Burke and Wills Report – a monthly update on the progress of the Victorian Exploring Expedition 150 years ago
Howitt arrives in Melbourne and is sent straight back to retrieve the bodies, and the blame game continues
Howitt was still up north at Menindee at the time the Royal Society were alerted in early November to the tragic news of the deaths, and on 13 November 1861, the Exploration Committee had sent instructions to him to return to Coopers Creek to retrieve the bodies of Burke and Wills. However, Howitt had decided that circumstances compelled him to come down to Melbourne and make fresh arrangements as some of the members of his Victorian Contingent Party did not wish to continue, and he also needed additional equipment – ironically an increase from a paltry 2 tons on his first expedition to 2 and one half tonnes which is in stark contrast to the 20 tons Burke took when he left from Royal Park 16 months earlier.
Howitt departed Menindee in late November and arrived in Melbourne seven days later on Thursday 5 December 1861, ten days after King, to much excitement. Contrast the ease with which Howitt travelled between Menindee and Melbourne to clarify arrangements with the total lack of communication between the Exploration Party and Wright at Menindee for 3 months a year earlier, and the only thing that had changed was that the train had opened to Woodend (a meagre 70 km). You could argue that twelve months earlier if Wright had gone to Melbourne to confirm his appointment by Burke as 3rd in command rather than wait for the mail the tragedy at Coopers Creek might have been avoided, but you could equally argue that someone from the Exploration Committee could have made the effort to head up to Menindee at some stage during these three months to clarify arrangements as well. But perhaps we will never know.
After giving evidence during the same day he arrived in Melbourne in the Commission of Inquiry, Howitt was received at a Special Meeting of the Exploration Committee at the Royal Society’s building that evening where a telegram from the Surveyor-General of Adelaide was read that described the body found by McKinlay at Lake Massacre. After comparing McKinlay’s description of the location of the body, the description of the flannel shirt, and also other articles that were found, with the evidence given by King in the Commission of Inquiry that very day, the Exploration Committee concluded that the body McKinlay had found was Gray’s, and that there were no other bodies or indeed a massacre at that location.
Howitt advised that those who wished to leave the party were Wheeler (the surgeon), Vining, Sampson, and Calcott; while Aitken, Williams (who Howitt had engaged in July at Menindee to replace the injured Smith on his first trip north), Welch, McDonough and Weston Phillips were willing to go out again. McDonough stated that he would like to return with Mr Howitt, not so much for the remuneration he might receive, but, having been a friend of Mr Burke, he wished to be one of the party to bring down his remains. On the former expedition, he had not suffered from ill health, and was not likely to do so now.
Accordingly the Exploration Committee passed a motion accepting the resignations and authorising Howitt to recruit replacements. They also authorised Howitt…
“to avail himself of such advantageous deviations from the original route from Menindie to Cooper’s Creek as may come to his knowledge, using, however, every expedition to reach Cooper’s Creek,and establish a depot there at the earliest possible period”.
The committee agreed that Mr Howitt’s salary be £500 per annum, and that the salary of Mr Welch, the surveyor, be £250 per annum. Howitt advised the committee that he should be very happy to have Mr Welch with him again, as he had found him a good officer. In the event of Mr Welch again suffering from bad eyes, he (Mr Howitt) would be able to give him assistance.
Howitt told the Exploration Committee that he would start for Menindie, if possible, the following Monday, and that he had thirty-two horses on which he could depend, and others which might be employed in carrying water occasionally. He indicated there were also six camels ready for service. The committee suggested he take goats for food, but Howitt thought there would not be time to try the experiment; nor could they take pack bullocks, as there would not be time to break them in. The new party was to be called the Victorian Exploring Party to distinguish it from Howitt’s first party (Victorian Contingent Party).
In what was perhaps an sign of later things to come, the Committee noted that it had “lost” a piece of the chart prepared by Wills and handed to them by Howitt on his return that showed Burke and Wills’ route near to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
And so, on 9 December, only 4 days after he had reached Melbourne after his 5 month return trip to Coopers Creek, Howitt headed northwards again, this time to retrieve the bodies of Burke and Wills. His orders were to establish a base at Coopers Creek for the use of the other relief parties (Landsborough, Walker and McKinlay) should they arrive there, and then to open up a safe route to the settled areas of South Australia for the use by any party. Once he had done that he was free to explore within one month’s travel of the depot while he awaited any of the relief expeditions, and then return to Melbourne with the bodies of Burke and Wills (as had been decided unanimously by a vote of the Legislative Assembly) only after these instructions had been discharged.
However, even as Howitt prepared to leave, there was dissension within the Exploration Committee, as the Committee had instructed Howitt to bring back to Melbourne the bodies of all those expedition members who had died, not just Burke and Wills as instructed by the Legislative Assembly, as they believed there was a “general desire” within the public for this to occur. This created some debate, and at a meeting of the Exploration Committee on 8 December, Sir William Stawell declared that the Exploration Committee had acted outside the Legislative Assembly’s resolution in asking Howitt to retrieve the bodies of Gray, Becker, Stone, Purcell, and Patten. Then, at a meeting of the Exploration Committee on 9 December before Howitt left, a motion was passed that only the bodies of Burke and Wills be brought to Melbourne. However there was some dissent in the committee, with James Smith then giving notice that he would move at the next meeting that none of the bodies be disturbed which was a view held by many. Smith absented himself from the next meeting rather than suffer a defeat as he had “done the numbers” and the majority of the committee members didn’t want to be seen to be changing their minds all the time and would not support his motion, even if they privately agreed with it.
Dr Murray, who had been appointed as surgeon, and who had been given leave of absence for 6 months from the Melbourne Hospital, left on 12 December and joined Howitt in Swan Hill. Howitt’s party left Swan Hill on 14 December and had reached Balranald by 22 December 1861 after being delayed at Talbot’s punt on the Wakool when a pack-horse galloped off into the bush. He spent three days searching the mallee before giving up on the horse.
King in Melbourne
King was still a popular attraction in Melbourne. On 27 December he was honored by the East Collingwood (as it was known at the time) council at a special function at their council chambers. Also in attendance was one of the founders of Melbourne, John Pascoe Fawner – a fascinating reminder that Marvelous Melbourne as it was to soon be known was still only 27 years old.
And the pressure was on for King to become a sideshow curio, with George Coppin, a successful entrepreneur and showman who ran an amusement park in Cremorne (Richmond) from where some of the camels for the original expedition were purchased, offering King £1000 to be a travelling speaker (exhibit more likely) for 12 months. In another connection to Burke and Wills, Coppin also owned the Princess Theatre where Burke’s alleged love Julia Mathews was playing when Burke left on the expedition. King declined the offer and even offered to accompany Howitt back to Coopers Creek – now that is dedication
And while the Exploration Committee roundly condemned Coppin as a “charlatan and a showman” for making such an offering to King, it grossly embarrassed itself by failing to pay King’s wages for two months, forcing him to rely on charity. The committee’s excuse is a classic – King hadn’t applied for the wages on the appropriate forms!
The Commission of Inquiry completes its hearings
The Commission of Inquiry completed its hearings in December 1861, with hearings on 5, 10, 12, and 30 December. The last day’s hearing was specifically convened to hear evidence from Beckler who had been summoned to appear but who was in far north South Australia at the time and needed to travel to Melbourne via Adelaide.
On 5 December, King was extensively questioned on all aspects of the expedition, Brahe was recalled to confirm that he was compelled to abandon the Coopers Creek depot by Patton’s illness, Mueller was examined on his role in organising the expedition and his previous exploration experience in the Gulf country with Gregory, and Howitt was examined on observations he had gained about the nature of the country traversed and the difficulties experienced in leading the Victorian Contingent Party to Coopers Creek.
On 10 December the main witness was Wright who was extensively questioned on matters relating to his leadership of the Supply Party from Menindee towards Coopers Creek, and most importantly on his delay prior to departing Menindee. Other witnesses called were Smith (who accompanied Wright), and Wecker (the storekeeper at Menindee) who gave evidence about the operation of the mail between Menindee and Melbourne.
On 12 December, Wright was briefly re-examined on details of the missing letter Wright stated he wrote to the Exploration Committee in early December 1860 advising them of his appointment as 3rd in command by Burke and seeking the Exploration Committee’s confirmation of the appointment, and then Sir William Stawell, Chief Justice of the Colony, and chair of the Exploration Committee was examined on the actions taken by the Committee in establishing and running the expedition. Landells was then called to the witness box, but as he refused to give any evidence until those in the expedition party who had criticized him were present; he was subsequently discharged without giving any evidence. Thomas Dick, a publican from Swan Hill who knew Gray before he was engaged by Burke at Swan Hill gave character evidence about him. Wright was recalled and questioned further on why he had delayed his departure from Menindee, and King was recalled and gave evidence that they had left some items visible at the Depot Camp on their return from the gulf, with the inference that Wright and Brahe should have noticed then when they made their trip back to the depot from the Bulloo River. Brahe was briefly questioned by Dr Wills (Wills father) on why he had brought some of Wills spare clothes back from Coopers Creek, and also to confirm that Wills was not responsible for the loss of some camels at Coopers Creek (subsequently also confirmed by King when he was recalled). Finally, Macadam gave evidence for the Royal Society that they didn’t respond to correspondence from members of the expedition party other than Burke as the Royal Society had given instructions to party members that all correspondence should have been addressed through Burke, but as Wright pointed out under cross examination of Macadam, the key issue under question was not whether dispatches came through the leader or were acknowledged, but whether the Royal Society knew of the progress of the expedition through these pieces of correspondence irrespective of how the Royal Society received them.
On 30 December 1861, Beckler, who had finally arrived from South Australia, was extensively examined on his knowledge of Burke’s intentions when leaving Menindee, and also on the conduct of the Supply Party of which he was a member. The last witness was Mueller who asked to be recalled to clarify some earlier evidence he had given about his assumptions about the specific location where Burke and Wills had reached the Gulf of Carpentaria.
The hearings then concluded and the Commissioners retired to prepare their report.
Progress report on the other relief expeditions
On 4th December Walker’s Victorian Relief Expedition discovered the blazed trees that marked Burke’s most northerly camp, Camp CXIX. From here, Walker headed across the Gulf to meet Commander Norman and the HCMS Victoria and report the news.
On the 7 December, Walker met Commander Norman at the Albert River. Walker reported the finding of Burke’s camp and resupplied, intending to follow Burke’s tracks down to Eyre Creek and then to Adelaide.
On 21 December 1861, Walker’s party left Captain Norman and headed off to the south to follow Burke’s tracks. Walker and Norman had planned to meet at a designated spot on the Flinders River on 29 December, and while both parties attempted the rendezvous, it was unsuccessful, possibly because the place they had nominated was inundated by the spring tides. Norman wrote in his report that there was an understanding between them that:
“it was distinctly understood that, should any accident or unforeseen circumstance prevent my being at the place of meeting at the appointed time, he was not to remain longer than four days after the date specified, but to carry out his instructions, and follow up Burke’s track.”
After starting from the Albert on 15 November, Landsborough headed SW and followed the Gregory River until he reached the main Barkly Range which he named after the Victorian Governor. Further south on 20 December 1861, he discovered the Georgina River near current day Camooweal, and two lakes he named Lake Frances and Lake Mary.
Now that McKinlay had received the tragic news about Burke and Wills death from Hodgkinson, McKinlay took two men and two aborigines to the Cooper to see if Howitt had arrived. They visited Wills grave on 6 December, and Burke’s grave on 7 December, where they left a document for any following parties outlining the news of the deaths of Burke and Wills and the Victorian Government’s intention to return the bodies to Melbourne: and to establish a depot to await the arrival of either Landsborough and Walker. McKinlay’s despatch also outlined that he would leave notes at suitable locations as he travelled to the north and east to inform the other relief parties of the situation
McKinlay then returned to his camp at Lake Perigundi. On 17 December 1861, McKinlay’s party left to explore the lakes region around Lake Moolionburinna. McKinlay named Lake Hodgkinson and on New Years Eve 1861 he named Lake Lady Blanche and Lake Sir Richard after the Governor of South Australia and his wife.
Next month: The Commission of Inquiry prepares its report and the Exploration Committee insult King (again!)