The SANDS OF TIME Collection – 19. Dig

19. Dig
Robert O’Hara Burke & William John Wills — 900 x 680 mm
© Robert Morgan


Burke was born into a wealthy Irish Protestant family, educated at the Woolwich Academy and briefly signed up with the Austrian Army before joining the Irish Mounted Constabulary in 1848.  In 1853, after five years in the Irish police force, Burke emigrated to Australia.  He arrived in Tasmania but soon moved to Victoria where he was appointed Inspector at Carlsruhe and later Superintendent at Beechworth.

It was clear that Burke wanted to achieve fame.  Throughout the 1850’s he made various attempts to distinguish himself but fame eluded him.  In 1856 he returned to Europe to fight in the Crimean War but by the time he arrived the war was over.  In 1858, while with the Castlemaine constabulary, he fell in love with a stage actress named Julia Matthews but she rejected his advances.  In 1860 his desire for fame had a more tangible result when he was chosen by the Victorian Government and Royal Society to lead the Great Northern Exploration Expedition from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria.  On the 20th August, 1860, laden down with six tons of firewood, food for two years, horses, wagons, twenty-four camels and camel drivers, Burke and fifteen officers left Melbourne.  From the beginning the whole expedition was a disaster.  Burke had little knowledge of the Australian bush, he fought with his second-in-command, he abandoned vital supplies at Menindee, and he lacked clear leadership ability.

Burke, accompanied by Wills, King and Gray, pushed on to the Gulf of Carpentaria and arrived there in February 1861.  Gray died on the journey back and the three remaining men returned to their Coopers Creek camp only to find that the other explorers had left a few hours earlier.  Refusing food from the local Aborigines, Burke and Wills died in June 1861.  King accepted the food and survived to tell the story of the fated and ill-conceived expedition.


Born in Totnes, Devon, England, on 5 January 1834, ‘Jack’ Wills was educated at St Andrew’s Grammar School, Ashburton, from 1845 to 1850 before studying medicine under his father,  In 1853, having only partly completed his medical studies, Jack and his brother Thomas sailed Australia.  Soon after their arrival at Port Phillip they found jobs on a property near Deniliquin.

In late 1853 Dr William Wills arrived from England and set up a medical practice at Ballarat.  Jack worked for his father briefly before moving to the Wannon district where he studied surveying and astronomy.  In 1860, Robert O’Hara Burke chose Wills as the surveyor and astronomer on his ill-fated expedition.  The expedition left Melbourne on 20 August.  At Menindee Burke argued with George Landells, the second-in-command.  Landells was dismissed and Wills took his place.

Wills kept a diary for the whole of the journey.  This diary describes how the party arrived at Coopers Creek on 11 November, how Burke, Wills, King and Gray travelled to the Gulf of Carpentaria, how Gray died on 17 April, 1861, and how they arrived at Coopers Creek on 21 April to find that the waiting party had left that morning.  It describes how Burke, Wills and King battled on before starvation overtook them.  Wills wrote a letter to his father on 27 June 1861 and his diary entry is 29 June.  Wills was buried where his remains were found on 18 September 1861.  Later his remains were disinterred and taken to Melbourne where he was buried on 21 January 1863.  History has been critical of the Burke and Wills expedition although no criticism has levelled at Wills.

%d bloggers like this: