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Spillett, Peter Gerald (1926–2004)

by David Carment

Peter Spillett, n.d.

Peter Spillett, n.d.

photo provided by Simon Spillett

Peter Gerald Spillett, Member of the Order of Australia, Fellow of the Federation of Australian Historical Societies, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and Justice of the Peace, died suddenly in Bali, Indonesia, in December 2004 at the age of 78. A ‘founding father’ of community history in the Northern Territory, his legacy was both significant and multi-faceted.

Peter was born in Surbiton, not far from London, in 1926. He came from a Kentish family and could trace his ancestors, mainly artisans and farmers, back to the sixteenth century. His father was a soldier and a teacher and his mother had worked as a nanny. Peter studied Italian and accounting at London Polytechnic and then enrolled at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies before being called up for service in the Royal Air Force during the latter stages of the Second World War. As a radio operator, he participated in operations in India and Burma. Following the war, he worked for a time in a London furniture store prior to migrating to Australia in 1950, where he was initially employed as a farm and factory hand in Western Australia and Victoria. He then fulfilled a boyhood yearning to see Darwin, joining the Commonwealth Department of Transport and Works there in 1951. In 1954 he sponsored his fiancée, Muriel, to migrate from London and the two married in Darwin in February 1954. They later had two sons.

Peter remained a public servant until he retired following a serious heart attack in 1982. At that time he was Heritage Officer in the Northern Territory Department of Community Development. His interests, nevertheless, extended far beyond the work place. He was an Alderman on the Darwin City Council, Vice-President and Secretary of the Returned Services League, President of the Pensioners Association, which named its Darwin headquarters ‘Spillett House’, Chairman of the Trustees of Browns Mart and an Honorary Canon of Christ Church Anglican Cathedral in Darwin.

He was particularly interested in the history of the Northern Territory and of contacts between the Territory and its near Asian neighbors. A founder of the Historical Society of the Northern Territory, he served as its President for many years and was elected an Honorary Life Member. He was also President and an Honorary Life Member of the National Trust of Australia (Northern Territory). As the Historical Society’s President, he organised expeditions, published books and papers and lectured on Territory history. He led a party that located and plotted the site of the previously unrecorded remains of Fort Wellington. In 1980 he won a prestigious Churchill Fellowship to undertake archival research in Britain, France and the Netherlands relating to the early European settlement of northern Australia. Following his retirement, he was an Honorary Fellow in History at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. Prior to his death in 2004 the Museum’s library was named after him. The Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography was a direct result of his initiative. As a Bicentennial project, he was principally responsible for and participated in the sailing of a Makassan perahu replica, the Hati Marege, from eastern Indonesia to the Northern Territory in 1988 along the route taken by the trepangers. Between 1992 and 1999 he undertook important fieldwork on pre-colonial history in East Timor.

Much of his research was published as books, pamphlets and articles. His best known and most highly acclaimed work is the book Forsaken Settlement: An Illustrated History of the Settlement of Victoria, Port Essington, North Australia, 1838-1849 (1972). Other books cover the history of Fort Dundas, Darwin’s Christ Church Cathedral, the discovery of relics from the wrecks of the Lady Nelson and Stedcombe and the Makassan perahu project.

Always a devout Anglican, Peter’s funeral appropriately occurred at Christ Church Cathedral in Darwin, where he was a regular worshipper. But his Christianity did not prevent him from having a deep respect for and interest in Islam. This was part of his strong personal commitment to the development of harmonious links between the Northern Territory and those parts of Southeast Asia with which the Territory had long standing contacts. While supervising the construction of the Hati Marege, for example, he attended special Muslim ceremonies associated with the vessel. He had many Muslim friends.

I was fortunate in knowing Peter well from my arrival in Darwin in 1981. He was a Councillor, Vice-President and President of the National Trust of Australia (Northern Territory) during my time as that organisation’s Director and, following his invitation to me to become involved, we served together on the Historical Society of the Northern Territory’s Council. We also collaborated in other ventures, especially the Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography. His enthusiasm for local history and heritage was most infectious and he did much to encourage my own interests and efforts. I greatly admired his painstaking, thorough and often courageous research, even when it occasionally resulted in conclusions with which I disagreed. It sometimes led him to difficult and dangerous locations and was often undertaken when he was in poor health. We quite regularly met at Historical Society functions and on other occasions. A fascinating conversationalist, he had a wealth of frequently humorous anecdotes and stories and always enjoyed a good historical argument. He was also unafraid of expressing strong views when he felt this was necessary. On various occasions I saw him do so with politicians and senior bureaucrats to advance worthwhile historical causes. The last time I saw him was at the Historical Society’s Patron’s Dinner in September 2004. He had just returned from another visit to Indonesia and looked tired but that did not stop him from discussing with me at some length how he might publish his latest manuscript. The dinner was the occasion of the Society’s fortieth anniversary. When asked by the current President, Brian Reid, if he recalled what had stimulated the Society’s original formation, he relied, ‘Why, it was to press for a library’. Like many others, I am going to greatly miss him. He was an outstanding Territorian.

Original publication

  • Journal of Northern Territory History, no 16, 2005

Additional Resources

Citation details

David Carment, 'Spillett, Peter Gerald (1926–2004)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/spillett-peter-gerald-930/text931, accessed 10 December 2018.

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