Private collecting of antique firearms in Australia was still in its infancy at the point William Cole (1864-1952) started acquiring items in the early 20th century.
A paint merchant, musician and collector, Cole had an eye for quality and had developed an appreciation for the work of the English gunmakers at the end of the 18th century and early 19th century. Even so, a particularly high quality Colt 1849 Pocket revolver in the museum collections sold by Melbourne gundealer James Rosier, highlights his unrestricted tastes and what appears to have been the overriding criteria of condition and quality.
Cole made his earliest donations to the Museum in 1918 - an English sporting rifle by R.M. Reiley (ST 11114), and related ammunition (ST 15802).
William donated the bulk of his collection to the Museum in September 1943, and it is listed in the archival correspondence surrounding the donation in the following terms: 'It comprises 121 flint and percussion pistols and revolvers, 18 cases of pistols (pairs) with accessories complete, 6 blunderbusses, 29 flint and percussion long arms, 31 powder flasks and belts, 2 burglar alarms, 1 trap gun, and 1 miscellaneous assortment of gun tools, cartridges, etc. The firearms are in excellent condition and many of them are related to that period when London gun-makers developed the tradition of fine craftsmanship which, to this day, is unequalled anywhere in the world. The gift is an outstanding one in view of the fact that old firearms are becoming scarcer, prices higher and finds few and far between.'
The collection was later described as 'the largest single collection of antique firearms in Australia', while Russell Grimwade, Melbourne businessman, Trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria and noted philanthropist, would sing Cole's praises in his foreword to the Museum's catalogue of its arms collection stating 'Victoria is fortunate, largely by the generosity of one donor, in the possession of a very complete array of firearms' (Penrose 1949).
The collection includes pistols, rifles and shotguns made by leading English, Scottish and Irish gunmakers in the late 18th and 19th centuries, including Durs Egg, John Manton, Robert Wogdon and Samuel Nock. The collection also includes a number of contemporary Birmingham forgeries of famous makers. The collection also includes a cased pair of percussion pistols by London gunsmith T. J. Mortimer in the 1830s, that are significant for having been owned by Thomas Alexander Browne, who as Rolf Boldrewood wrote the Australian classic Robbery Under Arms (1888).
William Cole died on 17 March 1952 at Cheltenham, having left provision for additional items of his collection to be donated to the Museum after his death. This wish was fulfilled in the following years by his only remaining daughter, Doris. Many of these later items seem to have been particularly treasured items, or Cole's own sporting rifles. It includes the Martini actioned sporting rifle (ST 23868) presented by William Cole to his son Cleveland. Doris Cole also donated a portrait photograph of her father holding one of his pair of pistols by the famous English maker Durs Egg.
William Edwin James Cole, Gun Collector (1864-1952)
The Argus (Melbourne), 5 January 1929
Penrose, Edgar Howard, 1949. Descriptive Catalogue of the Collection of Firearms in the Museum of Applied Science of Victoria, Melbourne, Trustees of the National Museums of Victoria
The Standard (Frankston), 31 August 1950; 20 March 1952
Ammunition, Blunderbusses, Exhibitions: London International, Great Exhibition, 1851, Firearm Accessories, Firearm Tools, Firearms, Gun Powder Flasks, Guns, Gunsmiths, Military Memorabilia, Pistols: Arabian, Pistols: Belgian, Pistols: British, Pistols: French, Pistols: German, Pistols: Irish, Revolvers: American, Revolvers: Belgian, Revolvers: British, Rifles & Muskets, Rifles & Muskets: American, Rifles & Muskets: Arabian, Rifles & Muskets: Belgian, Rifles & Muskets: British, Rifles & Muskets: Military, Shotguns: Belgian, Shotguns: British, Shotguns: French, Shotguns: German, Victorian Colonial Defence Forces