Lost for 150 Years: Burke’s Pistol Returns to Beechworth

No Time to Spare

2013 … Linda Peacock, at Beechworth’s Burke Museum, faces an enormous challenge. There is limited money and only three days to spare and an important piece of Beechworth history has become available, half way around the world …

Burke Pistol Linda Peacock Border Mail.jpg
courtesy of Border Mail.

A Whisper from a Friend

 On Thursday 10th October 2013, amateur historian Matt Nolan, from Exeter NSW, received an important piece of news. He passed it on quietly to Linda Peacock, Collections Manager at Beechworth’s Robert O’Hara Burke Museum.

In Dublin, at midnight on Sunday 13th, an item was going to be put up for auction. This was an important piece of Beechworth’s past. It’s rightful place was back home in the Burke Museum. But it would have to be bid for. The Museum would have to raise money for the purchase and it would have to raise enough to win the bidding.

In three days’ time.

A Revolver

Burke's Pistol ABC
courtesy of Burke Museum

The item in question was a revolver: more precisely a Tranter Patent double-trigger percussion-action five-shot revolver. It was one of a brace (a matching pair) of revolvers which had been given to Superintendent of Police, Robert O’Hara Burke by his fellow officers when he left Beechworth for Castlemaine in November 1858.

It carried an engraving with the inscription:

Burke pistol medallion Burke Museum
courtesy of Burke Museum



“Presented to R. O’Hara Burke Esq. Supt of Police, by the officers of the district on his transfer from Beechworth, Nov. 1858”.

Lost for 155 Years

This was exciting news. If this was one of Burke’s revolvers it was something that had been unaccounted for, for 155 years. Linda felt strongly that this important artefact should be returned to Beechworth.

But regaining it was not going to be easy.

“The logistics of bidding at an auction in the middle of the night in three days’ time on the other side of the world, with little money, for an item we knew was so important to us, was challenging.”

Linda Peacock, Burke Museum website

Under the Radar

It was also important that this gem of information be kept quiet.

“We wanted to stay under the radar in case our inquiries tipped off some of Australia’s biggest museums with much deeper pockets than us.”

Linda Peacock, Burke Museum website

BurkeMuseum Beechworth via Wikipedia.JPG
Burke Museum Beechworth, via Wikipedia

Gathering a Team

Linda contacted licensed valuer and auctioneer Warren Joel, who agreed that this was the chance of a lifetime.

“Having done the valuation for the Burke Museum I am very familiar with the collection. I know what the revolver is worth both in terms of dollars and as a drawcard for the collection.”

Warren Joel, Burke Museum website.

Warren agreed to act as agent at no charge and do the bidding over the phone in the late hours of Sunday night.

Linda called the firearms licensing board to verify that, if the bidding was successful, the gun could be imported.

Then she called local historian Bill Wilson and together they “did some digging”. Bill found a report in a Goulburn paper of 1861 referencing this revolver. By Friday afternoon they knew they we were dealing with the real thing.

“It is our heritage that will secure our future.”

The Indigo Shire Council, recognising the value of the gun, had provided an initial amount of $2000 for the purchase. Over the weekend, after more persuasion, they increased that to $3000.

Burke pistol Burke Museum

Linda began contacting local people who might be interested in contributing.

“Our museum manager was on leave overseas but he backed our instinct and offered a personal contribution. The Friends of the Burke Museum made a donation as did seven other local people.”

Linda Peacock.

Publican Ross Lucas was delighted to be involved.

“As Beechworth moves forward it is imperative that it does so in ‘sync’ with its past. It is our heritage that will cement our future.”

Stanley nut growers Andrew Cook and Anita Mihaljevic also contributed. Anne Jovaras  donated because the revolver is a valuable part of Beechworth’s history which ‘needed to be brought home’.

Bob Simpson and Rosemary English said Burke’s revolver belonged in Beechworth.

“An opportunity like this comes along but once in a lifetime, we had to be part of it.”

Bill Wilson contributed because

‘this piece of history is priceless with links to Beechworth and our early Australian exploration”.

Quotes from Indigo Shire Media Release.

The Secret is Out

On the morning of the auction The Sunday Age and The Sydney Morning Herald both carried articles about the gun. This created a lot of excitement.

“Just about everyone who saw (The Age article) couldn’t believe it, one of them said he nearly fell off his chair when he saw it.”

The Guardian’s Rob Duffield.

Before long, the The Sydney Morning Herald journalists were to express regret.

“What we didn’t know is that Heckler’s item nearly spoiled things for the museum, which had been hoping to snaffle the prize more cheaply if its existence could be kept quiet. They succeeded in that goal – until we went and told the world.”

Linda’s hopes now rested on timing. The auction was to be that night Australian time, giving other groups little scope to gather funds.

At the Last Minute

Then there was a late development, in the form of a new and substantial donation.

“At 8.30 Sunday night, things changed. A late offer came and I knew now we were in the game. This was the offer that sealed it for us.”

Linda Peacock, Burke Museum website.

At the auction there were other bids, one from ‘a consortium of interested Australian buyers’, including two Swan Hill locals who planned to exhibit the gun in a state or national museum (The Guardian, 2013).

But the Beechworth bid prevailed. With contributions from the council and dedicated individuals the Robert O’Hara Burke Museum was able to purchase Robert Burke’s gun, for $18,000.

Much, Much Later …

Following six months of paperwork and scrutiny, and after many bureaucratic difficulties and further delays, the revolver was eventually delivered into Linda’s hands to be escorted to Beechworth. It arrived at the museum at 6pm on Thursday 10th April 2014.

Burke Museum pistol back home Border Mail
Burke Museum manager Patrick Watt, collections manager Linda Peacock, Sergeant Geoff Still and Bob Simpson, courtesy of Border Mail

It was an emotional time. Beechworth history expert Bob Simpson held the pistol up to applause and said, “My heart oh.”

 “Here we go ladies and gentlemen, a very important, irreplaceable piece of Australian history. To think that Robert O’Hara Burke held this and maybe it was presented right here — 156 years in the making, a wonderful effort by the people of Beechworth.”

Bob Simpson quoted in the Border Mail.

 One of those magical moments.

Later, Linda was to describe the excitement of that time.

“Certainly some people didn’t sleep for a few days. It was just one of those magical moments that don’t happen all that often. It was really exciting.”

In May that year Linda was granted the Indigo Shire Council Open Heritage Award, presented by the Council and the National Trust of Australia, at the Star Theatre, Chiltern.

“This revolver presented to Robert O’Hara Burke in Beechworth in 1858 is one of the most significant items in the Shire of Indigo – it represents the connection of one of Australia’s most famous and celebrated explorers – and finally it has returned to its rightful home – thanks to the hard work of Linda Peacock.”

Indigo Shire website.

Footnote: Testimonial to Superintendent Robert O’Hara Burke.

“The government officials of the district have presented to this gentleman as a mark of their esteem and regard, a brace of revolvers. They are on the principle of Tranter’s double trigger, are handsomely finished weapons and calculated to prove extremely serviceable should their owner unfortunately need to use them. One is a holster pistol and the other is intended to wear on the person. Both bear suitable inscriptions on silver plates covering the butt ends.”

— Morris, H. (1968), “Where are Robert O’Hara Burke’s pistols?” Caps and Flints, vol. 1, no. 7, April 1968. Quoted in The Guardian.

The history of Burke’s pistol has been compiled by Dave Phoenix, the President of the Burke and Wills Historical Society, and can be read on the Guardian website.

References and further reading

“Beechworth had Burke’s gun in their sights.”   http://www.burkemuseum.com.au/Burke_Museum/Latest_News/Robert_OHara_Burke_Pistol

Indigo Shire Media Release (16th October, 2013),  http://www.indigoshire.vic.gov.au/Planning_Building/Heritage/2014_Heritage_Awards

“Historical Pistol Secured”,  http://www.theguardian.com.au/story/1848265/historical-pistol-secured/

“Burke Pistol Back Home”,  http://www.bordermail.com.au/story/2212772/burke-pistol-back-home/

“Burke’s Magic Moment Lingers”, http://www.bordermail.com.au/story/2302030/burkes-magic-moment-lingers/

“A Piece of History Hits Home”,  http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/a-piece-of-history-hits-home-20131019-2vtv0.html


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