A hand-coloured portrait of Robert Hunt, housed behind glass in a hinged leather 'Eickmeyer' case, c1860. Sydney Living Museums COL_MIN2005_0008b

Robert Hunt: chemist, photographer and deputy mint master

Robert Fellowes Hunt was 24 when he came to Sydney in 1854 to take up his appointment as First Clerk in the Bullion Office, one of the senior positions of the newly established Sydney Branch of the Royal Mint.

His job was to direct melting and refining operations at the Mint and to provide expert advice to the Deputy Master on the separation of gold from various ores. He was one of a new breed of formally qualified practical scientists, among the first students of the Government School of Mines and Science Applied to the Arts, established in London in 1851. 

Graphic that says Insites - published in insites magazine
This article was originally written by SLM's Head of Collections & Access, Megan Martin and published in the Winter issue of Insites.
He was one of a new breed of formally qualified practical scientists ...

Robert Hunt's family background was notable. His grandfather John was an influential, reformist. printer and publisher. The radical liberal stance of his newspaper The Examiner, edited by John's brother Leigh, led to a series of court appearances for the brothers and ultimately two years imprisonment on a charge of seditious libel. Leigh managed to turn his prison rooms into a kind of political and literary salon, visited by such personalities as philosopher Jeremy Bentham and poet Lord Byron. Robert Hunt's father, Henry, was also a journalist and publisher before selling the family newspaper to philanthropist Robert Fellowes and retiring to France, where Robert received his early education. 

small gaff rigged sailing craft working through choppy seas with 3 men on board and a rocky shore and grassy slope in the back ground.
Sailing skiff under the headlands of Port Jackson. Detail of a larger view entitled 'Vue des caps du Port Jackson' by Louis August de Sainson, c1833. Beat Knoblauch Collection
Jevons and Hunt made photographic excursions around Sydney Harbour in Hunt's skiff 'The Terror' ...

Once in Sydney, Hunt became interested in the new art of wet-plate photography, an interest he shared with Mint assayer William Stanley Jevons and with Professor John Smith, professor of chemistry at the University of Sydney. They exhibited their photographs together at conversaziones of the Philosophical Society of New South Wales and Jevons and Hunt made photographic excursions around Sydney Harbour in Hunt's skiff The Terror. More poignantly, Hunt used his camera to capture a fragment of the Dunbar, the ship wrecked near South Head one terrible night in August 1857, with the loss of 121 lives, including those of his sisters Sarah and Emily. In a letter to his family in England Jevons described how Hunt had stayed away from work at the Mint for more than a week after the tragedy, 'searching all the time for some relic or trace of his sisters'1.

B/W photo of waterfront shed and slipway with timber planks and other debris stacked along the wall of the building.
Shipyard and slipway at Green's Point, Milsons Point. Photo taken 23 December 1857 and shows timber wreckage recovered from the recently sunk ship The Dunbar. Courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester

In 1860 Hunt married Mary Paul of St Leonards. They lived at Kirribilli Point in a gothic villa, Sunnyside, until Hunt was transferred in 1870 to the new Melbourne Branch Mint as Superintendent of the Bullion Office. He was acting Deputy Master in Melbourne from 1876 until late 1877 when he returned to New South Wales to take up the position of Deputy Master in Sydney. He arrived back in good time to get involved with preparations for the Sydney International Exhibition, which opened in the Garden Palace in 1879.

When the exhibition closed in 1880, Hunt, as a Trustee of the Australian Museum, was appointed to a committee to establish a Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum for Sydney, drawing on the exhibits from the Garden Palace (the forerunner of today's Powerhouse Museum).

Hunt was also a council member of the Royal Society of New South Wales and in 1888 was made a Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George. He died in office in 1892. 



  • 1. Papers and correspondence of William Stanley Jevons. vol 2. edited by R D Collison Black, Clifton, Augustus M Kelley, 1973, p3O1

About the Author

Head and shoulders photo of woman holding up card to face with conservator's white glove on hand.
Megan Martin
Former Head, Collections & Access
Megan is the former head of Collections & Access at Sydney Living Museums. She has a particular interest in the working of the historical imagination, in teasing out the meanings of objects in museums collections and in crafting the stories that can be recovered/discovered through a close reading of those items of material culture.

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