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Burke and Wills Report December 1861 – Howitt arrives in Melbourne and is sent straight back to retrieve the bodies, and the blame game continues

Burke and Wills Report – a monthly update on the progress of the Victorian Exploring Expedition 150 years ago

December 1861

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!)


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Burke and Wills Report – Travelling down Coopers Creek

Burke and Wills Report – a weekly update on the progress of the Victorian Exploring Expedition 150 years ago

14 November

Travelling down Coopers Creek

The Advance Party continued to move down Coopers Creek, staying a couple of nights at each camp site.  Burke and Wills set up their first depot on Coopers Creek at Camp 63 on 20 November, where they remained for a fortnight.  Wills described it as…

“a fine hole about a mile long, and on the average one chain and a half [30m] broad.  It exceeds five feet in depth everywhere I tried it, except within 3 or 4 feet of the bank.”

Meanwhile, life back at the Depot at Menindee seemed fairly settled, and Wright certainly gave no indication on his return from Torowoto Swamp that Burke had requested he immediately depart from Menindee and follow them up.  There were fortnightly mail runs to Melbourne from Menindee, and Becker wrote to Macadam on 14 November  describing how, as well as making drawings of shells and ants, and meteorological observations, he was…

“writing a monography of the plague of Australia, the Fly, with numerous drawings, then the substance and contents of the soil surrounding the Darling.”

Becker also advised that they were preparing dried meat from 3 bullocks they had killed to replace the dried meat that was found to be rotten when it arrived at Menindee.

And Lyons and McPherson were still riding north trying to catch up with the Advance Party with the dispatch from the Royal Society!

Back in Melbourne, the search for a replacement doctor continued.  The Exploration Committee met on the afternoon of Saturday 17 November, and there were eight applications for the position, including one from Wills father, Dr Wills…

Tuesday November 13 1860

To the Hon. Secy. of the Royal Society
In the event of there not being a more eligible offer, I beg to tender my services to the Exploration Committee to go as surgeon to the expedition, without any reservation as to command in any way. I would positively refuse to supersede my son as second, indeed it is on his accounts I desire to join the expedition, knowing well that he has a head that will serve him and the party under any emergency.

I am fifty six, active and healthy as at any time of my life and can undergo privations; have been in active practice above thirty years, came out as surgeon and superintendent of the Lady Kenaway emigrant ship in ’53 and therefore (am) duly qualified. If my offer be entertained I will at once come down, only requesting that my expenses to and from Melbourne should be paid in the event of my not being engaged.

I have the honor to be, Sir, your most humble servant,

Wm. Wills

Dr Wills also wrote to the committee that his son had received a medical education but had subsequently abandoned the idea of entering the medical profession.  Mueller commented that he knew Beckler well, and that he wouldn’t leave the party until a replacement was made.  The Chairman, William Stawell advised that he approved of the appointment of Stuart, if it could be arranged.  After some discussion the committee passed the following motion unanimously…

1. “That the committee do refrain at present from making a selection from the applications submitted

2. That the committee communicate to Mr. Burke the conditions upon which Dr Stuart is willing to accompany the expedition and that Dr Beckler be requested to remain with the party until his successor is appointed”

What “Noddyland” were the Exploration Committee living in?  What a complete “non – decision”.  Burke and Wills were currently travelling down Coopers Creek – it would take at least 10 days for the dispatch to get to Menindee and another month at least to get to Burke at Coopers Creek, if he was still there; then Burke would have to provide his reply back to Melbourne.   So it would take a minimum of three months before a decision could be made! And all of this in the middle of summer, and the Advance Party was already struggling from lack of water north of Menindee.

Next week:  Searching for a way north from Coopers Creek

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Burke and Wills Report – Which way to go? The choice of route still not settled!

Burke and Wills Report – a weekly update on the progress of the Victorian Exploring Expedition 150 years ago

25 July

Which way to go?  The choice of route still not settled!

The Royal Society , and its predecessor the Philosophical Institute had been debating the possible route for the Victorian Exploring Expedition for at least three years prior to 1860 and were still debating it a month before it was due to start!

Mueller had speculated on possible routes in a compelling and detailed speech to the Philosophical Institute of Victoria on Wednesday, 25th November 1857 where he has outlined the history of exploration in Australia to that time.

“The examination of the country north-west of Lake Torrens, we should leave to its own colonists after the noble manifestations in South Australia for enterprises of this nature. To the northward, however, of this colony, we may observe a large extent of country situated between the Lachlan and the Darling, and a greater still enclosed by the Darling, the Warrego, the Barcoo and Grey and Barrier Ranges, an area, indeed, equal in extent to that of the whole colony of Victoria, hitherto almost totally unexplored.

“This country, although belonging politically to New South Wales, will on account of its geographical position hereafter supply its produce to the auriferous northern districts of our own province, and claims, therefore, particularly since the Lower Darling navigation has been accomplished, our full attention. I am aware that what we know of the interior in that direction seems discouraging to any future exertions. although, perhaps, not more so than in any other line of exploration, which we could adopt with equal facility.”

Soon after Mueller’s speech the Philosophical Society formed the Exploration Committee on 22 December 1857, with two initial options’ considered – chartering a boat to the north coast of WA, or employ the experienced explorer Augustus Gregory to lead small, light party from the Darling River and head north.

In the Inaugural Address to the Royal Society on 10 April 1860, the Governor of Victoria Sir Henry Barkly was confident that the route to be from Melbourne northwards to a depot at Coopers Creek  and then north to either the Gulf of Carpentaria or Arnheim Land…

“The committee has prudently decided that nothing shall be attempted during the approaching winter, which would have been too far spent ere the exploring party could have reached its starting point; but I trust that every pains will be taken in the spring to organise and equip an expedition worthy of this colony, and that by the commencement of the ensuing summer it will be on its way, under a leader of approved ability, to the Depôt selected upon Cooper’s Creek as the basis of its operations, so as to be ready to take advantage of the first rains that may fall, to prosecute its researches.”

“The precise direction of these must necessarily be left a good deal to the discretion of the leader to be chosen. Were not something more than a mere bush ride across the continent to the westward of Lake Torrens, where that daring veteran Stuart, and my no less gallant friend the Governor of South Australia, have already penetrated country which seems to promise a passage to the north. My own opinion has, however, always been in favor of directing the earlier efforts of the expedition to ascertaining the exact eastern limits of the Great Desert, with a view to crossing as directly as possible to the Gulf of Carpentaria, or to Arnheim’s Land, the great promontory by which the western shore of that gulf is formed.”

However, not all members of the Exploration Committee were so sure, and on 23 July 1860, the Royal Society vigorously discussed the various options for the start of the expedition, Blunder Bay, Port Augusta or Coopers Creek.  Thomas Embling supported starting at Blunder Bay (on the north coast of Western Australia) or Port Augusta rather than Cooper Creek.  Burke had already advised the Exploration Committee that the SS Chinsurah (which had brought the camels to Melbourne) was available to take the camels to Blunder Bay.  When questioned on the ability of the camels to undertake the sea voyage and then a journey of 800 miles, Landells replied he had no doubts to their ability; after all he had already reported to the Exploration Committee on 17 July 1860 that they would only need a fortnight or three weeks to recover when landed at Blunder Bay.

Neumayer supported starting at Port Augusta as it provided the shortest route across the continent, and he was supported by Selwyn.   Wilkie preferred a leisurely survey to Cooper Creek. Iffla said the Royal Society preferred Cooper Creek and it would be better for the camels rather than the long sea voyage. The very influential Mueller retracted his support for starting at Blunder Bay and proposed Cooper Creek. He mentioned the settlements in South Australia near Lake Torrens as a safe retreat from Cooper Creek. Finally, Stawell moved, Smith seconded, that “the expedition be sent to Cooper’s Creek by easy stages” and then at “leader’s discretion”, and the motion was carried by a majority of 5 (14 votes).

So the starting point was agreed – or was it?  One of the members of the Exploration Committee, Thomas Embling, wasn’t happy with the decision and raised the matter in parliament on 1 and 2 August 1860, where there were heated discussions.  Embling asserted that a major problem with starting at Coopers Creek was having to walk the camels 775 miles from Melbourne before the exploration started, and also there was uncertainty of water supply in the upper Darling region at the time of year the party would reach there – summer.   Embling advised that Blunder Bay was the preferred starting point of Sturt, Gregory and Burke, and a ship was available for immediate departure.  Embling advised Parliament that Landells also supported the route and had stated that the camels could traverse the desert from Gregory’s most southerly point (in Western Australian) to Sturt’s most northerly  (in NSW) in 6 days with the fleetest of camels.  Macadam stated that Embling had had ample opportunity to put his views to the Royal Society  but he wasn’t a regular attendee, and that both the Blunder Bay and Port Augusta options had been considered and dismissed.  He advised that the benefit of the proposed route was that it would open up a tract of land 400 miles long by 250 miles wide between Darling and Coopers Creek.  In the end, after much “to and fro” the motion to change the start at Blunder Bay was lost, and the starting point was finally settled as Coopers Creek, 3 weeks before the expedition started!

But if you thought choosing a starting point was hard work you should read the instructions given to Burke about which way to go!  I can’t even start to summarise them so here they are in full below.  No wonder they got lost!

Exploration Committee,
Royal Society of Victoria,

18th August, 1860.

Sir – I am directed by the Committee to convey to you the instructions and views which have been adopted in connection with the duties which devolve upon you as Leader of the party now organised to explore the interior of Australia.

The Committee having decided on Cooper’s Creek, of Sturt’s, as the basis of your operations, request that you will proceed thither, form a depôt of provisions and stores, and make arrangements for keeping open a communication in your rear to the Darling, if in your opinion advisable; and thence to Melbourne, so that you maybe enabled to keep the Committee informed of your movements, and receive in return the assistance in stores and advice of which you may stand in need. Should you find that a better communication can be made by way of the South Australian Police Station, near Mount Serle, you will avail yourself of that means of writing to the Committee.

In your route to Cooper’s Creek, you will avail yourself of any opportunity that may present itself for examining and reporting on, the character of the country east and west of the Darling.

You will make arrangements for carrying the stores to a point opposite Mount McPherson, which seems to the Committee to be the best point of departure from this river for Cooper’s Creek; and while the main body of the party is proceeding to that point you may have farther opportunities of examining the country on either side of your route.

In your further progress from Mount McPherson towards Cooper’s Creek, the Committee also desires that you should make further detours to the right and left with the same object.

The object of the Committee in directing you to Cooper’s Creek is, that you should explore the country intervening between it and Leichhardt’s track, south of the Gulf of Carpentaria, avoiding as far as practicable, Sturt’s route on the west, and Gregory’s, down the Victoria, on the east.

To this object the Committee wishes you to devote your energies in the first instance; but should you determine the impracticability of this route you are desired to turn west-ward into the country recently discovered by Stuart, and connect his farthest point northward with Gregory’s farthest Southern Exploration in 1856 (Mount Wilson).

In proceeding from Cooper’s Creek to Stuart’s Country, you may find the Salt Marshes an obstacle to the progress of the camels; if so, it is supposed you will be able to avoid these marshes by turning to the northward as far as Eyre’s Creek, where there is permanent water, and going then west-ward to Stuart’s Farthest.

Should you, however, fail in connecting the two points of Stuart’s and Gregory’s Farthest, or should you ascertain that this space has been already traversed, you are requested if possible to connect your explorations with those of the younger Gregory, in the vicinity of Mount Gould, and thence you might proceed to Sharks Bay, or down the River Murchison, to the settlements in Western Australia.

This country would afford the means of recruiting the strength of your party, and you might, after a delay of five or six months, be enabled, with the knowledge of the country you shall have previously acquired, to return by a more direct route through South Australia to Melbourne.

If you should, however, have been successful in connecting Stuart’s with Gregory’s farthest point in 1856 (Mount Wilson), and your party should be equal to the task, you would probably find it possible from thence to reach the country discovered by the younger Gregory.

The Committee is fully aware of the difficulty of the country you are called on to traverse; and in giving you these instructions has placed these routes before you more as an indication of what it has been deemed desirable to have accomplished than as indicating any exact course for you to pursue.

The Committee considers you will find a better and a safer guide in the natural features of the country through which you will have to pass. For all useful and practical purposes it will ‘be better for you and the object of future settlement that you should follow the watercourses and the country yielding herbage, than pursue any route which the Committee might be able to sketch out from an imperfect map of Australia.

The Committee entrusts you with the largest discretion as regards the forming of depôts, and your movements generally, but request that you will mark your routes as permanently as possible, by leaving records, sowing seeds, building cairns, and marking trees at as many points as possible, consistently with your various other duties.

With reference to financial subjects, you will be furnished with a letter of authority to give orders on the Treasurer for the payment of any stores or their transport cattle, sheep, or horses you may require; and you will not fail to furnish the Treasurer from time to time with detailed accounts of the articles for which you have given such orders in payment.

Each person of the party will be allowed to give authority for half of his salary being paid into any bank, or to any person he may appoint to receive the same; provided a certificate is forwarded from you to the effect that he has efficiently discharged his duty.

The Committee requests that you will make arrangements for an exact account being taken of the stores and their expenditure by the person you place in charge of them.

The Committee also requests that you would address all your communications on subjects connected with the exploration to the Honorary Secretary; and that all persons acting with you should forward their communications on the same subject through you.

You will cause full reports to be furnished by your officers on any subject of interest, and forward them to Melbourne as often as may be practicable without retarding the progress of the expedition.

The Committee has caused the inclosed set of instructions to be drawn up, having relation to each department of science; and you are requested to hand each gentleman a copy of the part more particularly relating to his department.

I have the honour to be,
Your most obedient servant,
John Macadam,
Honorary Secretary, EC, RSV.

Robert O’Hara Burke, Esq.
Leader, Victorian Exploring Expedition.

Next Week – Where the heck is the competition?

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Burke and Wills Report – The German Connection

Burke and Wills Report – a weekly update on the progress of the Victorian Exploring Expedition 150 years ago

18 July

The German connection

Germans were prominent in Melbourne in the 1850’s and there is a strong German connection to the Victorian Exploring Expedition with many influential Germans supporting the expedition, and three Germans participating.  Also, the leader was almost a German as well!

Baron Ferdinand von Mueller

Baron  Ferdinand von Mueller was Victorian Government Botanist & Director of Melbourne Botanic Gardens.  He had explored Victoria extensively while undertaken botanical surveys in the early 1850s and was Botanist on Augustus Gregory’s Northern Australian Exploring Expedition that started from the Victoria River region of north-west Australia in 1854 and travelled across the top end and northern Queensland to Brisbane.    Mueller was Vice President of the Philosophical Institute in 1858 and President in 1859.   Mueller gave a speech* to the Philosophical Society about the history of exploration in Australia in November 1857 and was a member of the Exploration Fund Raising Committee for the Victorian Exploring Expedition.  Mueller later sponsored Ernest Giles on his unsuccessful expedition in 1874 to attempt to cross from central Australia to the west coast of Australia.

*  see a copy at

George Neumayer

As we have already seen, George Neumayer (the founder and Director of the Melbourne Magnetic Observatory) had considerable influence in the Exploration Committee, and his friendship with William John Wills (who he employed as an assistant at the Observatory) made it easier for Wills to get a place on the expedition. From March 1858, Neumayer carried on the systematic registration of meteorological and nautical data, as well as atmospheric electricity and changes in the magnetic elements. Neumayer did a large amount of travelling in Victoria in connection with his magnetic survey of the colony, including accompanying the Victorian Exploring Expedition on part of its way through Victoria.  Neumayer returned to Germany in 1864 and went on to become a polar explorer and scientist who conceived the idea of international cooperation for meteorology and scientific observation.

Hermann Beckler

Beckler, the expedition doctor and botanical collector, was born in 1828 in Bavaria, and after completing his medical training in Munich he arrived in Moreton Bay in February 1856. He lacked the money to buy medical equipment and doctor’s licence for NSW and became interested in collecting new botanical specimens travelling through southern Queensland and northern NSW. He eventually arrived in Melbourne in January 1859, and joined Mueller on excursions collecting plant specimens in south-eastern Australia. Beckler was appointed Botanical Observer to the Victorian Exploring Expedition on the recommendation of a work colleague at the Melbourne Hospital, Dr William Gilbee (a member of the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria).

See Beckler’s application at

Ludwig Becker

Ludwig Becker was the only member of the Royal Society to go on the Victorian Exploring Expedition. He had an established reputation in Melbourne as a scientist and artist. He had twenty-six scientific papers published on such varied topics as ornithology, zoology, astronomy, mineralogy and geology. Becker’s biggest rival for a place on the expedition was another German, Gerhard Krefft, who was much younger and had exploration experience. However Krefft withdrew his application when he received the permanent position of Assistant Curator at the Australian Museum in Sydney. In 1860 Becker was already 52 years old, but had accompanied Ferdinand von Mueller and Georg Neumayer on scientific journeys.  Robert Burke did not want Becker on the expedition as he thought it would make the trip to the Gulf of Carpentaria look easy if a 52-year-old completed it, but Becker had powerful supporters, including the Governor of Victoria, Sir Henry Barkly as well as Mueller and Neumayer. Burke treated Becker harshly through the expedition as you will see as the journey rolls on.

See Becker’s applications at

Wilhelm Brahe

Wilhelm Brahe was born in Prussia in 1835 and arrived in Victoria in 1852, working mainly as a gold miner, carrier and drover. He was appointed as a labourer on the expedition mainly through the influence of Georg Neumayer, who knew his brother Wilhelm Alexander Brahe well. Brahe played a key role in the tragedy that was to unfold on the expedition

See Brahe’s application at

Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky

And the expedition almost had a German leader!  One of the 15 applicants for the position of expedition leader was Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky, a Prussian born in 1828. He claimed in his application to have 13 years experience of all types of travel, “on foot, on horseback, with waggons, in canoes, at sea or on rivers”. He had “fought Indians, Blacks, White and Redskins”, and had developed the skills for “commanding men and keeping them in good order”. He had been educated in a Berlin military academy, and at the age of 18 had been given leadership of an expedition in Central America. Through the late 1840s and the 1850s he had an adventurous life in Central America and on the Californian goldfields, prior to coming to Victoria in 1858 to try his luck, unsuccessfully, at Bendigo.  Von Tempsky was keen to lead the Victorian Exploring Expedition and many members of the Exploration Committee were impressed with him. However, extensive lobbying by a supporter of Burke meant von Tempsky received no votes in the final ballot and he didn’t even take part in the expedition. He went to New Zealand when gold was discovered there and died in the Maori Wars as the leader of a government guerrilla unit.

See von Tempsky’s application at

Next week – Which way to go?  The choice of route still not settled!

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Burke and Wills Report – The birth of an idea

A weekly update on the progress of the Victorian Exploring Expedition 150 years ago

The audacious idea of a Victorian expedition to traverse the largely unexplored interior of Australia was born when 1857 when Dr David Wilkie of The Philosophical Institute of Victoria suggests an exploration party across Australia.  The Philosophical Institute didn’t have the capacity to raise the necessary funds themselves, but established an Exploration Committee of 32 members to consider the proposal.  The Exploration Committee consisted of important members of scientific community, ministers, merchants, professors and politicians.  The German community in Melbourne was well represented.  The Exploration Committee met at Mechanics Institute in Collins St Melbourne and considered two options – sail by boat to north coast of WA and travel to the south east, or employ the explorer A C Gregory to lead a small, light party from the Darling River area.

In a great boost to the fledgling idea, the Melbourne Argus newspaper reported on 19 August 1858 that an anonymous donor (later identified as Ambrose Kyte) had offered ₤1000 towards the expedition providing public subscription raised a further ₤2000. Shortly afterwards at a public meeting held at Mechanics Institute on 31 August 1858, the Exploration Fund Committee , coincidentally comprising only of members of the Philosophical Institute, was formed  Institute.

Fund raising activities were undertaken for almost a year and were spurred on in July 1859 when the South Australian government announced a reward of ₤2000 to “the first person who shall succeed in crossing through the country … to either the north or north-western shores of the Australian continent”.

By early 1860 the Exploration Fund Committee had raised the extra ₤2000 through public subscription, and applied to government for ₤6000, which was approved by Chief Justice Sir William Stawell.

At a meeting of some of the subscribers to Exploration Fund Committee at Mechanics Institute, Collins St on 22 January 1860 it was reported that ₤6000 had been voted by the Victorian Legislative Assembly to supplement the ₤3000 collected from the public. The Exploration Fund Committee agreed to transfer the funds to the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria (which the Philosophical Institute had recently become) on the proviso that the following members of the Exploration Fund Committee become members of the Exploration Committee – Hodgson, McCoy, Mueller, Smith, Macadam, Wilkie, and Hodgkinson.  The meeting noted that the committee needed to move quickly so the expedition could start in February 1860 (despite their being no leader, no route selected and no camels).

On 25 January 1860, the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria met.  The meeting voted Chief Justice Sir William Stawell chairman and Hodgson Vice Chair.  Other office bearers appointed were Wilkie (Treasurer) and Macadam (Secretary).  Other appointments made to Exploration Committee were Baron Ferdinand von  Mueller (Royal Society President ), Ligar (Surveyor General), Hodgkinson (Deputy Surveyor General), Dr Eades (Mayor of Melbourne), Rev Blendsdale (Royal Society Vice President), Angus McMillan MLA, Prof McCoy, Prof Neumayer, James Smith, Dr Mackenna, Sizar Elliott JP,  John Watson JP, and Dr Gillbee.

A motion was moved by von Mueller and seconded by Macadam to invite Warburton to be interviewed as leader.  Wilkie suggested a delay until the Chief Secretary could be consulted.  The meeting proposed that a deputation meet with Chief Secretary.  Look out for a later post on the process of leadership selection!

Next  post – The camels arrive in Melbourne

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