Young and single, Francis Edward (Frank) Gilbert set sail in the English summer of 1841 for Australia. His brother George Alexander, and his family journeyed with him aboard the barque Diamond.[i] Frank and George had paid their way for the 125-day journey to Australia.
Frank, born in Chichester, Sussex, was the fourth of ten children born to Joseph Francis Gilbert and his wife Jane (Snelling). Joseph had a successful career as an artist having exhibited his ‘Landscape and Figures’ at the Royal Academy in 1813, and occasionally exhibited in the following years. He appears to have trained both his sons in art, though they developed a different passion for it. George became a well-known Australian artist. Frank used his skill in teaching, then later in creating early maps of Victoria.
George had married rich widow Anne Brerely in 1839. The union provided opportunities for new prospects. The adventure that George and Frank were looking for by settling in the Port Phillip District would not have been possible without her capital.
Not long after arriving in the colony George Gilbert met Joseph Docker, an Oxford-educated clergyman turned squatter near Wangaratta. Shortly after George was appointed as his agent in Melbourne and Frank accepted the post of tutor to the Docker children. Frank rode back to Bontharambo with his new employer where he was to stay until 1846 when the children went onto school.[ii]
In 1843 George’s short-lived Port Phillip Magazine established him as an artist in the colony. It provided him with the opportunity to develop a relationship with the engraver Thomas Ham who was later to be involved in the production of maps, banknotes and stamps for the colony. After being declared bankrupt later that year George found a position as the Secretary/Librarian of the new school for boys which opened in Collins street during 1844 opposite the Mechanics’ Institute. The school only lasted three years before closing after failing to obtain a Government land grant. George’s school connection provided Frank with an opportunity to meet John Cotton (1802-1849), pastoralist and naturalist, of Doogallook station on the Goulburn River. He had sons attending the school now needing alternative education. John hired Frank Gilbert as a resident tutor to his children. According to his employer, Frank was “always pleasant and bright although inclined to be lazy, rather greedy and appeared to be a communist.”[iii]
Frank had property on the Plenty River, for which John Cotton proposed supplying some livestock in payment for board and instruction for his boys in Melbourne. The plan, together with the land tenure, seems to have collapsed with Cotton’s death in 1849.
Frank returned to Melbourne where he married Mary Bruford in 1850. The creation of the new colony of Victoria in 1851 and the consequent extension of its administration was to offer new opportunities for Frank Gilbert who found employment in the Survey Department and later he was to use that experience to teach surveying at Geelong Grammar School. Frank and Mary initially lived in Melbourne before moving to Geelong in the mid-1850s. In 1864 Frank and Mary moved with their five children to Germantown renting a house from J. Sleath Hill before purchasing it the following year.
Frank drew the earliest plan of the Torquay area in 1857 as the Government Surveyor. The area was divided into Sections, and by the mid-1860s, Section 65 (north of Anderson Road) had been subdivided into 25 allotments. The allotments were purchased between 1866 and 1887. The largest landholder with 86 acres (From Beach Road to Darian Road and from The Esplanade to Surfcoast Highway) was James Follett. Andrew White had acquired the remaining smaller lots south of Follett’s land, eight allotments totalling 76 acres. J Trivett, James Noble, and Frank Gilbert (2 lots) acquiring considerably less.
Frank’s purchase at the first auction of land sales in 1866 comprised of Allotments 21 and 22 in the area just outside the Torquay township. At the same time he purchased an allotment in the township – on the corner of The Esplanade and Bell street. He sold allotment 21 on 27 July 1867to John Bracebridge Wilson, a headmaster at Geelong Grammar School. John Wilson began to subdivide the property in the early 1890s, but he died before the task was completed. It was his Estate that completed the subdivision. It was this subdivision that created Gilbert Street. Sales were advertised in 1896 with Annie Millar the first to purchase the north corner of Gilbert Street and The Esplanade. Annie lived at “Rosella” Gertrude Street, Geelong. She was the widow of engineer Andrew Millar who died in 1889.
In 1874 Frank put the family residence ‘Bexley’ up for sale or rent. The 162 acres had been subdivided. The house contained thirteen rooms. It was not sold or let, so the following year the brick villa residence on 80 acres of garden stocked with vines and fruit trees and grassland was auctioned not long before Frank died suddenly from heart disease at his Hawthorn home in 1879 at the age of 58.
Additionally, and perhaps unexpectedly in view of John Cotton’s earlier denigration of his talent, Frank gained some local recognition as an amateur artist. Several of his pictures were included in the first art exhibition held in Geelong (1857) at the Mechanic’s Institute, and by the 1870s he was locally becoming ‘recognised as an accomplished artist’.[iv] Also it was Frank, the younger brother, and not George, the professional artist, who, in 1875 presented a collective exhibition of work by members of the Gilbert family.
As a settler, Frank succeeded in establishing himself as a respected citizen of the colony.
Today we know Allotment 21 as Gilbert Street.
Garryowen (Edmund Finn), Chronicles of Early Melbourne 1835-1852 Historical, Anecdotal and Personal, Melbourne, Fergusson and Mitchell, 1888, v. 1, p. 108-10 p.421 Figure 5.12: ‘The Spring Creek Estate’ advertisement, 31 January 1888
[ii] Bowman, p10
[iii] Bowman, p26
[iv] Veronica Filmer ‘Introduction’, Painters of the Past, exhibition catalogue, Geelong Art Gallery, 1991, p. 8.