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These short articles are currently being published one at a time in the White Hat Melbourne Newsletter. As they form part of the weekly quiz in that newsletter, exact locations are not given. However it should to take little research to unearth that information.

Victoria has more than its fair share of myths, legends and unresolved mysteries. These include buried ships, dead opera singers, thefts from Parliament House, lost watches and plenty more. Here are seven of them.

No.1 – The Geelong Keys Mystery

In 1871 Charles La Trobe wrote to the Australasian newspaper regarding a mysterious set of keys that had been found in Geelong some 20 years earlier when he was Superintendent of the Port Phillip District. He had been examining a newly excavated quarry in Geelong near the beach and was struck by a strata of shells a fair way above water level. Obviously either the water level of Port Phillip Bay had dropped over time or the land had risen. Upon remarking on this a workman commented that a set of keys had been dug out from this layer just the other day. The keys were fetched and examined. La Trobe and many since him speculated that they may have been dropped on the beach at an earlier period by previous European visitors. The earliest known English exploration was by Flinders in 1802 but the level of the shell strata suggested to La Trobe a period of several hundred years – a period when it was thought that Spanish and Portuguese ships may have been in the South Seas.

Now La Trobe was an amateur naturalist, a keen observer and “a sketcher of no mean pretensions”. He even made a sketch of the keys and there is no reason to believe that such a man would invent the story of the keys. Maybe the Geelong Keys indicate that Spanish or Portuguese sailors had landed on Australia long before Captain Cook.

With advances in scientific analysis we should now be in a position to determine the origins of the Geelong Keys. All we have to do is subject them to forensic analysis. So where are the keys kept. Aha, like any good mystery the evidence has disappeared. When the five keys were found they were given to some children. to play with. They lost one and gave one to a passing stranger before La Trobe was able to examine them. Now all keys are lost together with La Trobe’s sketch of them. Well, what about the quarry? It has since crumbled and formed part of the cliff face at Limeburners Point.

That returns us to the oral and written records. William Buckley had lived with the local Aborigines and perhaps they might have stories of white men landing long before the English. However I am reliably informed that the only story they had about white men was an ancient legend that one day a great white god would appear in the area and kick nine goals in a losing grand final. La Trobe quotes the shell layer as being about 3 metres above high water level and under about 4 and a half metres of overburden. From today’s knowledge of deposits in the area, that would put it at over two thousand years old – long before modern metal keys. James Harrison noted in the same edition of the paper where La Trobe published his observations that metal objects where often embedded in new diggings to detect the leeching of certain metals. If for instance you came back and found a copper oxide coating on the keys you knew the soil was probably rich in copper. Perhaps they had been secreted there by a wily prospector.

But probably the most useful evidence comes from the archives of the Royal Society. In September 1849 Mr R.C.Gunn noted that La Trobe had shown him the two keys (the numbers keep decreasing) and he went to Geelong to investigate the discovery. On questioning the limeburner he found that the keys had not been dug out of the shell layer but found with shells at the bottom of the pit and assumed to have fallen from that layer. In practice they could have fallen from any layer including the top where a Geelong resident of the time may have dropped them. He said that he reported his findings to La Trobe. Perhaps 20 years later La Trobes recollections were rustier than the keys. However papers like Gunn's tend to destroy a good yarn and are thus rarely mentioned. And of course that does do not rule out the possibility that Spanish or Portuguese had landed on this coast or that even a ship may have been wrecked in Victoria - but that's another mystery for another day.

Meanwhile the people of Geelong go about their daily lives. Every so often a Geelong wife or girlfriend, during a routine search of their partner’s suit pockets, will come across a set of unfamiliar keys (sometimes with a heart pendant attached). “And where did these come from?” she asks. “I just picked them up off the shells while walking near the beach” he says. “I have no idea who they belong to”. Thus the mystery of the Geelong Keys continues.

No.2 The Mahogany Ship Mystery

In a letter to The Melbourne Argus Mr John Mason, of (the Victorian town of) Belfast wrote:

"Sir,-Riding along the beach . . . in the summer of 1846, my attention was attracted to the hull of a vessel embedded high and dry in the Hummocks, far above the reach of any tide. It appeared to have been that of a vessel about 100 tons burden, and from its bleached and weather-beaten appearance, must have remained there many years. The spars and deck were gone, and the hull was full of drift sand. The timber of which she was built had the appearance of cedar or mahogany.”

In Henry Kingsley’s novel Geoffrey Hamlyn published in the 19th century we read:

"Fancy," said Halbert, "one of those old Dutch voyagers driving on this unknown coast on a dark night. What a sudden end to their voyage! Yet that must have happened to many ships which have never come home. Perhaps when they come to explore this coast a little more they may find some old ship's ribs jammed on a reef; the ribs of some ship whose name and memory has perished." "The very thing you mention is the case," said the Doctor. "Down the coast here, under a hopeless, black basaltic cliff, is to be seen the wreck of a very, very old ship, now covered with coral and seaweed. I waited down there for a spring tide, to examine her, but could determine nothing, save that she was very old; whether Dutch or Spanish I know not. You English should never sneer at those two nations: they were before you everywhere."

From these and many other written records discussing an ancient wreck near Warrnambool has come the still-unsolved mystery of the Mahogany Ship. It’s position high in the dunes and its unusual construction led many people to speculate that this was a Spanish or Portuguese ship from well before the time of Captain Cook. Both countries were known to be operating in the southern seas at the time and records indicate that at least one ship, captained by Christovao Mendonca in the early 16th century was recorded as lost and never returned. The Dutch were there too. In the 1640s Abel Tasman circumnavigated Australia long before Matthew Flinders. He didn’t realise he was doing it of course because for most of the time Australia was out of sight. It was rather similar to the experience of visitors to Canberra who in trying to get from A to B end up unwittingly circumnavigating Parliament House several times while only rarely catching a glimpse of it.

Surely the existence of the Mahogany Ship, combined with the evidence of the Geelong Keys indicates that the Spanish or Portuguese (or maybe even the Dutch) were walking on the beaches of Victoria long before the arrival of Captain Cook.

When examining the surviving written evidence regarding the Mahogany Ship we note that one of the earliest is the letter quoted above from Mr John Mason and published in The Argus on 1st April 1876. No we are sure that no reputable publication would take advantage of April Fool’s Day to perpetrate a hoax. What is of greater interest is that this is some 30 years after the event referred to – rather like the written evidence regarding the Geelong Keys. The novel Geoffrey Hamlyn immediately after mentioning the Spanish and the Portuguese immediately goes on to say "And the Chinese [were here] before any of us in Australia" You will also remember from history (or SOSE) classes that in the early 16th century (the supposed arrival time of the Mahogany Ship) there was a mini-ice-age. People in Europe didn’t notice it much because they were engaged in a giant warehouse party which they called the Renaissance. However the lower sea levels allowed a number of Pacific atolls to stick their heads above the water. [stay with me on this] The great seafaring peoples based around New Zealand started to people these islands for the first time only to be later alarmed as the mini-ice-age ended and the sea levels started to rise again making the islands less viable. [are you still with me?] All of this means that a wreck in the early 16th century with its lower sea levels would now be under water rather than up in the dunes .[see, I told you there was a point to all this]

Was the Mahogany Ship a hoax? No – there is too much corroborative evidence that one or more wrecks once lay in the dunes along this stretch of coast. We also have records of wrecks here being burnt down for their charcoal and metals by charcoal burners, and this seems the most likely fate of this fabled wreck. However scientific tools continue to advance and one day we may be able to find and analyse even a small portion of what remains.

White Hat has its own theory about the Mahogany Ship. We believe that word had reached Holland of strange festivals called ‘corroborees’ and in a tradition that continues to this day an enterprising trader set out to be the first stallholder present. We believe that in the sands near Warrnambool will eventually be found the remains of an ancient poffertjes stall.


You can find a comprehensive guide to markets around Australia at The White Hat Guide to Markets in Australia.