The Serendipitous Nature of Historical Research

One of the things I love about history is the connections between people and places that just pop up when you least expect them. In my ‘work life’, I am the Local History Librarian at Casey Cardinia Library Corporation. Amongst my duties I maintain the local history blog

I did a blog post on Captain Robert Gardiner, an early Berwick landowner, and found out that he had met Burke and Wills and was the great grandfather of Sir Robert Helpmann (1909-1986), the ballet dancer. It is these sorts of connections that make history so interesting. In fact, when I found out the Helpmann connection I rushed in and told my husband, ‘Guess what, Captain Robert Gardiner is the great grandfather of Sir Robert Helpmann’ and he was so totally unenthusiastic that had he been a teenager he would have said, ‘Yeah, whatever’.

But I had to share the news so I rang another librarian at home and told her all about it and she was impressed, as I knew she would have been. I know now that unless the historical information is about old trucks, I don’t bother sharing the news with my husband! I thought you might be interested in hearing about Captain Robert Gardiner and his connections. Gardiner was one of the earliest European settlers in the Berwick area. He took up a pastoral lease, in 1837, south of Berwick. By 1853, Gardiner is listed on the Parish Plan of Berwick as owning over 1350 hectares (3300 acres). His original run was called Berwick which gave the town of Berwick its name.

And here’s another interesting connection. Gardiner owned Crown Allotment 17 and built a brick cottage and stone barn on the site, which are both still standing. This property was called Melville Park. Melville Park later became known as Edrington. Edrington was the home of Lord and Lady Casey. Lord Casey was the Governor General of Australia between 1965 and 1969. Gardiner was responsible for the name Berwick and 150 years later, in a neat parallel, another resident
of Melville Park / Edrington was responsible for the name of the City of Casey, as Casey was named in honour of Lord Casey at its creation in 1994.

Gardiner was born in Scotland in 1812. He, and his first wife Susan Foley (1818-1865), had five children. In 1854 he leased Bolinda Vale and Redrock estates (in the Sunbury/Romsey area) from William John Turner Clarke. Clarke had been a neighbour of Gardiner’s at Berwick. It was whilst he was at Bolinda Vale that Gardiner encountered the Burke and Wills expedition. Burke and Wills had left Royal Park on the 20th of August, 1860. The entourage consisted of 18 people, 24
camels, 23 horses and seven wagons and it was anticipated that they would cover 32 kms (20 miles) a day. Their third camp was at Bolinda Vale on August 22nd and according to the diary of Ludwig Becker,  the Naturalist on the Expedition,
Gardiner ‘provided hospitality for the party and fodder for the animals without charge’. I was amazed when I found this connection between Gardiner and Burke and Wills. The Burke and Wills story is familiar to most of us and I felt a bit chuffed to have a local connection. I found this connection just by ‘googling’ Gardiner’s name. The diary entries can be found by following this link

In January, 1868 Gardiner took up the lease of the Mount Schank Station in Mount Gambier at the cost of 10,000 pounds per annum. Mount Schank, as with Bolinda Vale, was owned W.J.T. Clarke. Lynne from the Narre Warren Family History Group had supplied the genealogical details on Gardiner and the Mount Gambier connection. When I read that, I rushed to my Mt Gambier history book (luckily for me I am an avid collector of local histories) and it mentions that Gardiner was ‘keenly interested in Mount Gambier and district affairs’. He donated a very fine pipe organ to the St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in 1884 and the same year donated the money for a fountain in the Cave Gardens. This fountain is said to be the first large marble fountain made in ‘the colonies’ and was made in Melbourne. The Helpmann connection comes from Captain Gardiner’s granddaughter Mary who married James Helpman in 1907 in Mount Gambier. Apparently, Sir Robert added another ‘n’ to his surname for appearances sake.

It seems, from the date of the donations of the organ and fountain, that Captain Gardiner maintained his interest in Mount Gambier after he left the area as he built a very grand house, Mintaro, for himself near Lancefield in 1882. It was designed by James Gall and has been described as the ‘other Government House’. The National Trust says it is an ‘outstanding example of nineteenth century domestic architecture in the grand Italianate manner’. This house is still standing and can be found on the Melbourne-Lancefield Road at Monegeeta. Gardiner died in South Yarra in 1889.

When I started looking into Captain Gardiner, a local pioneer, I had no idea that I would discover that he had as diverse connections as Burke and Wills the explorers and Robert Helpmann, a ballet dancer, but the unexpected and serendipitous connections and information that you might discover along the way are one of the joys of research.


  • Mount Gambier : the city around the cave – a regional history by Les R. Hill. Published by the author in 1972.
  • The information from theLudwig Becker diary camefrom the La Trobe Journal, No.22 1978 published by the StateLibrary of Victoria.
  • The Information on Gardiner’sconnection to Bolinda Vale andRedrock comes from the Cityof Hume Heritage Study,available on their website

*Originally published in South Eastern Heritage Issue 8 May 2008 and written by Heather Arnold.

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