Three Hummock Island is located in the Bass Strait, close to the north-west coast of Tasmania. It became the centre of a mystery in October 1902. Captain Leask, master of the ketch Royal Oak, returned from a visit there and notified authorities that he had found the body of an unknown man near Brandy Creek, on the south-east of the Island.
He had first noticed a small boat beached in an inlet. It had lost its mast. He saw nobody in the vicinity, but a search revealed an old campfire, and the body which Leask estimated had been exposed to the elements for about three months. There was no sign of any companions, dead or alive. Richard Burgess and his family were the only residents on the island at the time, and lived about ten miles away. Co-incidentally, Richard’s son was a crew member on the Royal Oak. He said his family never visited Brandy Creek, but had heard what sounded like an explosion from that direction months earlier.
PIECING TOGETHER THE PUZZLE
The only possible clue to the man’s identity Leask found was a slip of paper addressed, ‘Care of Mrs Williams, Bon Accord House, Peel Street, North Melbourne.‘ However, young Burgess said he recognized the disabled ketch as one he had seen at the Melbourne port suburb of Williamstown. Among possessions scattered about were the following; a rifle, a revolver, and a sword. There was also a frying pan, kerosene stove and other camping utensils. (Information from The Daily Telegraph, October 20 1902)
In the letter Captain Leask sent to police he wrote;
‘The body is almost reduced to a skeleton, only the hair on the left side of the face and the back of the head being still there. The beard is ginger or sandy; the hair dark brown. I picked up a scrap of a burnt letter, which I enclose, also a scrap of the ‘Argus’ dated May 16 1902, but I did not bring it away. I took only the date. I covered the body with bags, and left everything as I found it. There are the remains of instruments, glass, rifle, pistol, sword, and other things that have been destroyed by fire….’ (Launceston Examiner 24 October)
Further investigations led police to believe the dead man had indeed been a middle-aged resident of Williamstown, known as Dr Blake due to his interest in medicine and science.
He had left Williamstown on May 19, after buying an ex-government ketch, formerly known as The Endeavour. It was about 26ft long with an 8ft beam. He fitted it with a small cabin and bought a 40lb anchor before stocking up on provisions. Apparently the original arrangement was that a young man named Harvey Rowe would accompany him, but at the last moment Blake chose to go alone. He had always been regarded as somewhat eccentric, and after the death of his wife earlier in the year he had become depressed. He had been living with his father.
A fisherman saw the boat leave the Port Phillip Heads, and later spotted it heading for the island. He stated that the person aboard behaved a little strangely and, oddly enough, had a lot of medicine bottles on board. When the fisherman arrived at ‘The Hummock’s’ himself he saw the ketch, but no sign of the man. He did not search for him and thought no more of it until reports of the body were published. (from Tasmanian News October 25)
Those ‘medicine’ bottles were actually full of chemicals. Blake had become obsessed with the idea that he could make paint from seaweed. He was constantly cruising the waters between Victoria and Tasmania in search of a special variety of weed for his experiments.
THE INQUEST – MYSTERY SOLVED
Superintendent Ruddock and Constable Lynsky had recovered the body and brought it back to Stanley, on the Tasmanian mainland. An inquest was held on November 1. Ruddock testified that they had searched the body and found the case of a silver watch engraved with the initials H.B. and the name Blake scratched on the inside.
It was presumed that his boat had been wrecked in the Brandy Creek inlet after losing its mast. Blake had clearly made an attempt to repair it, as a sapling had been cut and squared off. For a couple of weeks he had survived on shellfish; piles of empty shells were found by the campfire. There was no evidence of a shelter. As his condition deteriorated on that meagre diet he huddled closer to the fire, which somehow set his belongings alight. The noise heard miles away by the Burgess family was no doubt glass bottles full of ‘paint experiment’ chemicals exploding,
In his weakened state it was thought that Blake was unable to escape the fire and was overcome by smoke. Nevertheless, the inquest found there was insufficient evidence to prove this, leading to an open verdict.
According to the press, Harry Blake, aka ‘Dr Blake’, was buried in the local cemetery at Stanley. Unfortunately I have not been able to find a record of this on sites such as ‘Find a Grave’ or via Tasmanian archives. RIP
UPDATE – HARRY MAY NOT HAVE BEEN TOO FAR OFF THE MARK WITH HIS SEAWEED PAINT
TRAVEL INFORMATION ON THREE HUMMOCK ISLAND