State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 38 Spring 1986


An Australian In Siberia, 1903

R. E. Trebilcock (1880–1976)

Richard Ernest Trebilcock was born in Ballarat on 30 June 1880, but shortly afterwards the family moved to Geelong where he spent much of his youth. He studied law at the University of Melbourne and by 1902 had completed the required three years of Articles. He had only to sit for the final examination required by the Rules of the Supreme Court for articled clerks seeking admission to practise when he heard of Robert Hall's projected overseas trip. This trip was to include Siberia, and Hall's ultimate goal was the delta of the Lena River to study, photograph and collect specimens of some of the birds which migrate annually between Australia and their northern hemisphere breeding grounds. A. H. E. Mattingley, who was to travel with him as photographer, was unable at the last minute to accompany him, and Trebilcock immediately expressed the wish to take his place.
Both men were naturalists and Hall had first met Trebilcock at photography classes so knew of his skill with a camera, while Trebilcock realized that once he commenced practise as a solicitor it would be impossible to take advantage of such a journey. He swiftly made preparations, said goodbye to his fiancee, Miss Hester Tymms, and in February stepped onto the ship with two suitcases. A large part of his luggage consisted of photographic equipment including twelve dozen glass plates.
Such an unusual undertaking created much interest and when Trebilcock, unable to afford an expensive camera, took his story to the proprietor of a shop he was loaned one on the condition that when the voyage was over the negatives were presented to the firm. This was done and for two weeks after their return the entire windows of the establishment were filled with his photographs. Both Trebilcock and Hall gave many lectures illustrated by these “Lime Light Views”, and stories of the journey appeared in daily papers of Melbourne and Geelong, and in ornithological publications. Sadly only about three dozen of the glass plates have been located and are now preserved in the RAOU Archives.
The diary is scrappy, but while Hall shot the birds it was Trebilcock's duty to prepare the skins in addition to taking photographs. The diary and letter extracts transcribed here give only a glimpse of that eventful trip which, incidentally, required and was granted permission by the Czar to carry firearms. After reaching Vladivostok at the end of May their first stop was Irkutsk on Lake Baikal. From there a week's journey by horse and cart and a small boat brought them to the Lena River. They then travelled the 300 miles to the delta and reached their goal on 12 July. In all they were on the Lena River for almost eight weeks.
On his return to Victoria, Trebilcock married his Hester, sat for and passed his final exam, and in 1907 left Geelong for Kerang where he spent the rest of his life. During the 1914–1918 war he saw service in France and Belgium and was awarded the Military Cross. In the 1939–1945 war he joined the Home Service with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.
He maintained his interest in natural history, but his studies and publications in later life dealt with hydroids.
He died in Kerang on 2 June 1976.


I am indebted to Peter Balmford for information on Trebilcock's legal qualifications.


  • Raou Archives.

  • Kloot, Tess “Mr R. E. Trebilcock of Kerang — and a plea “Bird Observer No. 510 (February 1975), pp. 10–11.


I. R. E. Trebilcock to his mother, 3 June 1903


Dear Ma
Here I am in the centre of Siberia. To get here it took a week in the train from Vladivostock. Under ordinary circumstances such a long journey would be fearfully tiring, but the spacious corridor cars are very warm & very comfortable. I must say however that the first night I got very little sleep — but I soon got used to it. Now I think I can sleep anywhere.
I don't think you will know me when I come back. I am as brown as a berry & my clothes are getting quite tight.
You would laugh if you could see me now in my Siberian outfit. My coat (which was made a present to me by a man in Vladivostock) is of soft Russian leather lined with red felt. My boots are waterproof & reach up to my knees. On my head is a Russian cap, on my feet two pairs of socks. But my overcoat is what takes the cake. It is made of sheep-skin with the wool inside & reaches to my feet. You don't need any blanket at night if you wear it.
Everything is going on well. I hope you were not alarmed at my cable. I was not in trouble, but was advised by the British Consul at Vladivostock that it was rather risky travelling in Siberia, with so little money, as if anything went wrong it would take months for any money to reach you unless you happened to be in one of the large towns. I don't expect to have to spend much of it, but as the Consul advised, it is safe to be prepared. He was very good indeed to me, for when through an error in the cable the money did not arrive at the expected date, he kindly advanced the amount without commission interest or security, so that I should not have to wait too long at Vladivostock.
So far we have done very well. We spent a fortnight in Corea, & shot 220 bird (odd) which we sold by cable for £50.
Tomorrow morning we leave Irkutsk. We travel for three days by post horses to a town at the head of the Lena River & then go by boat down that river as far as Yarkutsk. No ornithologists have ever been on that river yet — so we shall make quite a name for ourselves.
You cant imagine the bother we had with the officials for carrying arms & ammunition into Russian territory. However we are travelling by special permission from the Czar himself — so that got us out of our difficulties.
Please give my love to all at home. I am getting fearfully home-sick. It is ages since I have heard English spoken, except by M’ Hall, & our Russian interpreter, — & Russian is such an abominable language.
With love, your affectionate son

II. R. E. Trebilcock to his brother, Jack, 25 June 1903


Dear Jack,
I suppose you had just about given up all hope of hearing from me again. Well, here 1 am in an out of the way place — latitude 62£N. The sun here at present sets for only four hours, & even at midnight you can see a glow that shows it is only just below the horizon, & the twilight is so bright that even at midnight you can read a newspaper with ease. The sun rises in the N.W., at 2.30a.m. it rises; at 8 a.m. it is in the East, at noon in the South half way between the horizon & the zenith; at 8 p.m. it is in the West; & at 10.30p.m. it sets in the N.W. but only to dip just below the horizon & after four hours to rise again in the N.E.
I have been roughing it a good bit lately. Let me describe my course. After leaving Vladivostock we had about a week in the train, crossed Lake Baikal through masses of floating ice over a foot thick & reached the village of Baikal. Four more hours brought us to Irkutsk the capital of Eastern Siberia.
After a stay of a couple of days in a comfortable Russian inn we set out by post horses for a place called Gigaloura, on the Lena R., about 200 miles from Irkutsk. This took four days.
Then we chartered a boat 40 feet long & made our way down the river for 223 miles to a place called Oustkutsk, stopping every twenty or thirty miles to shoot some birds. The stream here runs so swiftly that we drifted this distance with very little rowing indeed, in four days & four nights. It is rather exciting going down rapids on a strange river at night time I can tell you. Fortunately it was moonlight, & there are very few projecting rocks to bother about. The nights were rather cold, & ice plentiful in places. Early in the morning the thermometer (Reamur) often stood at 0°. In the middle of the day however it is uncomfortably warm. At one particular place I remember taking off my coat to get cool — while I was standing on ice three feet thick!
At Oustkutsk we caught a river steamer to Yarkutsk — one week's journey.
When we reached Yarkutsk we started Westwards for what we were told was the tundra, but after travelling for 20 miles found that the information was not correct, so we returned to Yarkutsk — after four days absence. Those four days were spent in a swamp. It was almost tundra, but there were trees. Birds were rather scarce, though we secured some duck, snipe, woodpeckers & thrushes, not to speak of crows, finches &c. All these birds we found breeding. One bird 1 didn't expect to find & that was a sea-gull! Evidently it had gone there to nest.
Flowers were very numerous, whole acres of ground being blue with forget/me/nots, white with white ranunculi; mauve with polyanthi, or yellow with buttercups. These flowers grew so thickly that it was impossible to put a foot down without crushing dozens of them.
This is a lovely picture & one could enjoy it for hours but for one thing — the place is infested with millions of mosquitoes. You can imagine how they swarm on one when I tell you that with one slap of my hand (which is not of the largest size) on the leg of my pants, I have killed as many as eighteen enormous yellow fiends who were endeavouring to devour me! They kept round one in a swarm forming a large cloud of which you were the nucleus. In spite of gloves & veils you were tortured — it was awful. The heat of the sun, the closeness of the veils & the poison of their bites raised the blood to fever heat.
The sun would set & with it would go the heat, but still there was no rest. The “mosquito proof” tents would not keep them out for they swarmed round it & crept into the tinyest opening at the doorway.
Those four days were four days of agony — no rest, no sleep; and we generally arose, in dispair of sleeping, with the rising sun (2.30 a.m.).
During those four nights we slept in the open air, with no tent save our mosquito nets, & with the thermometer at 5° or 6° above freezing. Add to this the fact that we could get no proper food & you can make a dismal picture — yet I enjoyed it. I have now got to like the Russian black bread (which upset my stomach at first) but I still feel the want of vegetables very much. One Russian dish took me some time to get used to & that was thick sour milk, but now I enjoy it! It is wonderful what one can get used to.
Since we find no true tundra here we must go still further north. On Saturday next we start down the river in a small steamer which is taking provisions &c to a Russian expedition which is exploring the islands at the mouth of the river. Our destination is a small village called Bulun (latitude 71° North). Of course this will take us a long way past the Arctic circle — after passing which we shall have no night till we return — for it is now mid-summer & the sun is to be seen at midnight. At this place the ground at the depth of a few feet never thaws! Possibly we may go still further, & reach the Arctic Ocean.
At present we are enjoying Russian hospitality, for we are staying with the Chief of the Police. He is very good to us indeed for he has given us a well furnished room & told us to make ourselves at home. He is an accomplished photographer & have given us a number of fine winter scenes — which of course we could not take ourselves. He has two splendid cameras — one fitted with a focal-plane shutter working up to 1/2000 of a second. Unfortunately he speaks neither English nor French so most of the conversation has to be carried on through our interpretor. I have picked up a little Russian, but I am afraid that having an interpretor makes me not bother about learning the language. At any rate I know enough to ask for something to eat!
How is everything getting on in Victoria? It seems ages since I left. When I return it will take me some time to get up-to-date in the history of the place. Up here I get no news whatever of the outside world. It takes weeks for news to reach here (except of course by wire) & even then it is very brief. This is the last postal town on the river. Below this there is no postal service at all, so I must write all my letters now or wait till I return.
I am getting together a fine lot of photographs, though of course I have to be sparing with the plates. Just fancy — even in this out-of-the-way hole I bought a packet Ilford Empress! I had to pay for them though! and goodness only knows how old they are …
P.S. 27/6/03
The Governor of this territory has just sent round the chief of his staff to say he is ill, otherwise would personally call on us(!) He asks if we want any assistance of any kind — if so what can he do for us. N.T.B. What do you think?

III. From an undated and incomplete letter to Hessie.

… It seems like years since I last saw you. I have gone through a lot of curious experiences since then.
But I am getting fearfully tired of travelling. I do not like starting away in the morning not knowing where I shall sleep next night. Particularly in Siberia I feel fearfully lonely — the enormous pine forests stretching for mile upon mile are rather depressing — and all round me I hear a language that is harsh unmusical & strange.
However I shall soon be so busy that I shall not have time to think about that, & after the busy time is over I shall soon be where I can hear English spoken again — for since the day we left Vladivostock I have not heard a word of English except M’ Hall or our interpreter.
You will not forget me, will you darling while I am away, for although you may not hear from me you will know 1 am always thinking about you.
Please give my love to all at home.
With lots of love
Your wandering ERNIE

IV. From R. E. Trebilcock's diary; this section follows an account of the journey from Yarkutsk to the mouth of the Lena River, from 30 June until 11 July 1903.

Today we reached Larix Island in the mouth of the river. This is our furthest north 72°.
We are now 1800 versts from the nearest post office & 4500 versts (3000 miles) from the nearest railway station.
Larix Island is so called because at one end of it there is a hill covered with stunted firs (larix). The rest of the island is perfectly flat & consists of tundra protected from the river by a low sand bank.
It is here where wading birds fly to their northern home. It is here where sandpipers & snipe come from different parts of the globe to build their nests & rear their young.
The tundra, & especially the bank that forms the boundary of it is gay with many beautiful flowers amongst which forgetmenots & Iceland poppies are prominent.
The whole place is swarming with birds — sandpipers of numerous species, snipe, one species of finch, & in the lagoons many ducks while overhead flew several species of gulls.
Fortunately, so far north mosquitoes are absent & this makes the long summer day, of many weeks duration, a day of pleasure instead of one of agony.
The birds have a most delightful summer home. The great area of flat land has the appearance of rice fields being cut up into numerous small paddocks, full of a rice like grass growing in water, & separate from one another by low ridges of partially dry earth. The huge cracks in the ground, filled with water, & resembling the canals of an irrigated rice field complete the curious resemblance.
The plainest of the wading birds as we see them are now very beautiful. Australia does not know them in their summer dress of the northern hemisphere.
Today we arrived here after spending five months on the way. Today we leave & expect to reach Australia five months hence. The birds will not leave for a few weeks but they will be in Victoria long before we will.
Vegetation in the far north is very stunted — the fir trees being not more than eighteen inches high.
Along the sandy beach, which in many places was still frozen right on the surface, was enormous blocks of river ice, some of them measuring as much as twelve feet high. The picturesque effect which their fantastic shapes would have produced, was however spoiled by their being covered with sand & small pebbles, picked up as they were being rolled over & over by the enormous force of the breaking ice & flood waters.
The right bank of the river here is a precipitous cliff in which beautiful strata of dark and light stone showed now in level band, now gently undulating & now crumpled up into fantastic shapes by some enormous subterranean force.
Now for a description of the tundra. A large expanse of flat swampy ground covered with a course grass — that is the starting point. Winter comes and covers it all up feet deep with snow & the fearful cold causes the ground to crack. In summer the cracks become filled with water which expands next winter making the cracks deeper & wider & forcing the surrounding ground up into a mound on each side of the crack thus cutting the grassy swamp up into a number of small paddocks several yards across. In time these cracks became about two feet wide & as deep as six feet. On the mounds grow moss which also finds a footing on the tussocks of grass. The moss grows & dies & fresh moss grows on top of it till it is several inches thick. Everything is sodden with cold water. A few stunted Firs growing on the higher ground, a few stunted shrubs, & innumerable gay flowers complete the picture. In crossing such a swampy plain you walk for several yards through coarse grass growing in swampy spongy ground partly covered with water. In this ground you sink half way up to your knees, when your foot rests on frozen ground which prevents you from sinking any further.
Then you step on to a mossy mound, raised two or three inches above the water, into which your foot sinks up to the ankle. Then comes a deep crack, two feet wide & six feet deep filled with icy water, then another mossy bank, after which comes another grass covered bog.
The whole of this is like a sponge full of semistagnant water. The foot makes a depression & immediately it is filled with water. When the pressure is relieved the mass returns to its original condition leaving little or no trace of the footstep.
Every few hundred yards is to be found small lagoons & on these ducks are plentiful.
We were fortunate for a splendid mirage showed us the open Arctic Ocean upon the surface of which we could plainly see several high rocky islands.
The cliffs on the opposite side of the river produced some very fine echoes — a shot from a gun producing an effect that sounded like an avalanche, while the whistle of the steamer was drawn out into a long clear note gradually dying away into silence.
The Tunguse say the geese leave the lagoons & go to the river side in order to avoid the mosquitoes!(?)
The Tunguse here dry fish in a curious way. After removing the head they split the fish right down to the tail & then cut the flesh into strips not cutting however through the skin. Thus treated the fish are hung on thin poles to dry, after which they are smoked. This is eaten raw & is not bad when one is hungry, though rather tasteless & oily.
Now we are homeward bound!

V. Extract from a letter from R. E. Trebilcock to his father, 10 September 1903.

No. 4 Philbech Gardens S.W.
South Kensington

Dear Pa
At last I have reached London. I arrived here the day before yesterday from Rotterdam (Holland).
Let me give you a brief account of my trip since leaving the Arctic Ocean. We travelled by steamer up the Lena R. to Yarkutsk & again caught the mail boat going south. After several days travelling we had to shift into a smaller boat as the river was getting too shallow for the one we were in to go much further. In due course we reached the village of Oustkout beyond which the mail steamers can not go. We then took as before a small boat, but as we could not drift up the stream we had to be towed by post horses. This occupied four days. Then came four more days travelling in the springless post waggons, but this time we had learned by bitter experience the folly of travelling in them without cushions, & so handing all our luggage over for our interpreter to take care of, we filled our waggon with bags of rye straw, & so had a comfortable journey.
At last we reached Irkutsk & spent a day there & then caught the train for St. Petersburg passing through Moscow on the way. Of course we spent a day in Moscow — how could we resist such a temptation — a week could well be spent in such a beautiful city. Of course you have read of the Kremlin, with its great bell which cracked in cooling and its “Czar of Cannons”; of the burning of Moscow & the crippling of Napoleon's splendid army. It is so interesting to wander through the streets where the great soldier passed, to pass through the great gate of the Kremlin where he was stopped, & where now everyone must enter bareheaded. More beautiful buildings than those of the Kremlin can scarcely by conceived, with their spotless walls & their delicately painted or gilded, domes spires & minerets.
From the Kremlin a splendid view of the city is obtained. As far as the eye can reach rise the domes & minerets of churches — It is a city of beautiful churches. Everything is spotlessly clean & the air is clear & the sun shining on the gilded domes makes them appear like globes of fire. It is a splendid contrast the dirty soot covered London.
St. Petersburg is also a fine city & very clean & beautifully laid out. We intended to go to London by boat from St. Petersburg, but we found that no boat went for five days, & then it took six days & the fare was nearly the same as the train fare. So we sent our luggage on by boat & took the train to Berlin, after having obtained permission from the Russian authorities to leave Russia & having that permission endorsed on our passports. In due course we crossed the frontier & reached Berlin, where for the first time for three months we found plenty of people who could speak English.