Chapter 9: Dr Cotter Re-invents Himself

Port Adelaide, lithograph based on drawing by George French Angas (Courtesy State Library of South Australia)

Port Adelaide, lithograph based on drawing by George French Angas, 1846, (Courtesy State Library of Sth Australia)

Meanwhile in South Australia, Dr Cotter had been making a new life for himself for the last decade.  Having arrived in Adelaide from London as ship’s surgeon on the Royal George on 24th June 1847, he obviously made the decision not to return to Melbourne but to settle in the small town of Gawler, forty four kilometres north of Adelaide.  Dr Cotter would live here for the next twelve years except for the years 1852 and 1853 which saw him join the thousands of people heading east to try their luck on the Victorian goldfields.  KM Bowden in his book, Doctors and Diggers on the Mt Alexander Goldfields, Research 9-1 places Dr Cotter at Kangaroo Flat approaching Bendigo in 1852 and reports that his brother John was also in the area.


The Murray-Darling Basin

The Murray-Darling Basin

His return to Gawler would mark the beginning of his close association with small frontier towns along the western rivers in which he would live for the next thirty years, almost half of his lifetime. The towns he was associated with are Gawler, Menindee, Bourke, Wentworth, Port MacDowell and finally Swan Hill.

Gawler 1855 by Dr George Nott

Gawler 1855 by Dr George Nott

The first of these was Gawler, S.A., forty four kilometres north of Adelaide.  When he arrived in Gawler he must have seen some similarities with early Melbourne as the village of Gawler straggled along the banks of the South Paro River and living conditions were rough.  Something about that pioneering society must have appealed to him because within a year (on 17th March 1848) he had purchased land there.

Gawler seemed to provide Dr Cotter with a new lease of life, so much so that he remarried in 1854.  Little is known of the bride, Selina Elkington, other than information indicated on the marriage certificate Research 9-2; that she was twenty-nine years old and a widow and that they were married on October 24, 1854,  at St George’s Church, Gawler by Canon Coombs.

Image 9-2 barry -selina marriage certificate

It also says that Dr Cotter was thirty-six years old, when in fact, he was forty-seven. The marriage took place exactly seven years after his separation from Inez, and perhaps he was waiting for this legality before marrying because there are three definite indicators which suggest that he was in a relationship with a woman prior to his marriage. Whether it was Selina or another or others, is not clear, but these three scraps of evidence are puzzling.

The first piece of evidence comes from the Satirical Manuscript, where the author states in two versions, dated 1853 a year before the marriage – that he was introduced to Mrs Cotter and gives some very unflattering descriptions of her.  This meeting between the author and Dr Cotter took place in a tent on the goldfields, presumably around Bendigo and probably early in 1853.

Bendigo Goldfields 1853 (Courtesy SLV)

Junction of Pegleg and Sailor’s Gully, Bendigo 1853 by W.L.Walton  (Courtesy NLA)

I returned Cotter’s call at his Lodgings in a Tent all on the Cold ground (Now comes the mysterious part) and was introduced by Cotter to a tall gaunt person of the female persuasion as Mrs C.!  This could never be the Lovely Inez? – No – Cotter on seeing Dr Slocum so struck aghast, called him privately aside and informed him the Lovely Inez had loved not wisely but another too well and left him!  This one he had chosen expressly for her Looks as no one seeing her would ever be tempted to break the 10th Commandment – by coveting his neighbour’s wife.  But whether she was his wife or one acting as such tho’ not rated on the Books, Dr S. Cannot say of his own Knowledge or whether there were any little “Cotters” from the 1st or 2nd Mrs C’s

And the same information written in a slightly different way

He Invited me to Enter his Wigwam and he then presented me to the Squaw who presided over his Domestic Hearth & Saucepan – She was Gaunt of stature Grey of Eye, Hair of yellowish subfusk Hue and attired in what appeared to be a Multicolour’s Dish Cloth. Could this be the Dark Eyed plump little Inez run to Seed?  I departed making a profound reverence of Ceremony and taking the Dr aside asked him the question.  His answer, as in Admiral Bones Case, had better be given euphemistically –To wit.  That the little Female Dog had gone to a certain place of public resort to which naughty people advise those to go to with whom they may happen to differ in opinion, and that for his part he was determined to have a wife nobody would think of running away with – I think  he was correct. 

The author’s comment ‘or one acting as such tho’ not rated on the books’ clearly shows that he had his suspicions about the legality of the relationship, but this was the goldfields after all, and the real surprise is that he even mentioned it.

Secondly, a report in the SA Register on June 16th, 1853 Research 9-3 describes a robbery which took place in Gawler and raises questions about Dr Cotter’s relationship with his ‘servant’.

 William Sturm and John Knox were charged on Tuesday before the Police Magistrate with having feloniously entered the dwelling-house of Mr Barry Cotter, at Gawler Town, and stolen therefrom a gold watch, chain, and key, with other articles of jewelry.  Mr Ingleby appeared for the prosecution and Mr Parker for the defence.  The prosecutor stated that on or about last Saturday night week, he was absent from home from about 4 o’clock to about half past 10 o’clock. 

On his return he missed a box from his bed-room.  Found it the next morning in a gully near Mr Coomb’s house.  It had been broken open, and a watch stolen, value 27 guineas; a number of brooches, and a gold ring, value between £4 and £5.  The female servant was in the house when he left it in the afternoon.  When he missed the box he gave information to the police. 

A black fellow traced the prisoner’s footsteps.  By Mr Parker- could not identify the rings, but could swear to the watch.  By the Court – His servant was in charge of the box and kept the key.  The watch belonged to him and the ring and brooches to her.  Mr Ingleby said that as the stolen property had not been found, and the evidence was not sufficiently clear against the prisoners to justify him even to ask for a remand, he would not further press the case against them.  They were accordingly discharged.

It seems strange that the servant was in charge of the jewelry box and had the key and also owned some of the items. It also seems strange that the servant was not called to give evidence and that Dr Cotter gave up so easily. Perhaps he did not want to have his domestic relations aired in Court and twenty seven guineas for the gold watch was the price he had to pay.

And finally, shipping records show that Dr Barry Cotter and Mrs Cotter were passengers arriving in Melbourne on the Dazzler from Adelaide on September 28th, 1853, a full year before the marriage date.


After their marriage Dr Cotter seems to have committed himself to community life in Gawler.  He attended the first Temperance meeting in Gawler on February 15th, and it is interesting to note that he did the same immediately after his marriage to Inez. In 1856 he was appointed as an Alderman on the first Town Council on July 9th, 1857, and he indulged his love of horse racing, acting as a steward on at least one occasion (27th March, 1857). Cathy Harrison’s research Research 9-4 quotes Alfred Birks, a clerk at the S.A. Banking Co describing Gawler in 1857

            There is but one street of any importance…with other little streets branching off it; some of them have houses and some have not. In…Murray Street all the business is carried on. There are three public houses, eight to ten stores, two or three corn stores, four chemist shops, two or three blacksmiths, two or three shoemakers, two bakers, one tinker’s shop, two or three ironmonger’s shops and out of town are two mills.  At the north end of the town on an eminence are four chapels…with one general cemetery.

 Dr Cotter is reported in local press as attending to patients in the area, including the usual accidents as reported by the South Australian Register Research 9-5 with farm machinery (January 24, 1856), suicide inquests (January 6th, 1855) and victims of stabbings and other crimes (March 31st, 1857 and February 13th 1851).  Reading through the newspaper reports it is clear that he cared greatly for his patients and that the people held him in high regard.  Phrases like ‘with his usual skill’, and ‘sent for Dr Cotter at 2am’, and “Dr Cotter was concerned’ and ‘Dr Cotter’s patient is doing favourably under his care’ and ‘Dr Cotter had acted wisely’ are common inclusions in all these reports.

This one in the South Australian Register March 31st, 1857, is an interesting picture of life at the time

SINGULAR AFFAIR: our Gawler Town correspondent sends us the following: ’ On Saturday morning last, a man named Brown, a barman at Crace’s  public house, was found lying in the bed of the South Paro River, near the old crossing place, Gawler, with his thigh broken. From his own account, it appears that on the day previously he had been serving in Crace’s booth at the racecourse.  In the evening, when it was quite dark and raining, he was proceeding on his way, when his hat blew off and he followed it towards the river.  Three men followed and overtook him and endeavoured, he says, to rob him. Eventually they pushed him down the bank of the river, a depth of about thirty feet. 

He had a watch with him and some money but nothing appears to have been taken from him. After remaining all night with his thigh broken, he was only discovered about 10 o’clock the following morning, when Dr Cotter was soon in attendance, and under whose care he is going on favourably. The night being boisterous and rainy the poor fellow suffered much and his account of the affair is rather confused, but he may, as he gets better, be able to give a more clear explanation of the occurrence.

Dr Cotter is listed in the Sydney Morning Herald on 21st January 1860 with others who submitted their papers and are deemed to be ‘legally qualified medical practitioners in the colony of New South Wales’.


220px-Burke_and_Wills_TrackThe ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition left Melbourne in August 1860 and arrived at Swan Hill in September.  They reached Menindee on 12 October having taken two months to travel 750 km from Melbourne—the regular mail coach did the journey in little more than a week. Because of argument and poor leadership two of the expedition’s five officers resigned, thirteen members of the expedition had been fired and eight new men had been hired.  At Kichenga on the Darling the second-in-command, Landells, resigned along with the expedition’s surgeon Dr Herman Beckler.  Dr Cotter, being active in the area at the time, would most certainly have had contact with the expedition.  To read more about the Burke and Wills Expedition, click here



great-race-paddle steamers

The marriage of Barry and Selina was to last seven years and was to end in tragedy in November 1861 when Selina was killed on board the Lady Augusta, a steamer on the Darling River at Wentworth.  The Lady Augusta was well known as one of the first river steamships and much has been written about the race  with the Mary Anne which opened up the rivers to steamship traffic Research 9-6  twenty years before.

lady-augusta_steamerThe death of Selina was slow and painful as this report from The Courier, Brisbane on 17th December 1861 shows

 A shocking accident has occurred on board one of the Darling River steamers. It appears that on Saturday, November 16, the Lady Augusta left Wentworth, Darling Junction, on a voyage up the Darling, Dr.Barry Cutter [Cotter] and Mrs Cutter [Cotter] being passengers on board, they intending to stay at Menindie, where the doctor was about commencing to practice his profession. 

On Monday, the 18th, soon after passing Polia station (Mr. McLean’s), Mrs. Cutter [Cotter] was passing to the cabin, and, in stepping over the main shaft of the engine, her clothes by some means got entangled, and she was, as a matter of course, drawn around with the shaft. Her screams attracted the attention of the engineer, who immediately stopped the engines just as she was being drawn between the deck and the main-shaft. The engineer, seeing her position, gave the engine half a turn astern, which caused the shaft to revolve backwards, when the unfortunate woman was extricated: but she received such injuries that she died the same evening, after suffering several hours’ most excruciating pain.

 One of the men said that he saw the woman taken round the shaft twice, and when extricated was going around for the third time. The engines are horizontal, and work on deck, and any person having to pass from one end of the ship to the other is compelled to pass over this shaft, which for ladies is at all times very dangerous.


Image 9-5 Murray steamersThe newspapers of the time show that Selina’s death was by no means unusual.  There were many accidents including one on The Lady Augusta herself prior to this incident. The death of Selina and others prompted this report demanding that casings around the engines be made compulsory. 

Engines in River Steamers— It will be seen from our Wentworth correspondent’s letter that the wife of Dr Barry Cotter, formerly of Gawler Town, has been accidentally killed by the steam-engine on board the Lady Augusta, while on her passage up the Darling. We hope that this sad affair will be followed by an official enquiry, and that the result may be a stringent regulation for the secure casing of the engines on board the river craft. This is not the first accident of a similar kind which has happened on board the Lady Augusta, Captain Davison, who commanded the vessel on her first voyage up the Murray, in September, 1853, having narrowly escaped with his life, and actually suffered a severe injury, through the absence of any casing or railing.  (SA Register 7th December 1861)

Inez and the children had been living in Melbourne for a year when this accident occurred and this letter appeared in the Melbourne Argus, obviously written by, or on behalf of, Inez.  She seems to be at pains to distinguish herself from the second Mrs Cotter, which is interesting especially as she was, at this time, legally Mrs Hobbs.



Sir – In the columns of this morning’s Argus I read an account of the fearful death of a female on board the steamer Lady Augusta while on her passage from the Junction to Menindee.  As there is a great similarity of name to one of the first settlers in this colony, and such will cause deep distress to many friends at a distance, I beg, through the medium of your valuable paper, to intimate that the lady married to Dr Barry Cotter in Melbourne, January, 1838, is not the victim of so horrible a fate, but still resides in Melbourne with her family.  Yours &c, A FRIEND


So ends Dr Cotter’s second attempt at marital happiness.  As stated in the  newspaper report, he was on his way to take up his appointment at Menindee and it seems that he proceeded there because he was officially appointed Medical Officer of Menindee a month later, on 1st December 1861. Cathy Harrison’s research shows Dr Cotter bought land in Menindee and then when the first land sales were held in Wentworth he also purchased there. Research 9-7.

Over the next few years the newspapers record Dr Barry Cotter in attendance to his patients but it wasn’t all the usual farm accidents as shown in this report from Mr W.A. Howitt, a former member of the Burke and Wills team, who was leading an exploration team intending to follow the Darling River in January 1862. Research 9-8

I regret I have to report a very serious accident which happened here on January 3rd.  Bhotan (sepoy) in cleaning the male camel Naro, was suddenly seized by him, and had we not been near at hand, would certainly have been killed.  As it was, his arm, by which the camel lifted him off the ground and shook him with the greatest ease, as a cat would shake a mouse, was shockingly mangled.  Drs Murray and Wheeler [accompanying the expedition] immediately attended to him, and owing to the serious nature of the accident, I sent into Menindee for Dr Cotter.  I am happy to say that Bhotan is in a favourable state, and should the wound not take a turn for the worst, will probably recover.

Life on the river seemed to suit Dr Cotter and river boats were to be a constant feature of his work over the next decade, and perhaps a constant reminder to him of the way in which he lost Selina. The Murray-Darling river trade was booming as steamers provided a viable method of transporting the wool from newly established pastoral runs along the river, and returning with supplies for those same stations.  Although there were hundreds of river boats, including floating shops and those which provided religious services, the rivers were unpredictable, sometimes flooding so that the river course was unrecognisable and at other times shrivelling to a string of water holes.   And of course there were the accidents.

Several serious accidents occurred by land and river.  The Culgoa steamer lost a man overboard; the Maranoa also a man.  And the engine driver of the Kelpie got his arm so mutilated by the engine that it had to be amputated at Menindee.  Dr Cotter, with his usual good luck, performed successfully and the engineer is progressing favourably.


Image 9-6 sketch darling river providence paddlesteamer

This sketch of the Darling River by Dr. Hermann Beckler who resigned as the surgeon of the Burke and Wills expedition, was drawn in 1861.  The image suggests a visual description of the Darling River that was likely to be unchanged when the Providence plied the river a decade later.

The following newspaper report from the South Australian Register of 18th November 1872 shows Dr Cotter still in attendance after ten years, and although it is long, it is valuable for its description of life on the river.



From Wentworth, on November 18, our correspondent writes: — ‘News came down the river last evening of the most serious and dreadful steamboat accident that has occurred on the river since the opening of the navigation, the steamer Providence, belonging to Messrs. Whyte, Counsell, and Co., of Adelaide, on her way down the Darling, having been blown to pieces by the bursting of her boiler. Four men were killed on the spot—viz., Davis the captain, Sparks the engineer, Roach the fireman, and a Chinaman, the cook, besides a young man, whose name I could not learn, had both his legs broken, and several other serious injuries.

Dr Cotter of Menindee, was called to attend on the sufferer, but could do nothing for him, stating that he could not possibly live more than a few hours. It is reported that the steamer was shivered to atoms. There were 200 bales of wool on board, all of which were blown up. I understand the barge which was being towed astern was not injured.

The affair occurred at Kinchiga, near Menindee. The expected fuller information from Menindee has not reached us yet, and we learn that the Darling mail has not brought to the owners of the lost vessel any account of the calamity, A private letter, dated Kinchiga Station, November 10, on board a river steamer, however, gives the following report: 

  “We had been wooding last night between 6 and 7 o’clock, and had just got under steam again when the captain called my attention to the large quantities of painted boards that were floating down, remarking that he supposed a collision had taken place between two of the boats. The Ariel was just ahead of us, and the Providence was expected down. We picked up a cabin window, a door, and a large quantity of boards, also a swag containing some clothing, a little money, and a pin. 

We steamed on for about a couple of hours, and when we arrived at the station above named, were at once greeted with the shocking intelligence that the boiler of the Providence had burst and blown the vessel to pieces. Four of the hands on board were missing, while four others were saved — one, however, with a splintered leg and a gash in his arm, from which, the doctor is doubtful whether he will recover.

This morning after breakfast we walked up to the scene of the disaster, about a mile from the station. The scene you must imagine, for I cannot describe. The banks were strewn with boards and debris of all kinds; while high up in the neighbouring trees were lodged pieces of timber, bedding and rugs, firewood, &c. A bag of flour was thrown over the tops of trees, and landed about 70 yards from the bank of the river, while a sledge hammer and several heavy pieces of casting were carried to an incredible distance.

 The wreck is lying in the middle of the river with her stern downstream. The appearance she presents is of being broken in two, the after part lying on top of the bow, one portion of the fore part being visible. The cause of explosion is unknown, as it is stated that there was plenty of water in the boiler, but my opinion is that want of water was the cause of it, and that nothing else would cause a boiler to blow up. If a boiler has a flaw in it, it will give way at that particular part and let the steam escape, but by letting the water in the boiler get low gases are generated and by the heat are ignited.

It appears that one of the floats of the starboard paddle-wheel had got loose, and the boat was put into the bank to have it rectified. The man in charge, with one or two others, were looking down into the paddle-wheel, the engine was working slowly to get the injured float on the top. As soon as this was done the order was given to ‘stop her,’ the steam was shut off, and immediately the explosion took place, she parted amidships, and settled down almost at once.

The Providence boiler still on the banks of the river

The Providence boiler still on the banks of the river

 The Captain, two firemen, and the cook, have not since been seen, and there is no doubt but they were blown to pieces. The young man who had had his leg broken was at the wheel, and was blown for a considerable distance into the air, and then fell into the river. He was conveyed to the station, a doctor was sent for, and every attention was paid him. Men are at work now recovering what wool they can. A large piece of the boiler was found about 100 yards away, deeply embedded in the bank. The following are the names of those on board:— J. Davies (master), E. Sparks (driver), F. Gun (Chinaman, cook), F. Roach (fireman), C. Seamore, L. Davey, H. Fanbury, R. Grundy. The first four-mentioned are the missing ones.’

 Another communication from the same source, four days later, says: — ” We hear that one body, that of Sparks, has been recovered, also that of the cook. The bodies were not mutilated as might have been expected, but presented the appearance of severe scalding. Another report with which we have been favoured says:—” The Providence left Menindee on November 9, going down stream wool-loaded. Shortly after she came to for firewood, and while lying at the bank the water got low in the boiler. When they started again the engines did not appear to work very well, so they stopped them. Immediately they did so the boiler exploded, and went clean out of the boat, striking a tree on the side of the bank and then rolling into the river.

The boat’s bottom or sides must have been blown out, as she sunk immediately, a small part of the stern being only visible about a foot under water. There were four men killed— the captain, engineer, and two deck hands — while another man had his leg broken in two or three places.’


In the late 1860s Dr Cotter is reported working in and around the Menindee district and then in 1870 he announced his intention to retire to Port MacDonnell on the South Australian coast near Mt Gambier.  He seems to have been only there for a short time. There is a report of him treating a servant girl for snake bite in Port MacDonnell, but by 11th October 1872 Dr Cotter was back on the river and giving testimony at the Wentworth Assizes (periodic courts).  The case pitifully involved a child, and shows the sort of work he was called to do.

William Heath was charged with an assault with intent to commit a rape on Margaret Gatbant, a child of three years old; a second count alleged an indecent assault.  John Morraw, police constable, Mannon, said he arrested the prisoner on May 6 at the Rocky Waterholes, about sixteen miles from Rodger’s. He was outside the public house and said ‘Are you looking for me?’ Replied ‘I am’ he then said ‘I thought so’.  Told him the charge. Prisoner after travelling some distance remarked ‘The least said the soonest mended, and a man should not inform against himself.’

William Rodgers, publican at Old Tintinalogy, stated that in April defendant was at witness’s place working, and one forenoon the girl sat on his knee with his hand under her clothes, he sitting on the floor of the verandah.  Witness looked through the window and immediately sent the girl inside.  Prisoner was not sober, nor drunk.  By prisoner- Never saw you do anything improper more than described.  Heath stayed two or three days drinking with other men. 

Dr Barry Cotter deposed that Margaret Gatbant was brought to him about May 8 for examination.  Her age was under six years old.  The medical testimony given showed that a terribly loathsome disease had been contracted by the child, and that the prisoner had it in a more virulent form.  The prisoner was found guilty of an indecent assault, and was sentenced to three years hard labour on the roads.  

(SA Register 11th October 1872)

At this late stage of his life, it was reported by some that Dr Cotter was drinking heavily.  Thomas Taylor of the same Kinchenga Station mentioned in the report of the Providence explosion, called him ‘that besotted old idiot’, as reported by Bobby Hardy in his book, West of the Darling.  Cathy Harrison’s research Research 9-9 found an article in the Central Australian and Bourke Telegraph  (2nd August, 1875) in defence of Dr Cotter.


The author of this article ‘Pen and Ink Sketches’ describes Dr Barry Cotter thus:

Dr Cotter is now about sixty years of age.  About 5’8” in height, he is slender and somewhat ‘gentlemanly’ in figure and deportment. He is a Freemason, An Oddfellow and a Forrester.

Dr Cotter- by that name he is known from one end of the Darling to the other and by that name he is known to me. I have associated with him very little, have enjoyed but little of his conversation or his physic; but I have not been unobserved of his movements, or his general conduct. If I were very ill and could call upon him under conditions that would justify me, I should not hesitate one moment in placing the chances of my life in his hands.

 His whole career, flighty and cosmopolitan as I have depicted it from the lips of those who knew him intimately in his ‘palmy days’, justifies me in concluding that he is a man of extensive experience, of abundant knowledge and steady thought. Careful, even to ultra-cautiousness in what he does pharmaceutically, he never rejects the poor, he has within him all the elements, well mature, of a sound and reliable medical practitioner.

Read Chapter 10 (the final chapter)

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