The vision and dedication of First Fleet descendant and stonemason Ray Collins mean all 1500 people who came to Australia as part of that famous 1788 journey are remembered as part of an official memorial.

Story By John Dunn

It's ironic that Ray Collins should build a memorial to honour the First Fleet – his family changed its name to avoid the stigma some believed came with a convict heritage. Ray’s grandmother, Gladys, and other relatives of her era were alarmed to find that an ancestor, John Cross, had received the death penalty in England for stealing a sheep, that he was transported to Australia to serve a reduced sentence of seven years and came to Sydney Cove in 1788 aboard the Alexander, one of the ships of the First Fleet.
So that arm of the Cross family became Collins in about 1920 and, so far as they were concerned, the unwanted link with the past had been terminated. Not so, as Ray was to decide in the years that followed. Ray had only limited schooling at Old Guildford where he lived in Sydney’s western suburbs but the subject he enjoyed most was Australian history, which, he says, was “pumped into us by the headmaster Syd Amm”. “He told us in great detail about the early days, and particularly about the beginning of the colony and the travels of the explorers,” Ray says. “I was fascinated by all this and it led me to want to know more about how the nation began.”
Ray’s love of history was accentuated by his work as a stonemason, a craft he learned when he became apprenticed to his uncle, Harry Starkey. This led him to several significant assignments such as the restoration of the grave of Prime Minister Ben Chifley and the preparation of the headstone of eminent eye specialist Fred Hollows. Ray’s work took him to countless cemeteries around New South Wales where he was able to trace stories of the pioneers and meet their descendants. Eventually, an idea developed. He would build a memorial to the First Fleet by commemorating all those who sailed in it – soldiers and sailors, as well as convicts.
“I did a lot of research and it seemed that the only specific memorial was an obelisk at Sans Souci in Sydney,” Ray says. “My idea was much more comprehensive – something that would list all of those, around 1500, who came in those ships, and it would be in a setting that was fitting and suitable for such an historic occurrence.”
Believing a rural site would be best because it was probably more likely to provide the space he needed, Ray hawked his plan around nine New South Wales country councils without success. “The reasons for their rejection varied,” he says. “Some were just not interested and a few feared that I would die before the job was completed and they would be left with a half-finished project. One or two thought it was just too difficult and others were worried about the cost even though I made it clear that I would do all the work and provide all the materials free of charge."

This story excerpt is from Issue #71

Outback Magazine: June/July 2010