Settlement at Sullivan Bay

In 1802, Lieutenant John Murray discovered Port Phillip Bay and claimed it for the Crown, and Matthew Flinders further explored the area that same year. The British government was impressed with their positive reports, but were also worried that the French might try to establish colonies there. It decided to get in first.

In April 1803, Lieutenant David Collins led the HMS Calcutta and the transport ship Ocean from England to establish a penal settlement at Port Phillip. The ships carried almost 300 prisoners, marines and free settlers.

The ships arrived in October 1803, and a camp was established at Sullivan Bay, near what is now Sorrento. However, the site was not all that Collins had hoped it would be. The party had somehow overlooked the mouth of the Yarra River, and so they lacked a source of fresh water. In desperation Collins' party fashioned a filter system from barrels – whose outer chambers they filled with sand, grass and sticks – and buried them near the sea, with the tops level to the ground.

The settlers had hoped that as seawater seeped through the outer barrel chamber, the ‘filter' would remove the salt, purifying the water.

It was an innovative idea, but the ‘purified' water was still salty, and made many people ill. One of Collins's officers describes using the barrels:

We began to make wells for the daily consumption of water, by boring holes in the Casks, and sinking them in the low grounds even with the surface; this plan answered our purpose as well as could be expected but the water was brackish.

– Officer from the HMS Calcutta, 1803

Garden, D 1984, Victoria: a history, Thomas Nelson Australia, Melbourne, Vic.

Reliable general secondary sources like this one are a good place to start your research. Look through the index and bibliography to get ideas for further resources.

Meanwhile, pessimism was spreading through the Sullivan Bay camp. Theft was common and the marines were often drunk and insubordinate. The convicts were rebellious and a number of them – including William Buckley – escaped. According to Collins, some escapees headed 'to a Bay upon the Coast which they have been told is ... the resort of South Sea Whalers,' most likely the present-day Portland.

Collins asked Governor King if he could abandon the site, and was eventually given permission to do so. In January 1804, Collins and some of the convicts left in the Ocean for the settlement on the Derwent River in Van Diemen's Land.

The remnants of a barrel from first settlement at Sullivan Bay.
Engraving of Sorrento Bay and beach in detail.
Illustration of  Sullivan Bay in 1803.
Photograph of the remains of two water barrel casks sunk in the sand at Sorrento.