Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Collin, William (1834–1914)

by J. A. Hempel

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

William Collin (1834-1914), master mariner, was born on 30 August 1834 at Great Wakering, Essex, England, the ninth of thirteen children of John Collin, a Suffolk farmer, and his wife Sarah, née Viner. After only junior education he worked on a fishing smack and as a ploughboy. At 14 he was in the coastal coal trade and later on Thames barges. Recommended to try Australia because of the gold found there he sailed, for lack of a direct passage, from Cardiff to Panama. Early in 1854 he left Callao, Peru, for Hong Kong in the Grimenza which at Swatow shipped some eight hundred Chinese emigrants who expected to be taken to California to dig for gold but unknowingly had been indentured to work guano at Chincha Island off the coast of Peru. On 4 July the ship was wrecked on Brampton Reef, about 500 miles (805 km) off the east coast of Queensland. The captain rescued some of the coolies battened under hatches, but most of them were drowned. Some of the crew, including Collin, escaped in a boat and were picked up by an Australian ship bound for Calcutta. There he obtained a passage to Sydney and arrived with only £3, one of which was quickly stolen.

Collin worked for some time on the waterfront and at the Botany Waterworks. In 1862 he bought and refitted a condemned vessel of 25 tons, naming it Ellen Collin after a daughter. He sailed the ship to Moreton Bay, settled his family at Brisbane and carried freight to near-by coastal ports. With his early experience on Thames barges Collin determined, in spite of criticism, to build a barge for use on the Brisbane River. In partnership with T. B. Ward he started operations at Kangaroo Point and in July 1864 launched his first barge. The Enterprize, which was 80 feet (24 m) long by 20 feet (6 m) beam with 6 feet (1.8 m) draught, worked successfully for twenty years in the coastal trade. It took the first colonists to Ipswich and transported much material for the first Victoria Bridge in Brisbane. When coastal trade slackened in the economic crisis of 1866 Collin carried cargo to ports north of Brisbane. Next year he landed at the site of Bundaberg, then inhabited by only three white settlers, and helped to fell timber.

Collin's other interest, apart from coastal trading, was the salvaging and breaking of ships for which he became well known in Brisbane. In 1870 he salvaged the Dawn, abandoned under Double Island Point with a cargo of machinery, and later bought the ship for £400. In 1874 he used the Dawn to buoy the channel through Torres Strait, a work of immense importance commissioned by the Queensland government. Hindered often by tropical storms and unpredictable tides, Collin struggled for ten months with primitive tools to anchor his beacons on coral rock either too hard to cut or so soft that it crumbled. These problems were overcome only by his ingenuity. In 1875 Collin refloated the Norseman wrecked on Bunker Island, recovered valuables from the wrecked Gothenburg and carried gear to Sydney for a company which planned to salvage the Singapore. In 1876 the Queensland government engaged him to lay an electric cable from Flat Top Island to the east point of the mainland. In 1884 he was commissioned to convey divers and explosives to Mourilyan Harbour to improve its entrance. In that year he also bought a new steamer, Lady Musgrave, which he used in the Bundaberg coastal trade and in opening up communications between Brisbane and the northern rivers of New South Wales. By 1884 he had a master's certificate of service issued by the Queensland government for 'home trade' vessels. Later his son William was said to be the first Queensland-born sailor to receive his master's certificate.

Collin's last years were spent on land and he wrote his autobiography, published as Life and Adventures of an Essex Man (Brisbane, 1914). He died on 2 January 1914 at his home in Teneriffe, Brisbane. On 25 December 1857 at St Stephen's, Camperdown, Sydney, he had married Eliza, daughter of George Baker, gardener, of Waterloo estate, Newtown. He was survived by nine of their thirteen children.

Select Bibliography

  • F. C. Woosley, ‘From Barge Boy to Shipowner’, Ships and Shippers (Brisb, 1897)
  • W. A. Collin, The Story of the Ketch Dawn, 1870-1876 (Brisb, 1966)
  • Royal Commission on Improvement of Moreton Bay, Evidence, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1877, 2, 862
  • F. W. S. Cumbrae-Stewart, ‘Some Queensland Memoir Writers’, Journal (Historical Society of Queensland), vol 2, no 1, Feb 1920, pp 1-26
  • W. F. MacFarlane, ‘The Old Wrecker’, Monthly Magazine (Cummins & Campbell), vol 29, no 10, Oct 1953, pp 9, 34-35, and vol 29, no 11, Nov 1953, pp 9-10, 34
  • Brisbane Courier, 8 Apr 1874, 3 Jan 1914
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Jan 1914.

Citation details

J. A. Hempel, 'Collin, William (1834–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/collin-william-3244/text4901, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 26 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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