The Eugenie Besley Collection was one of the first large collections of Australian ethnographic material to be purchased by the Museum. It was sold to the Industrial and Technological Museum of Victoria by Miss Eugenie Maud Besley in 1897, and most likely collected by her father Mr. Bryan Charles Besley, who was an Inspector with the South Australian Police. The collection contains 280 objects from Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory and from 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. The Northern Police District was the largest in Australia and extended into 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. 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 he had a genuine interest in ethnology.
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 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 a diary from 1887 of another of the Besley's daughters, Charlotte A. Besley.
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.