Chapter 4: The Colonial Surgeon


Melbourne 1836 by Reinhart Hofmann (Accession NO: H17707) (Courtesy SLV)

Melbourne 1836 by Reinhart Hofmann (Accession NO: H17707) (Courtesy SLV)

The position o Colonial Surgeon was given to Dr Alexander Thompson in December 1836 but he resigned the post in January 1837 as he relocated to Geelong where he had business interests.  Dr Barry Cotter was appointed Colonial Surgeon of Port Phillip on 11th January 1837, with an annual salary of £200 per year.

Just before his appointment however, two interesting little incidents occurred which illustrate the frontier atmosphere of Bearbrass Research 4-1, as the settlement was called, and Cotter’s entrepreneurial inclinations. The first of these was that on January 10th 1837, the day before he was appointed Colonial Surgeon, Dr Cotter had to face court charged with “using John Batman’s men to wash sheep on a Sunday”.  It seems from the depositions given by the three workers that Dr Cotter told them that Batman had given his permission, a fact strenuously denied by Batman in court.  It was an expensive day for Dr Cotter.  Not only did he pay the men ten shillings each for their labour and shout them a bottle of brandy while they were working, the court fined him £5 for having the men work on a Sunday, thus breaking the Sabbath.

Image 5-6 Melbourne Club and Patriot Office 1837 SLV

Fawkner’s Inn by W.F.E.Liardet (Courtesy SLV)  This building was used as the first premises of the Melbourne Club.

The other incident occurred when JP Fawkner returned to Launceston for some months and left his public house in the care of his servants William Diprose and Charles Wise. In his absence these servants handed the house and business over to George Smith and Dr Cotter who renamed it the Port Phillip Hotel and pocketed the profits. Smith and Cotter quarrelled and Cotter left the partnership about the time when Fawkner returned. Fawkner was understandably enraged to find Smith determined to stay in residence and tried a number of strategies to get rid of him. Finally Fawkner came up with a successful plan.  He took the front parlour by force and then threshed his entire wheat crop in there, keeping the racket up night and day until Smith left. (Annear p189 Research 4-2)

The quarrel which Dr Cotter had with Smith could have been the one recorded in the Historical Records of Victoria (HRV) on 21st February 1837.  Again, Dr Cotter tells the story.

Dr Barry Cotter, being sworn, states:

On Saturday night last, I returned from Mr Eyre’s and went to Mr Smith’s where I reside and tried to get in but found it was locked up and no light in the place.  I perceived a light in Smith’s room as I was going round the house but which disappeared immediately.  I called the servant and made other attempts to get in but to no purpose.  I then went towards a hut opposite the house where there is a sick woman whom I was attending. When I was within a few yards of Scarborough’s hut I heard a noise behind and on looking round I saw Mr Smith with a man who had nothing but his shirt on coming after me at a quick pace.  I called Scarborough out, who came up just as Smith came up to me who in the most violent manner asked me if I had not called him a scoundrel today.  He repeated this several times.  I desired him to go away from me and I was drawing back from him but he followed me up and kept asking me the same question. When at last I said ‘I think you are a scoundrel’ he immediately struck me a violent blow on the mouth.  I had a stick in my hand with which I struck him in return.  After that he made a second blow at me.  I afterwards attempted to get into Scarborough’s hut.  But Smith prevented me again several times and was only restrained from proceeding further by Scarborough’s interference.  I had not said anything to Smith for some time.  Previous to this transaction I had not seen him for an hour.   Mr Smith was fined five pounds. (HRV1, p 314-5)


Depositions from George and Mary Anne Scarborough support Dr Cotter’s case and it is interesting to note that Cotter was again quick to seek satisfaction through the courts. It’s a pity we have no clues as to the basis of the disagreement, but it is obvious that Dr Cotter was a determined character and eager to seek justice and recompense from Smith.

MelbournePO by Thomas Ham SLV

Melbourne Post Office at the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets opened in 1837 according to the La Trobe Society. Picture by Thomas Ham (Courtesy SLV)

Through the Historical Records of Victoria Research 4-3, which includes the Melbourne Court Register, we have other incidences which include Dr Cotter in his official capacity as Colonial Surgeon of Port Phillip, a post he held until October 1837.  These show a little what life was like in the early settlement and the work in which he was involved.

1837 February 10:  Melbourne Court Register:  Dr Barry Cotter, being sworn, states:  I examined the body of [Mrs] Ross this morning who was found dead in the house of her husband.   There was a small orifice just below the breast bone which was singed with powder and [illegible] as if the muzzle of the gun was close to the body.  I think the wound was caused by buckshot from the appearance of the orifice at the back of the body which was much larger than that in the front.  I also saw upon the inside of the right foot, which was naked, the mark of powder as if from the touch hole, which impressed me with the belief that the gun had been discharged with her foot. (HRV 1, page 307)

 HRV3 p244: Dr Barry Cotter to William Lonsdale, 24th February, 1837:  I beg to inform you that I have this day carefully examined the state of health of the prisoners employed in the public works at this station, and have the honour to report for your information that several of them are labouring under scorbutic and other cutaneous eruptions, evidently produced by a continued use of salt provisions. I have to add that unless some alteration is made in their diet by substituting entirely fresh provisions or procuring vegetables, that the disease is likely to extend rapidly in a climate like this to produce fatal effects. It will also be necessary that those who are affected at present should be forthwith placed on a vegetable diet.

 P 739 HRV 2B (Melbourne Court Register):  Mr Barry Cotter, being sworn, states:  The prisoner is in the employ of Mr Gellibrand’s estates of which I have charge in this district.  I sent him and two other men on Mr Gellibrand’s business up the Yarra River on Wednesday last.  I gave them arms and provisions for four or five days.

1837 July 22: Joseph Andrews dies:  Mr Barry Cotter, surgeon, being sworn, states: I have examined the body now lying at Carr’s Public House which appears to be recently dead.  I conceive some disease of the lungs was the cause of death, which must have been of some long continuance.  There are ulcers on the legs but no appearance of violence.  I have no doubt of his dying of natural causes. (HRV 1, p 309)


1837 The First Yarra Punt by L.W. Liardet (Courtesy SLV)

1837 The First Yarra Punt by W.F. E. Liardet  (Courtesy SLV)

But it wasn’t all dead bodies and depositions.  In these few months Dr Cotter enjoyed the best of two worlds.  He was on an official government salary as Colonial Surgeon and also employed as JT Gellibrand’s agent in Port Phillip, managing his property, stock and servants.   A day at the races was described by R.D.Boys in his book First Years at Port Phillip. Research 4-4

The first race meeting at the settlement was held on a course extending from Batman’s Hill towards the site of the (now) North Melbourne Railway Station. “The first race was run on a beautiful course on 8th February.  The only match which was well contested and which afforded interest was between horses the property of Dr Cotter and Mr Brown – which was won by the horse of the latter gentleman.’ (The Tasmanian, 10th March 1837). (Boys p.60)

Robyn Annear does not give a date or a source for this account, but clearly horse racing was of great interest to Dr Cotter.

Image 4-4 horse racingThe horses themselves were mostly wiry working animals from the bush.  Mrs Dagatella, belonging to John Batman won the Town Plate on the first day of the meeting.  On the second day, Fawkner suffered ignominy when his mare, Yarra Lass, was trounced in the Beaten Horses’ stake.  Edward Umphelby’s Miss Fidgett broke her neck at the final jump in the steeplechase and Umphelby’s wife Mary Ann sobbed over the dead mare after Barry Cotter applied a fatal shot. (Annear p 211)


Image 4-5 HMSRattlesnake 1836

HMS Rattlesnake

On March 7th 1837, the little village of Bearbrass became Melbourne. Governor Richard Bourke had arrived from Sydney on the Rattlesnake to oversee the proceedings and had almost immediately given instructions for Surveyor Hoddle to lay out a grid for the town.  It is interesting to note that the grid paid no attention to the landscape, ignoring undulations and especially the river.  It is also interesting to note that there is no town square or public place.  Every block was for sale.

Hoddle's Grid. Dr Cotter's bought Block 11 Section 12.

Hoddle’s Grid. Dr Cotter’s bought Block 11 in Section 12, on the south- west corner of Bourke and Swanston Streets.


Two weeks later on 28th March, the Governor’s official welcome was in full swing when Dr Cotter burst in

“The celebrations were rudely interrupted by Barry Cotter, Gellibrand’s acting agent in Melbourne, with the news, just brought in by a rider that Gellibrand and his friend Hesse, having left the Geelong area on 22 February had not been heard of since……. In spite of Buckley’s knowledge of both country and natives, the party led by Cotter was able to follow the horse tracks only a little deeper into the bush, then lost them, and could find no indication of what had happened. Despondent and bone-weary the party returned to Melbourne”  (Billot, p 231-2 Research 4-5)


The fate of J.T. Gellibrand was a direct result of his over confidence in his own ability and, it seems, his unwillingness to take advice from anyone else.  He was on his way to Melbourne with another lawyer, Hesse, to meet Governor Bourke to discuss the Port Phillip Association land claims with him.  Gellibrand, despite being a city lawyer, was well known for his bush skills and confident in his bush experience and he argued with the local guide, Akers, who advised him that they were headed in the wrong direction. Gellibrand persisted and suggested Akers return to Geelong if he was afraid to go on.  Akers did so and told Dr Thompson of his apprehension for the two men, as he was certain they were lost and they had very few provisions with them.

It was not until two weeks later, March 6th,  when John Batman sent a messenger to Dr Thompson advising him of the non-arrival of Gellibrand and Hesse, that the alarm was raised.  The two men were never seen again. One theory was that they were swept away in flood waters and this was supported by the fact that the £300 reward posted in Melbourne for information on the disappearance was never claimed. However, the widely held belief at the time was that they were murdered by local Aborigines. Whether there were reprisals is undocumented and still remains a matter for discussion among historians.

Dr Cotter had been closely associated with Gellibrand for some years as an employee and companion and perhaps, friend.  The fact that the search party was immediate and led by Dr Cotter is reminiscent of his father’s actions in Millstreet, and we can only surmise the effect that Gellibrand’s disappearance had on him. Certainly, he was relieved of responsibility for Gellibrand’s property as Billot records (p266) that Gellibrand’s five shares in the Port Phillip Association were transferred to Charles Swanston and others in October, just eight months after his disappearance.  In order to satisfy the law that her husband was legally dead, Mrs Gellibrand had to wait the required three years to claim the £11,000 insurance.


Image 4-7 Land sales 1837

The Land Racket by G.R. Aston (Courtesy SLV)

One of the most important events of 1837 was the first land sales which were conducted by Surveyor Hoddle on June 1st. The sale had been widely advertised and bidders came from as far away as Sydney, (including Lachlan Macalister) crowding around the large gumtree which was the centre of the outdoor venue.

Image 4-8 First land Sales

Buyers of the first city blocks in Melbourne (HRV 3)

The settlement at the time consisted of about thirty buildings, six of them hotels, and a conglomeration of huts and tents in which the settlers lived.  The two hundred or so bidders were enthusiastic and noisy in their activity and at the end of the day all one hundred lots were sold with an average price of £35.  Dr Barry Cotter was there of course and paid £30 for his block on the south-west corner of Bourke and Swanston Streets. (Yes, if only he’d kept it, we would have been rich). To read more about the first land buyers in Melbourne click here.

Image 4-9 19th Century medicine chest

19th Century medicine chest

In October 1837 Dr Cotter’s temporary appointment as Colonial Surgeon came to an end as Dr Cussen arrived to take up the permanent position.  Dr Cussen reported that the medical chest was in a state of neglect when he received it from Dr Cotter (HRV3, p457) but no more details are available.  The following letter was written by Dr Cotter on 7th October 1837 to E.J.Foster.

Sir, In reply to your letter of this day respecting the delivery of the Government Medical Chest to my successor, I have only to observe the Police Magistrate must be fully aware that I, more than once, expressed to him my readiness to hand it over to Dr Cussen whenever required.  I have to add that I shall transmit to the head of the department under which I had the honour to serve a list showing the expenditure of its contents.

I have the honour to be, Sir, your most etc

Barry Cotter

Read Chapter 5

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s