Catalogue of All Specimens of Natural History Collected by Mr Blandowski’s Party During an Expedition to the Lower Murray in 1857

Front cover of 'Catalogue of all Specimens on Natural History collected by Mr Blandowski's Party during an Expedition to the Lower Murray in 1857' by Gerard Krefft

Cropped image of Gerard Krefft’s handwritten cover of Catalogue of all Specimens of Natural History collected by Mr Blandowski’s Party during an Expedition to the Lower Murray in 1857 [referred to as Blandowski’s Catalogue]. Source: Museums Victoria Archives, ARCHIVE-784. Photographer: David Paul.

Blandowski’s Catalogue is one of the most precious items held by the Museums Victoria Archives. It documents natural history specimens collected by William Blandowski (1822-1878) and Gerard Krefft (1830-1881) and colleagues working with First Peoples communities for the National Museum of Victoria (predecessor of Museums Victoria) during an expedition along the Lower Murray and Darling River from December 1856 to December 1857. Murray fishes listed in the Catalogue were later controversially used to describe prominent members of the Philosophical Institute in Blandowski’s 1858 paper Recent Discoveries in Natural History on the Lower Murray. Blandowski refused to hand-over to Professor Frederick McCoy, the National Museum of Victoria’s first Director, many of the specimens collected on the expedition, and associated research notes and illustrations, causing further controversy. Blandowski’s Catalogue has recently been digitised by BHL Australia and is now available to view online.

Black and white photograph of bearded man in overcoat, seated

Self portrait of William Blandowski, 1860. Source: National Gallery of Victoria. Photographer: William Blandowski.

Portrait of a man seated in a suit

Portrait of Gerard Krefft, 1855. Source: Australian Museum. Photographer: unknown.

Blandowski was appointed Government Zoologist in 1854 when the Museum of Natural and Economic Geology (precursor to the National Museum of Victoria, and Museums Victoria) was founded. He had migrated from the Kingdom of Prussia (now Poland) to Adelaide in 1849, then on to the goldfields of Victoria in 1851. Krefft, originally from Duchy of Brunswick (now Germany), immigrated to New York City circa 1850, then to Australia and the Victorian goldfields in 1852. Blandowski was entrusted with an expedition to the Lower Murray; a previous expedition in 1849 had failed under the leadership of Surveyor Edward White. Blandowski had several assistants to accompany him on the expedition, including Gerard Krefft and later James Manson, who joined the expedition in February 1857. Krefft was hired as an artist on the Lower Murray Expedition but also worked on labelling specimens and adding information to Blandowski’s Catalogue, and subsequently employed by McCoy in February 1858 to select specimens to be kept by the National Museum of Victoria.

Encampment on a river with tents and other structures

Illustration of Blandowski’s expedition camp on the Murray River, Mondellimin, also known as Chaffey Landing at Merbein, Victoria, Australia, on the New South Wales border, 6 February 1858. Source: Museums Victoria reproduced from Illustrated Melbourne News.

Mondellimin, name derived from Mondellunddellun used by the local Yarree community, about 480 kilometres from Melbourne, also known as Chaffey Landing at Merbein, near Mildura, was the permanent campsite for the expedition from April to December 1857. “On the 6th of August he [Blandowski] left the camp in charge of Krefft and Manson and proceeded towards Melbourne with his valuable collections of specimens of natural history, which had been accumulating in his tent during his long sojourn at Mondellimin, to the extent of 28 boxes and parcels, containing in all about 16,000 specimens” (South Australian Register, 15 October 1857, p.3). Part of the collection had already shipped from Echuca, and specimens collected after Blandowski returned to Melbourne, came back with Krefft in December 1857. Blandowski attributed the specimens acquired largely due to the collecting skills of the local Indigenous peoples and acknowledged the taxidermy work of Krefft and Manson.

Blandowski’s Catalogue lists 17,434 specimens were collected, under 3389 catalogue numbers. Krefft catalogued specimens 1 to 3389, leaving some lines blank, recording specimen number, name of specimen, description of the specimen (although this was mostly left blank), number of specimens, locality whence obtained, donor’s name (also left blank), and remarks. Each specimen has general locality information allowing scientists to estimate where the specimen occurred at a point in time.

Blandowski’s infamous Murray fishes are described in the Transactions of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria. Figure 19 (N) Brosmius Bleasdalii named after a very prominent member of the Philosophical Institute Council, the Reverend Bleasdale: “A slimy, slippery fish. Lives in the mud. Is of a violent bluish colour on the belly. The whole upper surface is of a dirty olivish-green colour, with numerous irregular dark patches.” Figure 4 (B) Cernua Eadesii named after another very prominent member of the Council, Dr Eades: “A fish easily recognised by its low forehead, big belly and sharp spine.”

Portrait of a bearded man, seated with a book open in his lap

Portrait of Sir Frederick McCoy, c.1870. Source: Museums Victoria, H29553. Photographer: Johnstone, O’Shannessy & Co. Studio.

Blandowski returned to Melbourne from the expedition in August 1857, four months before the rest of the party. To McCoy’s outrage, Blandowski did not return to the National Museum of Victoria (then located at the University of Melbourne, Parkville campus), and held on to field notes, many of the specimens collected on the expedition, and illustrations from the expedition. The matter was brought before the Board of Science, McCoy wrote to the Chief Secretary on 28 April 1858 (MV Archives OS~04400): “…Mr Blandowski should be compelled to give up at once all specimens, books, journals and field observations, and the portfolio of several hundred drawings made by the party under his orders, and all illustrative lists and memoranda connected with the Public Collections, the property of the Victorian Government.”

Eventually all the specimens collected were returned to the Museum, however McCoy exchanged or donated many of the specimens with other museums and many were destroyed by insects over time, leaving about 15% of the total specimens collected on the expedition in Museums Victoria State Collection to this day. To view some of the specimens online, visit Museums Victoria Collections website.

Editor’s Note

This post has been edited to add further details of the expedition, including the roles of participants and more specific dates of their participation in the expedition.

a person with fair skin in a black hat and black shirt with bright red lipstick.
Written by

Nik McGrath is archivist at Museums Victoria. She has a master's degree in Information Management and Cultural Heritage. Prior to her work at Melbourne Museum, Nik worked at a variety of institutions including ABC Archives, University of Melbourne Archives, and the Duldig Studio, working on predominantly audiovisual and photographic archive collections.