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Robinson, Ellis Alfred ('Alan' or 'Allan') (1927–1983)

by G. C. Bolton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Ellis Alfred Robinson (1927-1983), underwater explorer, was born on 19 August 1927 at Subiaco, Perth, sixth child of Western Australian-born Leonard Herbert Robinson, orderly, and his Victorian-born wife Emily May, née Lobato. He was known as ‘Alan’ or ‘Allan’. Educated at state schools, he became a keen spearfisherman and underwater explorer.

In August 1957, while diving with a companion off Ledge Point, fifty miles (80 km) north of Perth, Robinson became convinced that he had discovered the resting place of the Vergulde Draeck (Gilt Dragon), a Dutch East Indiaman lost in 1656. However, he was unable to relocate the find. On 14 April 1963, 15-year-old Graeme Henderson discovered the wreck while on a spearfishing trip with Robinson and three other divers. Robinson soon came to believe that he was being denied credit for his part in the find, and he removed various artefacts from the site, sometimes using gelignite. In December 1964 the Western Australian Parliament passed legislation to vest control of all historic shipwrecks in the Western Australian Museum, so that all the artefacts recovered were public property.

Disappointed in his hopes of fame and fortune, Robinson engaged in years of conflict with the authorities. ‘A nuggety, articulate man with a weathered, pugilist’s face’, he seemed paranoid to some; for others he was an Aussie battler confronting bureaucracy. In 1968 he led an expedition to consider the feasibility of recovering material from another Dutch wreck, the Zuytdorp (1712). Afterwards, he sought to conduct salvage operations, but the museum did not accept his proposal. He was further antagonised when the 1964 legislation was tightened in 1969 and 1973. The museum undertook to provide a specialised museum for the shipwreck material; Robinson claimed the idea was his. In 1972 the Australian government and the Kingdom of the Netherlands  negotiated a formal agreement regarding Dutch wrecks found off the coast of Western Australia, leading to confirmation of the museum’s sole right of recovery and conservation.

Robinson, who worked as a used-car salesman and house painter in Perth and a marine-salvage contractor at Roebourne, was engaged in constant litigation. In 1969 he was among the discoverers of a 1622 English wreck, Trial; the following year he was acquitted of using explosives on the site. He was also acquitted of illegally removing a ballast brick from the Vergulde Draeck, and a court upheld his claim to material recovered before the 1964 legislation. His greatest triumph came in 1977 after he appealed to the High Court of Australia that the Western Australian legislation protecting offshore shipwrecks was ultra vires. By a majority vote the court found for him; Chief Justice Sir Garfield Barwick denied that the shipwrecks possessed any relevant historical value. However, in 1976 the Fraser government had passed Commonwealth legislation duplicating the invalidated State Acts and maintaining the Western Australian Museum’s authority.

On 6 August 1949 Robinson had married Grace Mary Stout, a shop assistant, at the West Perth-Leederville Congregational church; they had two daughters, and a son who died in 1979. Impatient with his obsessions, she left him. He went to North Queensland as a prawn fisherman and there formed a de facto relationship with Lynette Hunter. He claimed to find evidence of late sixteenth-century Spanish contact; he had earlier alleged that he had seen remains of a Phoenician trireme and a twelfth-century Chinese junk off the Western Australian coast. Returning to Western Australia, he was arrested for resisting arrest but once again acquitted. In memoirs published in 1980, titled In Australia Treasure Is Not For the Finder, he complained of frequent harassment by the police, and in 1981 went to the Northern Territory alleging fear for his life. He was extradited to Sydney in April 1982 to face trial for conspiring with Patricia Green (who became the mother of his son in June) to murder Hunter. On the day when a verdict was expected, 2 November 1983, he was found hanged in his prison cell at the Malabar remand centre, Sydney. He would almost certainly have been acquitted, as was Green. Robinson was buried in the Karrakatta Congregational cemetery, Western Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • Western Australia, Legislative Assembly, Report of the Select Committee on Ancient Shipwrecks (1994)
  • P. Playford, Carpet of Silver (1996)
  • Walkabout, June 1972, p 2
  • West Australian, 15 Nov 1983, p 13
  • Bulletin, 15 Nov 1983, p 28
  • Western Australian Museum files, Shipwreck Gallery (Fremantle).

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Robinson, Ellis Alfred ('Alan' or 'Allan') (1927–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robinson-ellis-alfred-alan-or-allan-15928/text27129, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 22 September 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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