The Eugenie Besley Collection was one of the first large Australian ethnographic collections be be purchased by the Museum. Sold to the Industrial and Technological Museum of Victoria by Miss Eugenie Maud Besley in 1897 it was most likely amassed by her father Mr. Bryan Charles Besley, an Inspector with the South Australian Police. The collection contains 280 objects obtained from Aboriginal people from the Northern Territory and northern South Australia.

Bryan Charles Besley was born in 1836 in Oxfordshire, and arrived in South Australia in 1851 with his brother John. Bryan and John spent two years unsuccessfully on the Victorian goldfields before Bryan joined the Mounted Police Force in South Australia. He was appointed to the Northern police district in 1881 as Inspector and was primarily based in Port Augusta. During his tenure as Inspector and Protector for Aborigines, Bryan Charles Besley worked and travelled across a large swathe of Australia that extended from the Barrier Ranges (N.S.W.) to Port Lincoln in South Australia’s west. This 'Northern Police District' was the largest in Australia and also included the southern reaches of the Northern Territory. In 1889 Besley was dispatched to Central Australia to investigate the state of affairs at the Lutheran operated Finke River Mission, and on his return journey Besley inscribed his name on the distinctive rock formation, Chambers Pillar. As Sub-Protector of Aborigines, Besley was in an excellent position to collect Australian Aboriginal artefacts and his interest in ethnology was genuine.

Inspector Besley's intimate acquaintance with all the phases of bush life, and the study he had from the beginning of his Australian career devoted to the natives of the country, their language, customs, habits, and modes of thought and life, peculiarly qualified him for the post of Sub-Protector of Aborigines, which he held for the last eight or nine years, and in respect to which he showed untiring zeal, thoughtfulness, and kind heartedness (South Australian Register 1894).

A number of Besley’s nieces and nephews later worked and lived in the Central Australia, including Amelia Maude Besley, who married the anthropologist Frank Gillen in 1891. Besley died from cancer on the 8th May 1894 and was buried in the Carleton Cemetery near Port Augusta. The State Library of South Australia also holds the diary of another of the Besley’s daughters, Charlotte A. Besley, dating from 1887.


Gillen, FJ 2001, ‘My Dear Spencer’: The Letters of F.J. Gillen to Baldwin Spencer, DJ Mulvaney, H Morphy, & A Petch (eds), Hyland House Publishing Pty Limited.

Knapman, G 2009, ‘Exchanging totems: Totemism in Baldwin Spencer’s overseas exchanges’, Artefact: the journal of the Archaeological and Anthropological Society of Victoria, The, no. 32, pp. 27–38.

Mulvaney, J, Petch, A & Morphy, H 2000, From the Frontier: Outback Letters to Baldwin Spencer, Allen & Unwin.

South Australian Register 1894, ‘THE LATE INSPECTOR BESLEY. Port Augusta, May 8.’, p. 7. The Register 1928, ‘Family Notices’, 16th November, Adelaide p. 10.

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