David Collins was born in London on 6 March 1756, the son of Arthur Tooker Collins, a senior Officer of Marines and Henrietta Caroline (nee Fraser), of King’s County Ireland. During his childhood his father was promoted to Major General and appointed Commandant of Marines at Plymouth. The family moved to Devon and David was educated at Exeter Grammar School. On 20 February 1771, just before he turned 15 he was gazetted a Second Lieutenant of Marines on his father’s station.
His naval career progressed quickly. In 1772 he sailed to Denmark in command of a guard of marines to take into safety the sister of King George 111, Queen Caroline-Matilda, whom the Danes had imprisoned for political reasons. In 1775 he took part in the successful attack on the American rebels at the battle of Bunker’s Hill. He spent some time stationed at Halifax, Nova Scotia and married Maria Proctor, the daughter of a prosperous Nova Scotia merchant. He was promoted to Captain in 1780 and at the end of the American war was retired onto half pay.
When the Government decided, in 1786, to establish a convict settlement in New South Wales both David and his brother William Collins volunteered for service. David Collins was commissioned on 24 October 1786 as Deputy Judge Advocate of the proposed new colony, sailing with the First Fleet on board Sirius. He was with Phillip and his party in one of the small boats going from Botany Bay on 21 January 1788 to seek a better site for the colony, when Port Jackson was chosen.
At Sydney Cove on 7 February 1788 Collins first task was to preside at the formal inauguration of the colony. He read to the assembled muster of officials, troops, seamen and convicts the commission which appointed Captain Arthur Phillip Governor of NSW and its’ dependencies, and swore Governor Phillip in. His responsibilities as judge advocate of both the colony and of the marines kept him extremely busy but he remained keenly aware of his responsibility towards the convicts in his charge and he worked conscientiously for their welfare. Collins worked closely with Governor Phillip and was appointed Secretary to the Governor in June 1788 and despite his many duties found time to accompany Phillip on several exploratory journeys. He stayed in the colony longer than he needed to out of loyalty to Phillip, at considerable loss in pay and promotion, and remained to help Francis Grose as Lieutenant Governor until after the arrival of John Hunter. He sailed for England on 29 September 1796 aboard Britannia.
England once again
Again he retired onto half pay while looking for re-employment with the marines. In 1798 and 1802 he published two volumes of An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales and then with the help of his wife republished them as one in 1804. Unable to find a posting in the marines, while maintaining his ranking, he suggested to the government that the department of War and the Colonies be divided and offered his services in a separate colonial office.
Port Phillip Settlement
In 1802 Collins was chosen to lead a proposed expedition to form a new convict settlement at Port Phillip in Bass Strait. The expedition sailed in April 1803 and reached Port Phillip in October that year. However the settlement was not a success, free setters who had accompanied the expedition complained they were being neglected, the marines complained they were overworked, convict discipline was poor, and everyone from Collins down disliked the site.
With Governor King’s approval the site was abandoned and moved to Van Dieman’s Land, situated on the Derwent River and named by Collins as Hobart Town. The beginnings of the settlement saw many difficulties and Collins received much unwarranted criticism for what was beyond his means to control or prevent. Resources were stretched with the arrival of a large number of settlers from Norfolk Island and in 1809 the arrival of Governor Bligh aboard HMS Porpoise continued to cause disruption and stress. In 1810 (24 March), Collins who had become unwell with a cold, died suddenly of a heart attack.
Article published in the First Fleet Folio August 2003
Death of Capt D Collins
Captain David Collins, Lieut-Governor Van Diemenis Land, has died suddenly at Hobart on March 24th, 1810, aged 54 years. He was the first Judge Advocate of New South Wales, led the first settlement to Port Phillip, and later moved it to Hobart. The Administration is at present in the hands of Lieut Lord.
Australian Chronicle 1810 – 1810 Vol.1: No.3
The Reburial of Lieutenant-Governor David Collins
In 1921 by Act of the Parliament, the land known as St David’s Park passed to the City of Hobart Council. The Church of England in Tasmania had previously owned the former cemetery, which was named after Collins, the founder of Hobart. It was then a place of overgrown grass, scrub and neglected tombstones.
Improvement work began but stopped briefly in April 1925 when a coffin was discovered. Alderman John Reynolds was informed that it contained the body of Collins who died on 24 March 1810.
With witnesses including Governor Sir James O’Grady, Ald Reynolds and other
notables, workmen brought the coffin to the surface. Reynolds later recalled that the outer part of the coffin was of oak, the inner wood being possibly Huon pine, and all was
completely encased in lead.
Carefully two master plumbers opened the coffin and found the body had been
embalmed. Amazingly it had not deteriorated at all. Collins was a big man, over 6 ft tall, handsome with very fine features. He was dressed in his uniform and sword.
Reynolds recalled that a small beard had grown on him and that his fair hair had also
grown. He wore medals and decorations,but no revealing historical papers were buried with him, as folklore claimed. Reynolds was surprised how different he looked from the engravings of Collins he had seen.
The stress of office for Collins had shown on his facial features – his slim face, Reynolds said, was ‘drawn’. Reynolds stated that the opening of the coffin, 115 years after Collins death, was done with the greatest decorum. Nothing was touched and before the coffin was completely uncovered workmen clamped it down again. The body was reburied immediately after the brief opening.
This article was written by Reg A Watson and was published in the Newsletter of
the Hobart Town (1804) First Settlers Association, March 2010 issue and reprinted in the First Fleet Folio June 2010
© First Fleet Fellowship Victoria Inc 2011