Wyndham History

Joseph Tice Gellibrand (1792-1837)


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Joseph Tice Gellibrand (1792-1837)




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Born in London, England, Gellibrand was a lawyer who emigrated to Van Diemen’s Land in 1823, where he had been appointed to the post of Attorney General. He was sworn in on 7 May 1824.

Gellibrand was an independently minded fellow who did not always see eye-to-eye with the Governor. After refusing to bring a case against his friend Robert Murray, editor of a Hobart newspaper (accused of maligning one of Governor Arthur’s officers) Gellibrand was eventually dismissed from office.

He continued to practice in Van Diemen’s Land and acquired several properties in the colony. By 1827, he became editor of a local newspaper, The Tasmanian.

Gellibrand was one of the investors in the Port Phillip Association and was later granted Lot 12, a tract of land to the east between the Werribee River and the Maribyrnong River.

Gellibrand and a companion, George Hesse, disappeared attempting to ride from Geelong to Wyndham in 1837 but were lost in bush country to the north-west of the Barwon River. They had gone in completely the wrong direction. It was commonly accepted that they had been murdered by local Aborigines and their bodies thrown into a lake.

Some time after their disappearance two skulls, one with a gold front tooth, were retrieved from an aboriginal camp in the district where they were known to have ridden. It is known that Gellibrand had a gold tooth and it was assumed that this skull was his.

 William Tregurtha explains the disappearance of  Gellibrand and Hesse

This article published almost a century after the disappearance of Gellibrand and Hesse refers to notes made by shepherd Nathaniel Gosling, who saw the two gentlemen, on the Werribee, and also recalls the opinion William Tregurtha, captain of the brig Henry, had offered at the time:

The Argus, 20 January 1934, p.9.

‘William Tregurtha, the second mate of the Henry, in his statement, now in the possession of his daughter, Mrs. R. J. Rolls, of Trafalgar, has made an important contribution to the possible solution of the Gellibrand-Hesse mystery. Probably the first advertising poster ever pasted up in the settlement was that offering a reward of £300 for any news of Gellibrand and Hesse, dead or alive, or for any authentic evidence of their fate. A stockman, Nathaniel Gosling, came to Port Phillip in the Norval with Dr. Thomson’s first shipment of cattle in September, 1835.

He was an inmate of the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum, when James Bonwick saw him, and read some notes he had made when he was a shepherd. He said that he saw Gellibrand and Hesse on the Exe (the Werribee), and he described, as many others had done, the course the lost men followed.

The story is typical of other ‘authentic statements’. From time to time skulls were discovered, even a skull with a gold-stopped tooth in the jaw, such as Gellibrand had, as well as horses’ skeletons, and iron frames of saddles and bridles, and it was said that a “demented old white man”, Gellibrand was 50 years of age-had, been detained by the Otway tribe of aborigines.

Captain William Tregurtha says:— "Among our cabin passengers from Launceston to Hobson’s Bay were Messrs. Gellibrand, Hesse, Sinclair, and Roadknight. The first three gentlemen intended to return with us to Launceston, but Mr. Roadknight intended to ride over the country to where Geelong now stands. Our usual trips in the Henry occupied 10 days, but finding we had five trips to make to Point Henry for the Clyde Company’s stations, on the Moorabool and the Leigh rivers, and perhaps more before we returned to Gellibrand Point (Williamstown), they decided to return with us".

An eleventh hour agreement was made that Captain Tregurtha should return with the Henry to Williamstown, wait there, and take them aboard for Launceston.

The narrative proceeds:— "The following morning we started for Point Henry with a line northerly breeze and clear sky, sailing seven or eight miles an hour. The passengers and their horses were landed at Corio Bay on February 21, 1837, in less than an hour. Gellibrand, Hesse, Sinclair, and Roadknight mounted their horses and rode round from Point Henry to Cowie’s Creek, while a boat containing Captain Tregurtha, the owner, and Captain Whiting, the master, was pulled across the bay to Cowie’s Creek by Seamen Beatty (afterward captain), and Thomas McLoughlin, and William Tregurtha. When the boat’s party arrived at Cowie’s Creek they were met by Messrs. Cowie and Stead, and also Robert Steiglitz. The horsemen arrived at the creek soon after the boat party. When Mr. Sinclair dismounted he sprained his ankle so badly that he could not ride. Captain Tregurtha had him carried back to the brig in a boat, and young Tregurtha rode Sinclair’s horse around the bay for re-embarkation".

Some Last Instructions
In Captain E. P. Tregurtha’s journal he stated:— "I had command of the Henry at the time, and ere they (Gellibrand and Hesse) started I was anxious to provide for them more securely."  Each carried a canvas bag of provisions. Captain Tregurtha gave Gellibrand a pocket compass, and told him to make an easterly course, keeping Station Peak on his left side, and not to lose sight of Port Phillip Bay. Gellibrand and Hesse had no tether ropes around their horses’ necks. Gellibrand had had experience of the bush, but Hesse was said to be an “innocent abroad.” Messrs. Cowie and Stead volunteered to guide them nine miles on their way, to Duck Ponds, a place already then historically interesting as the camping place of Hume and Hovell in 1824. It was gazetted on April 19, 1872, Hovell’s Creek, but it is now known by its native name, Lara.

The Henry returned to Williamstown, and anchored there the day following Gellibrand and Hesse’s departure from the brig for their ride across country from Geelong to Williamstown. At Williamstown, Captain Tregurtha took on board 10 passengers for Launceston. When Gellibrand and Hesse did not arrive he sent a man on horseback to Wedge’s Station on the Werribee, to learn if they were there, but Wedge said he had not seen them. The country was searched for them from Wedge’s Station to Cowie’s Creek, at Geelong. Captain Tregurtha detained the Henry until the following day and at last, despairing of their coming, he sailed at noon.

Wedge told the Tregurthas that the River Werribee was full of dead trees, and at the time Gellibrand and Hesse carne to it “running bank high, with a fearful fresh on, and the mouth of the river was full of sharks.” In William Tregurtha’s opinion, “Gellibrand and Hesse kept too close to the shore, and when they came to Little River” (15 miles from Geelong) “they had a long distance to ride before they could ford, and the flush in the Werribee” (25 miles from Geelong) “overcame them if and when they attempted to swim that rapid stream.”

When the two men were missing a winged report circulated that Gellibrand and Hesse, after leaving the brig, had ridden in a westerly direction, and perished in the Otway Ranges. Gellibrand, on the Gellibrand River, in Otway Shire, is a place-name expression of that belief.

Gellibrand wrote a memorandum of his first visit to Port Phillip, which describes his bush journeys from January 17 to February 17, 1836. He records that on February 5, “We directed our course to the head of the Barwon River.” The party included Buckley, as a guide mounted on a large carthorse Gellibrand had hired from J. P. Fawkner. They explored the Barwon country, so Gellibrand had no need in 1837 to make another topographical survey of that country. When he left the Tregurthas his intention was to inspect the country between Geelong and Williamstown, and to meet the brig at Point Gellibrand. Thomas Roadknight’s journal, apparently written some years after the event, states that the missing men had dinner with him on the Barwon, and afterwards went with Robert Akehurst, a bullock-driver of Dr. Thomson’s, to Captain Pollock’s place at Pollock’s Ford.

Victims of a Flood
Akehurst said that Gellibrand was following up the Barwon under the impression that he was tracing the course of the Leigh. Akehurst told them that they were on the wrong course, and were heading for the Otway forest. Then he left them.

This story of Akehurst, who was either an assigned servant or an emancipist, is quite irreconcilable with the Tregurthas’ statement that Stead and Cowie guided Gellibrand and Hesse as far as duck ponds, and the circumstantial fact that the brig Henry waited for them at Williamstown. If Roadknight was on board the brig, as stated by Tregurtha, the visit of Gellibrand to him on the Barwon may have taken place upon the occasion of Gellibrand’s first visit to Port Phillip.

Mr. Donald Macdonald’s grandmother, who lived at the junction of the Leigh and Barwon rivers, told him that a lubra informed her that the aborigines had not killed them. The balance of evidence is in favour of the Tregurthas’ explanation of their disappearance. “Swept away in a river’s flood” would explain the disappearance of every trace of them and their belongings.  If they had been killed by the aborigines, it is likely that some evidence of their demise would have been found at the time, with every settler alert to obtain information, not excluding the inquiries, which Buckley made, in the hope of obtaining the £300 reward.

Gellibrand was insured for £11,000. The payment of the insurance money was delayed for three years, when he was declared legally dead.


Bonwick. James., F.R.G.S.,  John Batman : the founder of Victoria, Wren Publishing Pty Ltd., Melbourne, 1973. [first published by Samuel Mullen, Melbourne, 1867]

Bonwick. James., F.R.G.S., Port Phillip Settlement,  Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, London, 1883.

Boyce. James, 1835 The founding of Melbourne & the conquest of Australia. Black Inc., Collingwood, Victoria, 2011.

Langhorne. George, Reminiscences of James [sic] Buckley who lived for thirty years among the Wallaroo or Watourong tribes at Geelong, Port Phillip, communicated by him to George Langhorne, Manuscript: 1837, State Library of Victoria, Port Phillip Papers Digitising Project.

Shillinglaw. John J., Historical records of Port Phillip : the first annals of the colony of Victoria. First published by authority: John Ferres, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1879. William Heinemann Australia Pty. Ltd., Melbourne, 1972.


“Joseph Tice Gellibrand (1792-1837),” Wyndham History, accessed September 24, 2023, http://www.wyndhamhistory.net.au/items/show/421.


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