In 1802, Lieutenant John Murray sighted Port Phillip and claimed the district for the Crown. The British government was impressed with their positive reports, but were worried the French might try to establish colonies there. So the British decided to get in first.

Sullivan Bay, Port Phillip 1803, H25956   
This is an imaginitive reconstruction of the scene, as the artist was not born until 1833.

In April 1803, the HMS Calcutta and the transport ship Ocean sailed from England to establish a penal settlement at Port Phillip. Once they arrived, Lieutenant David Collins was responsible for over 450 people, including marines, free settlers and almost 300 prisoners.

The ships arrived in October 1803, and a camp was established at Sullivan Bay in 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.

[Barrel from first settlement at Sullivan Bay, Sorrento ca. 1803], H12524
This barrel was used in an attempt to clarify brackish water for drinking. Date of use circa 1803.

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.

Water casks sunk by Collins’ expedition, 1803, Sorrento, H32492/3839

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.

Sorrento and the back beach, IAN22/03/76/36b

If you’d like to further explore Victoria’s early history, visit the Library’s Ergo website.

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