, and whose crimes and sorrows are fast fading away amongst other recollections of the past.“ 

The men informed Buckley that the ship which had landed them in the area would be returning from Launceston in the coming days, carrying many more people and supplies.  

Soon afterwards the large group of men arrived and camped in the area as Buckley had feared and he now tried to think of a way to prevent a massacre.   Indeed, the aboriginal men informed Buckley that they would soon attack them and that if he did not participate he would also be killed. To this threat, Buckley cleverly pretended to be on the side of the aborigines, but he urged them to postpone their attack for a few days until the ship arrived with more supplies to plunder.  However, when the ship had not come for a couple of days the aboriginal men grew impatient and informed Buckley they wished to attack imminently. At this, Buckley informed the white men to be on guard for an attack, which he had not done previously, and armed himself with a gun which he used to threaten the aboriginal men if any of them killed on of his white peers.  He pacified them with the promise of presents from the ship when it did arrive.  

The aborginal men accepted this and busied themselves with hunting and fishing while they waited for the ship.  The next day Buckley spotted the vessel on the bay and he informed both the white men and the aboriginal men who were extremely excited with the prospect of provisions.  

The ship anchored and on it was John Batman, the founder of Melbourne himself and he was accompanied by John Wedge the surveyor and explorer.   A little background of these two men. John Batman had set up the Port Phillip Association, a group of Launceston businessmen and prospectors who had already set up camp near the mouth of the Yarra River in order to form a settlement.  Batman had controversially ‘acquired’ land from the local aboriginal people who as Buckley had suspected were tricked into the agreement. Batman had since returned to Launceston to fetch his wife and more supplies. He had had some of his men set up a camp at Indented Heads as a stopover point.  Not only was Batman’s new settlement controversial for duping the local aborigines, he had failed to gain permission for the settlement from the governor of New South Wales and the Port Phillip settlement was, according to the British Crown at least, part of the colony of New South Wales at the time.  John Wedge was to aid Batman in surveying the land which he claimed to have purchased from the aborigines.

The two men came ashore from the main vessel in a small rowing boat and when they landed they were shocked to see Buckley, the giant wild white man, as he was.  Batman asked him many questions and Buckley informed him that he had arrived on a ship, as he thought, about 20 years previously. Remember it was actually 32 years since Buckley had absconded from the Settlement at Sullivan’s Cove.  Buckley then tried to impress on Batman the importance of providing the aboriginal men with gifts, since they had been waiting for them so patiently for the past few days. Batman was happy to concur and had bags of bread and biscuits passed out among them.  That night the aboriginal men had a corroboree which delighted the visitors.

At this time Buckley expressed to Mr Wedge his worries about his possible punishment at having escaped the convict settlement so many decades previously.  Wedge promised to represent Buckley in a favourable light with a view to gaining a pardon from Lieutenant Governor Sir George Arthur who was then based at Hobart  

The ship left the following day to bring the message to Hobart, leaving Batman, his wife, Wedge and some others to continue the preparations for the settlement on the Yarra River.  

Soon afterwards, Wedge approached Buckley with the request to accompany him on an exploration inland.  Wedge was fully aware of Buckley’s usefulness being fluent in the local languages and Buckley was happy to comply.  

They travelled around a wide area in Wathaurong country both inland and to the coast as far as Buckley’s old fishing grounds on the Karaaf River.  On this expedition Buckley proved very useful as a translator.  

Not long after they returned from their expedition, the vessel returned from Hobart with the message that Buckley Arthur had agreed to pardon Buckley, and he would be allowed to move to Van Diemen’s Land.  Buckley was absolutely delighted at this news. For decades he roamed the wilderness lost from his own culture and with the cloud hanging over his head of being a convict. Now he was officially a free man and he spoke thus: Quote:

“I can now, once more, raise my thoughts – my unsackled mind and hands – to Heaven, as a free man, I can now offer up my prayers of praise and thankfulness to God, for my extraordinary deliverance, and hor His wonderful preservation of me during so long a period.  My heart beats high with joy, almost to its bursting”.

So, what happened to Buckley afterwards?  It appears he joined the settlement at the Yarra River in the employ of at first, the Port Phillip Association, and later, the local government.  He is credited with helping to prevent a massacre here. The story goes that Derrimut, a friendly Bunurong man, as part of his duty of hospitality, informed some of the settlers of the intentions of some of the up country tribes to massacre all the whites who had started to build huts on the new site at Melbourne.  Buckley is credited with translating the message, so that they fully understood Derrimut’s pleas and armed themselves with weapons to deter the attackers who afterwards left.

Employed by the government of the new settlement, Buckley became quickly disenchanted with his role when it became clear that many of those in power would not listen to his recommendations and he was particularly unhappy with the treatment of the aboriginal people.  He was usually asked to translate in matters of dispute between the aborigines and settlers. He relates a case where a great injustice was almost carried out against a young aboriginal man as an example of the kind of prejudice he constantly had to deal with in representation of the original owners of the land.  Two gentlemen went missing when travelling on the road between Geelong and Melbourne. Later at Melbourne, a man who had alighted a vessel from Hobart accused young aborigine of being their murderer based on the apparent evidence that he was wearing one of the men’s coats. The young aboriginal man was mortified and expressed in his innocence in the matter, but the police locked him up nonetheless and a trial was begun in order to determine his guilt in the matter.  The accuser was adamant in court that the coat belonged to his former colleague who was missing and that this proved the guilt of the aboriginal man in question. Buckley, translating for the accused, was 100% sure of the latter’s innocence, but it was only when another man came forward, after overhearing Buckley talking frustratedly about the case to a friend, to say that he had given the coat to the young aboriginal man for payment for some work he had done for him, that the charges were dropped.  

Thus, Buckley left Melbourne frustrated, and sailed for Hobart in December 1837.  Here he found work first at the Immigrant’s Home and later the Female Nursery. At the former he befriended an Irish family, the husband and father of which, Daniel, was later killed by aboriginal people on an expedition to the mainland at the Murray River.  Later Buckley married Higgins’s wife Julia and adopted her daughter Mary Ann, living out his remaining years with a humble income.  

William Buckley died in 1856 at the age of 76 just outside of Hobart after he fell from the gig being pulled by his horse.


The Incredible Story of William Buckley Part 3. Buckley’s long stay with the Wathaurong people.

Today’s podcast covers most of the time Buckley spent living with the Wathaurong people, about 25 years, as they roamed around South-Western Victoria.  I’ve basically summarised a lot of the highlights of this time as related in the book The Life and Adventures of William Buckley. I would like to footnote this episode by mentioning a couple of things first.  There was an ample amount of internecine violence between the various groups of aboriginal people Buckley lived and interacted with during this time and he talks of having witnessed both cannibalism and infanticde.  I have seen some sketchy far right Twitter accounts using these facts as justification for their racist ideologies in which they make sweeping assumptions about the inferiority of aboriginal culture. I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not hold these views.  Furthermore, the book itself was ghost-written by John Morgan, whose own racial prejudice is clearly documented in its preface. One must remember that he has coloured much of its contents with this prejudice. Nevertheless, I think it would be remiss of me not to report the important details of the book and so I have included them here, but it may well be that the Wathaurong account William Buckley, or Murrangurk as they called him, differs in some respects.

As the years passed, Buckley started to develop an understanding of the Wathaurong language which he was patiently taught by his clan.  He learnt that they believed he had lost his language ability due to his experience of having died and returned from the spirit world They spent some time in the area between the Barwon River and the sea, hunting kangaroo.  By now, the affection he had with his people had grown, as they always treated him kindly, giving him the choicest pieces of kangaroo meat during meal times. He learnt how to throw a spear or tomahawk and skin the kangaroos and possums with mussell shells.  His friends taught him how to hunt salmon and bream at night in the Barwon River. They would tie some sticks in a bunch and light one end of it. The fish would be attracted to the light and then they would be speared in abundance.  

One day a large group about 300 men from a neighbouring aboriginal group, the Wurundjeri, arrived in their area.  The group were considered the enemy of the Wathaurong and as a result they a battle commenced between the two. Even the women from the Wathaurong joined in in the fighting, with two of them being killed.  After about two hours of fighting the two groups negotiated a tentative peace and the Wurundjeri retreated. But, the men from the Wathaurong secretly followed them and discovered their camp. The Wathaurong waited until the Wurundjeri had retired to sleep for the night before attacking them.  After the attack 3 Wurundjeri men lay dead and the rest ran away into the night, but it was what happened next that most horrified Buckley. The Wathaurong mutilated the corpses of the Wurundjeri, Buckley related it thus: 

“The bodies of the dead they mutilated in a shocking manner, cutting the arms and legs off, with flints, shells, and tomahawks.  When the women saw them returning, they also raised great shouts, dancing about in savage ecstasy. The bodies were thrown upon the ground, and beaten about with sticks – in fact, they all seemed to be perfectly mad with excitement; the men cut the flesh off the bones, and stones were heated for baking it; after which they greased their children with it, all over.  The bones were broken to pieces with tomahawks, and given to the dogs, or put on the boughs of trees for the birds of prey hovering over the horrid scene. Having apparently gratified their feelings of revenge, they fetched the bodies of their own two women who had been killed; these they buried with the customary ceremonies.”

Time passed and Buckley’s clan moved on to a lake by the the name of Yawangcontes, today called Lake Murdeduke.  Here they settled in huts for about 2 years before being contacted by a nearby aboriginal group who invited them to a much larger nearby lake called Kongiadgillock, or what is today called Lake Corangimite.  Within this large lake there was an island on which nested many Black Swans. The island could be reached from a bank of the lake at a kind of isthmus in only knee-deep water. Here Buckley’s clan gorged themselves on thousands of swan eggs, having been allowed to do so by the other aboriginal group.  They also butchered and roasted many swans. Afterwards they also invited Buckley’s clan to a corroboree, where, there occurred the usual fight over a woman from the other group who had gone with a man from Buckley’s group.  

As time passed Buckley’s clan moved from lake to lake and it was at the aboriginal people called Moodewarri, today known as Lake Colac, that Buckley saw the mythical Bunyip.  For non-Australian listeners, the Bunyip was a mythical beast that inhabited Rivers throughout Australia. It was said to have supernatural powers and to attack eat humans from time to time.  Buckley claimed to have witnessed one in the following account from his biography:

“In this a very extraordinary amphibious animal, which Bunyip, which apeared to be covered with feathers of a dusky grey colour.  It seemed to be about the size of a full grown calf; the creatures only appear when the weather is very calm, and the water smooth. I could never learn from any of the natives that they had seen either the heard or tail, so that I could not form a correct idea of their size; or what they were like.”  

After their time at the lake Buckley a messenger visited the group with a message from another mob to visit them.  It took Buckley’s mob 14 days to trek the distance to wear the others were located as was determined by the number of red stripes Buckley painted on his arm for each passing day.  Here a woman from Buckley’s mob was speared in retribution for having run off with a man from the other mob. 

Afterwards the group travelled to Beangala, now known as Indented Heads.  While here he experienced the biggest hailstorm he had ever encountered. Around this time also, Buckley was beginning to master the Wathaurong language.  He learned during his time here what had happened to one of the other escapees he had left Sullivan Bay with, from the book, quote:

“It seemed, that one of them, having, after a few days, separated from the others, was found by the natives and kindly relieved by them; but after some time, they – as it was said – had reason to be jealous of him – he having made too free with their women – so they killed him.”

It should be noted here that, this account by Buckley, given much later in 1853, differs markedly from an account he gave to George Langhorne just a year after he returned to Western society, in 1836.  In it he is quoted giving the following account: “I had lived with this tribe about six months, when I fell in with one of my companions, whom I found had been living with another family of the tribe on the sea coast. He then came and lived with me, but from his reckless conduct with the women and dissolute behaviour, I was fully convinced that if he remained one or both of us would be murdered. I therefore told him that it was necessary for the safety of both parties that one or the other must leave. He left, and I never saw him or heard of him again, except by a vague rumor – that he had been killed by the blacks, which I fully believe to have been the case.”  End quote.

The question arises here, which account is true?  Did he indeed fall in with his companion as he put it and ask him to leave, or did he just hear about his companion as he related in the 1853 book?  We may never know. It seems though that Buckley is a bit sketchy on this point. One wonders if there was a third possibility, that Buckley himself had something to do with his companion’s demise, we may never know the truth.

At this stage of the book, Buckley talks about some of the customs of the Wathaurong to do with marriage and child rearing.  A marriage must be agreed to by the parents of both the male and female in question. A male suitor must be able to prove himself a good fighter and hunter so as to be able to protect his wife.  A male may have a number of wives sometimes as many as five or six so long as he can look after them. Some men have no wives as a result of this.  

Quarrels are usually caused by jealousy and the women are just as prone to this as the men.  In the fighting however, the women usually come out worse off. Another thing he points out is that the meetings of the different aboriginal groups were not just for exchanging food, but also for showing off their eligible daughters to be seen and courted.

At this time Buckley talks of how a man from his mob went to that of another and murdered a man because he had years before promised him his daughter in marriage and then retracted the promise and married her to another man.  Buckley and some women visited the group in question to mourn together. The man was tied up in a tree as a form of burial. This incident and murder in general being such a regular occurrence unsettled Buckley and made him contemplate escaping.

Buckley’s group then went to Biarhoo on the Barwon River and then Godocut near the seaside.  The contemplated punishing the murderer as they worried about an impending revenge attack, but in the end decided against it.  Next they went to a place called Palac Palac and stayed for many months because there was plenty of animal food and fish. Eventually they noticed another group approach them and they feared it was the kin of the murdered man come for revenge.  But, a messenger was sent and it was not that group but a friendly mob and they were invited to share in an abundance of eels that had been found in a lagoon.  

At this point Buckley explains the native origin for the fire story.  A woman was digging an ant hill one day when a crow was flying overheard and dropped some dry grass and it burst into fire and burnt a tree.  For this reason they respect the crow which they call Waakee and rarely eat him.

The mob travelled to a place called Bordek where there were plenty of possums to eat.  Buckley’s brother-in-law taught him how to hunt the possums. He used his tomahawk to carve notches into a tree to make places to position his toes while holding his tomahawk in his mouth.  He would do this and gradually climb up the tree and pull possums out and fling them to the ground by their tails. Buckley’s job was to stand at the bottom and kill them.

The mob moved to Moriock (near Geelong) and here most of the males left to go on a hunting expedition leaving only 12 males and the females with Buckley.  Soon after they left, another group arrived and put up some huts very close to them. The mob were aggressive and used their numbers to their advantage to intimidate Buckley’s mob.  Eventually they killed a boy and a girl and Buckley’s mob, outraged, attacked them. There was a fight which lasted an hour. Eventually when it became clear Buckley’s mob could defend themselves, this other mob left.  A message was sent to the hunting party to return urgently which they did. A war council was set up and it was decided to pursue the offending mob for revenge. Only men were chosen for the pursuit and they returned with a number of men severely wounded, but it was considered a success because they had killed two of the other mob.

After some time passed Buckley’s mob moved to Barrackillock far to the north.  Another mob had already settled here. Buckley describes how a 20 year old woman from his mob was speared in the thigh for going with a man with the other mob and her parents did not agree to it.  The couple then eloped and revenge was planned on them.  

Here Buckley describes another animal called karbor, otherwise known as the (koala).  He describes how it tastes like pork, is ugly and mainly lives in the trees. It also made a sickening sound like a child in pain when it was speared.

After this the group went to Monwok.  Soon, the man and woman who had eloped were found and invited to participate in some sort of ceremonial battle.  The man’s mob and Buckley’s mob were in attendance. The man danced and capered challenging someone from Buckley’s mob to a fight.  Eventually someone accepted and they fought. The man from Buckley’s mob was winning and struck the eloper in the head so that blood was flowing from it.  The eloper’s mob stopped the fight there though and threatened a greater fight if it continued, so it stopped.

Later the mob came to a freshwater lake.  They saw another mob on the opposite shore during the day.  During the night they were awoken by a terrible commotion coming in the direction of the other mob.  In the morning they travelled to other side to investigate. Most of mob had been slaughtered by a third mob, many bodies of women and children were lying there mutilated.  Many of the attacked mob drowned in the lake fleeing. Buckley’s mob invited those who had survived to their huts and they accepted. There was no time to bury the victims. Buckley’s mob  and their new members left as it was dangerous and travelled to their usual country of Moodewari where they remained for several months.

Buckley relates how infanticide is carried out by the natives on illegitimate children or children of a woman who was first one man’s but then promised to another.  They also killedl children who are deformed. He saw the brains of one being dashed out by a blow to the head and the brother of the child made to eat them. There was a superstitious reasoning behind this act.  It was observed that the women behaved oddly during certain periods of the moon’s cycle. This was considered the reason for the deformity and therefore this cannibalistic rite had to be performed in some sort of sacrifice.  The boy’s father denied his being the father and it was said the other boy had to eat the brains so the same fate would not befall him.

Buckley tells the story of how after a long time at Moodewari another tribe joined them and woman of Buckley’s tribe was taken away by the other tribe until he was forced to give her up.  She was placed in Buckley’s hut, he wasn’t happy about this. In the night man came to hut and speared man from Buckley’s tribe who he was jealous of and kidnapped the woman. Buckley and victim’s brother tried to pull out the spear but could not because it was jagged.  Eventually a woman pulled the spear, but victim died later and was buried. Some men pursued murderer, but returned at night when they could not find him. Victim’s mother burnt her face with firesticks in lamentation. Shortly afterwards, Buckley’s tribe changed hunting grounds and fellin with tribe murderer belonged to.  Fight ensued. Buckley’s tribe could not find murderer so instead they murdered his 4 year old son by bashing his brains in. Also killed his brother and speared his mother through the thigh. Murderer himself came back at night and killed the man who had killed his brother, cut most of flesh from his body and carried it away on spears.   The tribe (which tribe not clear) signalled their joy at this revenge by by singing and dancing. Buckley requested to partake in cannibalism and refused to do so. Buckley was told it was their intention to serve all of the murderer’s tribe in the same way.

Buckley’s tribe settled near a lake called Koodgingmurrah.  Another fight occurred, as usual about women. Buckley nearly killed by boomerang that split his shield.  It was not meant for Buckley but for his brother in law. Man was punished despite Buckley’s protests. Buckley’s hand was wounded and the women bound it with possum felt and sinew.

Buckley says the aborigines love music and play on possum rugs and sticks.  The natives never wash and wear ornaments as rings and in their hair such as bones and teeth from animals and feathers from emu and swans.  

At opposite side of lake, ate mainly Kalkeeth (large ants) found in the hollows of trees.  Pulled out by hand and burnt or roasted on strips of bark. Only available one month of the year.  Mentions how the natives get the stone for making their axes from a place called Karkeen (Mount William about 230km inland), 300 miles inland.  The tribes who live in the area are savage so it was necessary to send a contingent of tough fighting men to fetch this necessary article.

Invited by other tribe to fish for eels at River called Booneawillock.  Another tribe arrived and another fight occurred over women. Buckley’s tribe continued to roam about after this.  One man was bitten by a snake while stepping over a tree and died immediately. Was esteemed high member of tribe and death caused great sorrow, was buried in tree.  

Eventually Buckley was left only with his immediate relations and 2 or 3 families of others.  A large tribe of 60 came upon them and painted themselves up as if for war. They came upon Buckley’s tribe and attacked killing his brother-in-law’s wife and sending a spear through brother-in-law’s body.  They came back to Buckley where he was caring for his injured brother-in-law. Brother-in-law sprung up and speared one in arm. Was immediately dispatched with spears and boomerangs as was his son. For some reason, they did not attack Buckley.  The cause of attack was that man who died of snake bite belonged to attacking tribe. Tribe believed Buckley’s brother-in-law had caused his death somehow. Buckley deeply affected by the killing of his relatives. He cried for a long time about it.  Buckley ordered by one murderer to join his tribe but he angrily refused. He wrapped up his spears and set out alone. After about 4 miles he fell in with a tribe he knew. Buckley told them about the murders and they vowed vengeance. Before they set off they told Buckley where to remain once they had returned.  He set off for the place near Barwon River. 5 women returned few days later, said was great fight, friends had avenged killer of brother-in-law, but women left because danger of being captured. Women left Buckley after few days. Buckley then went to scene of massacre of his family. Found the ashes of family and buried them.  Then went back to Barown River and men returned next day. Asked Buckley to join their tribe, but he refused as was depressed following murder of family and did not trust them to avoid violence. They left, next day Buckley left in opposite direction toward sea. Reached place called Mangahawnz. Set up hut and lived alone for months.  Had now been living in the wild for more than 25 years.  

Had learnt from natives, Calcutta left Bay many years before.  Often looked towards sea and hoped for ships, but never saw any.  Prayed often to God as lived a very lonely and miserable existence. 


The Incredible Story of William Buckley Part 2

The tale of an escaped convict who lived in the bush for 32 years with the Wathuroung aboriginal people before the settlement of Melbourne.

Buckley stayed in the hut that had become his home for a few months in order to recover his health.  But, he soon grew lonely and longed for human contact. Just as he was considering leaving the area he was surprised one day by some human voices speaking a strange language.  Buckley looked up and was startled to see three aboriginal men armed with spears standing on an outcrop. He tried to hide, but the men discovered his tracks and called out to him.  Buckley emerged from his hiding place and the men stared at him in wonderment. They took his hands in theirs and struck both their breasts and his while making an unusual sound which was “bewteen singing and crying…a sort of whine which to me sounded very much like premeditated mischief”.  After examining Buckley’s hut the men then made a fire and threw some crayfish onto it alive. Buckley was worried they might want to cook him next but his fears were proved misguided when they gave him the first and best portion of the seafood.  

After eating, Buckley’s new friends gestured for him to follow them, which he did reluctantly.  Buckley, still feeling tentative about his new acquaintances hoped to escape at the first chance he got, but, while two of the men went on ahead, the one that was left with him watched him like a hawk.  After arriving at some huts made of turf they turned in for the night and Buckley thought this might have been a good opportunity to abscond, but his guard stayed in the tent with him and didn’t sleep at all muttering to himself the whole time.

In the morning the men seemed to beckon Buckley to follow them once again, but this time he refused to go further.  The men reluctantly accepted these conditions, but tried to get Buckley to part with his old, worn stockings. Buckley refused this too though and they accepted after quote “sundry striking of breasts and stamping of feet”.  As Buckley was considering what he might do next, one of the men returned with a crude basket made of rushes, which had the berries mentioned previously and attempted to exchange this for his stockings. Buckley again refused and the man, dejected, went on his way.  

When night came Buckley cursed having left the men because he had no fire to warm himself.  Therefore, he returned to where he thought the huts were, but they were no longer there. Suffering from exposure, he desperately tried finding the aboriginal men by making out in the direction he thought they had left in, but after a while, he became completely lost, and exhausted, lay down under a large, hollow tree.    Luckily he found a firestick nearby and made a fire which attracted dingoes and possums and he couldn’t sleep because of the howling of the former. 

   For a while Buckley travelled around by himself subsisting on anything he could find such as the fruit the men had brought him and shellfish.  Eventually, a desire for comfort brought him back to his old cabin on the beach and he remained here many months.  

As the weather had become very cold and stormy by this stage and as his clothes had become worn and tattered, Buckley eventually resigned himself to attempting to return to the ship.  He bade farewell then and began to retrace his steps back along what is now the location of the Great Ocean Road.  

By this time Buckley was becoming extremely weary and could only make short distances each day.  After a few days he arrived at a creek the natives call Doonagawn and made himself a simple shelter in the vegetation.  Although he didn’t realise it at the time, here Buckley was to make a fortuitous discovery that was to have a considerable impact on the rest of his life.  Right next to where he had made his shelter Buckley found a mound with a spear thrust into it. He immediately realised it was a native grave. But, in his weary state, Buckley simply saw the spear as an excellent potential walking stick and thought nothing more of it at the time.  The next day he reached the Karaaf River and tried to cross it, but weak as he was, he was unable to and he was carried downstream some distance, before eventually reaching the other side where he collapsed in a heap, exhausted. Drenched, he lay down in the scrub freezing and lamented his condition.  He prayed long and hard into the night as the dingoes howled around him and he fully expected to be eaten by them before morning.  

The next day he came across a lagoon the Wathaurong called Maamart.  While he was searching for gum a group of aboriginal people appeared out of the bush and approached him.  They seemed to be overcome with emotion at seeing him. The men took him by the hands and beat their breasts and his in a gesture that he assumed was a greeting.  The women assisted him to walk while making terrible wailing noises and pulling clumps of hair from their head.
They took Buckley to their huts and gave him some sustenance in the form of a pulp made from gum and water which Buckley greatly enjoyed.  They called Buckley Murrangerk, who he later found out was the man whose grave he had taken the spear from. Much later Buckley learnt that the aboriginal people believed that white people were the spirits of people who had died.  In cases in which they had killed white people it was because they had believed the white people to be the returned spirits of their enemies. Buckley felt great fortune at his situation because if he had not picked up the spear when he had, he may have died.

As it was, the people were extremely kind to him.  They went away and found some moth grubs to give him sustenance and he was surprised at how tasty they were.  Buckley stayed with them all night and was still a bit scared of what they might do to him, but was too weak to escape.  The women spent the night wailing and inflicting wounds on their faces and pulling the hair from their heads. Buckley was shocked by this, but later he found out that this was a custom they performed when someone died or when someone returned having been away a long time.  They were expressing their grief at the pain Buckley must have undergone when he died.  

The next day Buckley’s new companions took him to the main body of the tribe on the other side of the Barwon River.  Here there were upwards of one hundred people who made a great commotion on Buckley’s arrival with the usual beating of breasts by the males and the pulling of hair from their heads of the females.  In order to welcome Buckley the people held a great Corroboree. At the time, Buckley was still anxious as he was not sure whether they wanted to cook him, but this didn’t prove to be the case as he relates thus:

“then there was a great noise amongst them, and a trampling backwards and forward from hut to hut, as if something of importance was going on.  I was naturally anxious at this, not knowing how it would all end; at last it came on night, and the boys and girls set to work making a very large fire, probably to roast me – who could tell? At any rate I supposed it not at all improbable, surrounded as I was by such a host of wild uncultivated savages: however that might be, it was impossible to escape, as I was too weak and terrified at the appearance all around.  At last all the women came out naked – having taken off their skin rugs, which they carried in their hands. I was then brought out from the hut by the two men, the women surrounding me. I expected to be thrown immediately into the flames; but the women having seated themselves by the fire, the men joined the assemblage armed with clubs more than two feet long; having painted themselves with pipe-clay, which abounds on the banks of the lake.  They had run streaks of it round the eyes, one down each cheek, others along the forehead down to the tip of the nose, other streaks meeting at the chin, others from the middle of the body down each leg; so that altogether, they made a most horrifying appearance, standing round and about the blazing night fire. The women kept their rugs rolled tight up, after which, they stretched them between the knees, each forming a sort of drum. These they beat with their hands, as if keeping time with one of the men who was seated in front of them, singing.  Presently the men came up in a kind of close column, they, also, beating time with their sticks, by knocking them one against the other, making altogether a frightful noise. The man seated in front appeared to be the leader of the orchestra, or master of the band – indeed I may say, master of the ceremonies generally. He marched the whole mob, men and women, boys and girls, backwards and forwards at his pleasure, directing the singing and dancing, with the greatest decision and air of authority. This scene must have lasted at least three hours, when, as a wind-up, they gave three tremendous shouts, at the same time pointing to the sky with their sticks; they each shook me heartily by the hand, again beating their breasts, as a token of friendship.  By this time I was greatly relieved in my mind, finding no injury to me was contemplated, and particularly when they all dispersed to their huts, and I was left again with my guardians.”

The next day Buckley was to quarter with the brother of the man they believed him to be and his wife and son.  

That night there was another great Corroboree, but Buckley retired to the hut of his new acquaintances.  They entertained him with roots and possum meat which was a great feast for him because he had not had meat since he had left the Calcutta.  He was presented with a possum skin-rug after which he presented his “brother’s” wife with his old worn jacket and this greatly increased the affection which the family showed him.

In the morning there was an argument and some men began brandishing their spears.  After a great deal of swaggering the two groups of men actually began fighting and when Buckley’s relations saw this they took him away and observed from a distance.  One man was speared in the thigh and a woman from the group Buckley was associated with was speared under the arm and killed. Eventually peace was restored and everyone retired except about 20 of the members of this woman’s tribe, who made a fire and threw her body on it.  When there was nothing but ashes they piled them together and stuck her digging stick into it.

After this, everyone went away except Buckley’s relations and one other family.  They went to another part of the bush and remained there some considerable time. They ate roots mainly, which the women sought daily and occasionally the men would kill a possum.  Sometimes they killed kangaroo and Buckley found this meat delicious. After a few weeks they joined another tribe of about 50 and had a Corroboree on the evening of their meeting, but during the festivities there was a fight and two boys from the other group were killed.  Buckley couldn’t understand what these quarrels were about, but understood later that it was because one tribe had taken women away from the other tribe. At other times, women willingly left their husbands to join other men, which gave rise to jealousy. When the fights occurred, Buckley was always kept in the rear for his protection.  When the fracas was over the tribe to which the boys belonged retired into the bush and Buckley’s people set up huts from branches and bark. Suddenly in the night the other tribe attacked them again and took the bodies of the two boys who had been killed from a hut. They cut off their legs and thighs and took them away. Buckley’s tribe retreated and the remains of the boys were burnt in the usual way.

Afterwards, Buckley’s people went to the coast.  From here a message was sent to the other group with whom they had had the earlier fracas about the women.  They challenged them to a fight at a designated place to settle the matter. After 4 days the messenger returned to say that the other tribe had accepted the challenge and they went there, but Buckley was not aware at the time of the reason why they were going there.  They arrived at the meeting spot about 20 miles away, where about 5 tribes were gathered and the fighting commenced. The fighting lasted about 3 hours after which 3 women lay dead. Buckley says in these fights the women usually faired worse off. The quarrels alarmed Buckley because the participants often pointed towards him during the fighting as if he was the source of the dispute so he again started to worry that he might be sacrificed.  

Eventually Buckley’s tribe returned to him and encircled him before escorting him to the clearing where the fight had been and where the other tribe were waiting in a square-shaped guard.  Buckley was worried he’d be killed. There was silence and they all stared at him. They then began muttering and shaking their spears and gave 3 shouts and eventually returned to their respective huts.
In the morning Buckley found the other tribe had gone and his tribe returned to the place they usually occupied and remained there for a very long time unharmed.  After a while a messenger came from another tribe saying they were to meet them some miles off. Their method of marking time was by marking days on the arm in chalk and rubbing one off as each day passes.  After travelling two or three days they met the other tribe and Buckley had never seen them before and they had a great corroboree that night.  

The next morning the two tribes had a big kangaroo hunt.  Buckley was very interested in participating as it was his first and they conducted it with great skill.  They killed several big kangaroos and had them roasted that night. The next day there was a big argument between the two tribes over two of the women.  This time though it didn’t end in bloodshed. Afterwards, the tribes separated and each went to its own area.

The Incredible Story of William Buckley Part 1

The tale of an escaped convict who lived in the bush for 32 years with the Wathuroung aboriginal people before the settlement of Melbourne.

In 1803, when the transportation of British convicts to Australia is at its height. An attempt is made to start a settlement in Port Phillip Bay at modern day Sorrento. The mission is doomed to failure because of a lack of an adequate water supply, but before it relocates to Van Diemen’s Land and starts the settlement of Hobart Town, a handful of convicts escape their captivity by fleeing into the bush. Among them is a 6ft 5, 23 year old, former soldier named William Buckley. With the nearest sign of civilization at the time being the convict colony at Sydney, more than 850 kilometres away and with no maps or supplies the men are given up for dead.  

Later, when the settlement of Melbourne has just begun, and a basecamp for the settlement has been set up at Indented Head on the Bellarine Peninsula to await the return of supplies from Van Diemen’s Land, a stranger walks into the campsite. Whoever it is is a giant of a man. He has long white hair and a long white beard. He’s dressed in possum furs and carries two spears. It is William Buckley. He’s been away from civilization for so long he’s forgotten how to speak English.

This is 1835, he’s been living in the wild with the Wathaurong aboriginal people for 32 years

In researching this story I’m relying largely on the 1852 biography ghost written by John Morgan called The life and adventures of William Buckley : thirty-two years a wanderer amongst the aborigines of the then unexplored country round Port Phillip, now the province of Victoria.  It is the longest and considered the most authoritative source of Buckley’s life. However, it differs in some key respects to some other much shorter, contemporary accounts of the time which I we will discuss at the appropriate time..  Others criticise Morgan’s account for over embellishing certain aspects of Buckley’s story, however, historians tend to agree that Morgan’s account, as it is written in Buckley’s own voice, is the most accurate account we have. 

However, I will say it is impossible to know for sure the truth of all the events that occurred as we are reliant on the veracity of Buckley’s story and the integrity of Morgan to avoid using creative licence. Ultimately, I think it is up to the reader as to how much of the story they should take for fact.  The account would certainly reads as controversial to modern eyes in some respects. Particularly in its representation of the constant warfare and violence between the aboriginal ‘tribes’. There are also a number of accounts of cannibalism detailed amongst them and certainly the way this is represented by Morgan is in a extremely patronising way as he clearly looks down on what he regards as the uncivilised nature of the aboriginal savages and comes across as racist to a modern reader.  

William Buckley was born in 1780 in Macclesfield, Cheshire, England.  He had two sisters and a brother and his parents were farmers. He was adopted by his mother’s father and at the age of 15 was apprenticed as a bricklayer to a Mr Robert Wyatt.  Buckley clearly didn’t enjoy this lifestyle because at the age of 19 he ran away and joined the Cheshire Militia.  He describes receiving a bounty of ten guineas for this and remembers thinking this amount of money would last him forever.  

After a year, his money had exhausted and he volunteered in the King’s Own Regiment of Foot at Horsham in the south of England a long way from his native Cheshire.  After only 6 weeks here his unit was ordered to to embark for war in Holland where the Duke of York was in battle against the French Republic.  Buckley’s regiment under the command of the Earl of Chatham suffered heavy losses in this battle and Buckley’s hand was severely injured although he doesn’t detail how this injury occurred.  

On returning to England Buckley received another bounty for extended service.  His officers had a good opinion of him because of his height, he was six foot five, and his good conduct.  But, soon afterwards he fell in with a bad crowd he had met in the regiment and was arrested for receiving false goods. 

Buckley always maintained his innocence in this affair saying that a woman asked him to collect some items for her and then he was arrested by authorities for receiving stolen goods.  He was found guilty in court and after this sentence he never heard from his family again.  

As a prisoner he initially worked on fortifications being built at Woolwich, but as a mechanic he was identified as possibly being useful to a new penal colony that was to be set up at Port Phillip in what was then New South Wales.  

Buckley saw this as an excellent opportunity to redeem his sullied name and so he embraced being sent for transportation to the other side of the world.            This is noteworthy when you consider the hardships that often went hand in hand with a marine trek to the Antipodes. 

A journey from England to what was called New Holland at the time took the best part of a year to complete and trips were arduous affairs that often involved the deaths of upwards of 10% of those who embarked.  

This is not to mention the exceptional remoteness of the colony.  The convicts were expected to build infrastructure when they arrived in a complete wilderness.  This says a lot about Buckley’s character that he was willing to embrace his transportation in order to redeem himself. 

On top of this, prisoners were often treated cruelly in a time when severe punishments were the rule.  Lieutenant Colonel David Collins was chosen to lead the expedition and to be the governor of what was to be the first settlement in modern day Victoria.  They set sail in two ships, the Calcutta and the Ocean.Buckley was treated well on the journey and spent most of the time helping out the crew. 

When they arrived the ships anchored 2 miles within the heads at a place Collins named Sullivan Bay. This site was chosen as a penal settlement because it was over 600 miles from Sydney which meant escape would have been practically futile.  

The marines and convicts landed and encamped and Buckley mentions how, while most of the convicts had to camp inside a line of sentinels, he and the other mechanics were permitted to camp outside it and were set to work on the first buildings of the settlement.  

Life, though, was tough at the new settlement.  There was no access to a reliable fresh water supply and the soil proved poor for growing crops. So, after 3 months of roughing it Buckley and 3 others decided to make an escape from their bondage. 
Buckley in 1852 freely admitted to the madness of this plan, as it involved walking to Sydney 600 miles to the north.  

With no maps though and no idea which direction Sydney lay in, the attempt was utterly pointless and perhaps speaks of the desperation he felt at the time, especially considering the settlement was attempting to survive on brackish seawater. 
Buckley and his 3 companions had been entrusted with a gun to shoot kangaroo in the area they were working in.  

One dark night they absconded with the gun, an iron kettle and as many supplies as they could take.  They were spotted however, by a sentinel who shot at them, taking down one of Buckley’s companions.  He never found out if this man survived as he never heard from him again.

In fear for their lives the 3 remaining men ran for 3 or 4 hours before stopping for a break. Not long after renewing their march they came to a river now known as Balcombe Creek in Mouth Martha.  

At daylight they began to renew their trek when they encountered a party of natives.  This was the first encounter Buckley had with any of the natives that we know about.  He says he fired the gun in order to scare them off and they ran into the bush.

Buckley crossed first to test the depth and then helped the others across and went back for their clothes.

That night they reached to about 20 miles from the modern city of Melbourne and rested there until the morning when moved on again until they crossed the Yarra River a few hours later.  

They crossed the river and continued their way up the Mornington Peninsula crossing the Yarra River the next day.  After this, they headed away from the coast and travelled through vast plains until they reached the Yawang Hills (today knows as the You Yangs).  Here they finished the last bit of bread and meat they had taken with them.  

As they were incapable of finding any food Buckley told his friends they must return to the bay to find shellfish or they would die of starvation and they agreed so they returned to the coast after what Buckley called  “a long and weary march.”

They were able to subsist off shellfish, travelling down the west coast of Port Phillip Bay through the areas of modern day Corio and Port Arlington.  But, life was becoming a serious struggle.  Water was hard to come by and the only thing they had to eat was shellfish and which caused the men to suffer from diarrhea.

By this stage the men had been gone for a few days. There were thirsty, tired, suffering from diarrhea and they had started seeing native huts dotted about the place.  

The indigenous people who lived in the area at the time, known as the Wathaurong people, were a nomadic hunter-gatherer people much like the other Australian indigenous peoples.  They would often build these temporary huts made from bark and tree branches and then they would abandon them or perhaps come back to them at a later date. So, these 3 European men were seeing these types of huts around the place, but they were not occupied.

Buckley and his companions must have felt great fear at the prospect of bumping into these tribes as they referred to them.  The common early 19th century trope that was in the backs of their minds was that these were untamed savages who would eat them as soon as greet them, so it can be imagined that they were somewhat concerned about this inevitable meeting. But, apart from the meeting they had had on their second day from the settlement on the other side of the bay, in this area they were only encountering vacant huts.  

The next day they reached an island the Wathaurong called Barwal, which is called Swan Island in modern parlance.   Buckley mentions how they could reach the island during low tide.  Even today if you look at Swan Island on Google Maps you’ll see that the island is separated from the mainland by a very narrow strait of water. 

Melbourne sits on the Northern tip of a large bay, but the point of entry to the bay is a very narrow strait at the Southern end.  The Calcutta had anchored just inside the Eastern head of the bay and so the 3 escapees had walked around the entire length of the bay from the eastern head to the western head a journey of well over a hundred and close to two hundred kilometres.  From Swan Island which lies just inside the Western head of the bay they could actually see the Calcutta at anchor on the other side as the bay considerably narrows the closer to the Heads you get.   So, these men were exhausted, dehydrated and hungry, and in their minds they were in danger of being captured and potentially eaten by roaming packs of savages.  

Suddenly the prospect of returning to the settlement started to look appealing.  Sure they might be punished, they might have their sentences lengthened, but at least they would have a roof over their heads and something to eat and drink, and didn’t have the threat of being cannibalised at any moment hanging over their heads.

Buckley relates what happened next:

“The perils we had already encountered damped the ardour of my companions, and it was anxiously wished by them that they could rejoin her (meaning the Calcutta), so we set about making signals, by lighting fires at night, and hoisting our shirts on trees and poles by day.  At length a boat was seen to leave the ship and come in our direction, and although the dread of punishment was naturally great, yet the fear of starvation exceeded it, and they anxiously waited her arrival to deliver themselves up, indulging anticipations of being, after all the sufferings they had undergone, forgiven by the Governor.  These expectations of relief were however delusive; when about half way across the bay, the boat returned, and all hope vanished. We remained in the same place, and living in the same way, six more days, signalizing all the time, but without success, so that my companions seeing no probable reply, gave themselves up to despair, and lamented bitterly their helpless situation.”

Buckley goes on to relate how at the end of the next day, his companions decided to retrace their steps round the bay and return to the settlement.  He spells it out thus:

“To all their advice, and entreaties to accompany them, I turned a deaf ear, being determined to endure every kind of suffering rather than again surrender my liberty.  After some time we separated, going in different directions. When I had parted from my companions, although I had preferred doing so, I was overwhelmed with the various feelings which oppressed me: it would be vain to attempt describing my sensations.  I thought of the friends of my youth, the scenes of my boyhood, and early manhood, of the slavery of my punishment, of the liberty I had panted for, and which although now realized, after a fashion, made the heart sick, even at its enjoyment. I remember, I was here subjected to the most severe mental sufferings for several hours, and then pursued my solitary journey.”

Now you may be wondering at this point what Buckley was doing on the Western side of Port Phillip Bay considering he was trying to reach Sydney.  The elder Buckley wonders this himself in 1853 and reflects at how futile the quest of his younger self was.

On the first day of his solitary wanderings one of Buckley’s greatest fears was realised in that he encountered a group of about 100 aborigines in and near some huts made of bark and branches and some of them made towards him.  Fearing for his life, Buckley jumped into a river with his clothes on whilst carrying his firestick. Luckily the natives didn’t follow him into the river, but in quickly jumping into it all his clothes were drenched and he had no longer any means by which to start a fire to keep warm.  He had to sleep on the bank of the river that night in wet clothes in early Spring, which must have been close to unbearable.

The next day he returned to the beach making sure he wasn’t seen by the natives.  As it was low tide, he found lots of abalone which the natives called Kooderoo. He continued on up the coast, subsisting on what the Watharoung called Kooderoo, which we know as abalone, which was abundant in the area.  He passed through the Karaaf River and the River that pass through modern day Torquay at the beginning of what is today the Great Ocean Road. Buckley was just travelling further into the wilderness. 

Adding to Buckley’s suffering throughout this time was the fact that water was hard to come by.  On top of this, when he ate the abalone it made him thirstier. He would have to rely on the dew that collected on the branches in order to survive. 
If we look at the direction Buckley was travelling in at this point we will see that he was actually going in the opposite direction of Sydney, his supposed destination.  Sometimes he would spot the abandoned huts of the natives. At others he would see wild dingoes and their howlings haunted him at night.

He continued travelling along the coastline in a South-Westerly direction passing through the areas of modern day Angelsea and Airey’s Inlet.  Luckily he found the natives had been burning the bush here and managed to procure a firestick for himself. At this location he also found a native well, some berries in bushes and a great supply of shellfish which he was able to cook on his new fire.  Buckley talks of giving up great thanks to God for this because he had been growing weak all the time due to the conditions he had been living under.

He continued on down the coast and two days later came to Mt. Defiance which the natives called Nooraki.  Here he decided to settle down for a while as his body had begun to break out in strange sores, probably as a result from suffering from scurvy from malnutrition.  He created a more permanent shelter and found some edible plants nearby that could sustain him and stayed in the area for a few months.

Eamonn Gunning 2017