Explorers Burke & Wills in Clare's Past

Updated: Mar 23, 2020

From Wikipedia and from the Northern Argus:

-- Australian Exploration -- Search for Burke and Wills -- Finding the Explorers' Remains -- -- The Clare Connection -- Burke & Wills Funeral -- Read More --

Nicholas Chevalier - The Start of the Exploring Expedition 1860

Australian Exploration

The famous Burke and Wills expedition was organised by the Royal Society of Victoria in Australia in 1860–61.

The Burke & Wills expedition leaves Melbourne in 1860
  • It consisted of 19 men led by Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills, with the objective of crossing Australia from Melbourne in the south, to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, a distance of around 3,250 kilometres (approximately 2,000 miles).[1]

  • At that time most of the inland of Australia had not been explored by non-Indigenous people and was largely unknown to the European settlers.

On the 20th August 1860, a party on 19 men under the command of Robert O’Hara Burke departed Melbourne with a crowd of around 15,000 spectators cheering the party on as they set off from Royal Park.

  • The expedition left Melbourne in winter. Bad weather, poor roads and broken-down wagons meant they made slow progress at first.

  • After dividing the party at Menindee on the Darling River Burke made good progress, reaching Cooper Creek at the beginning of summer.

  • The expedition established a depot camp at the Cooper, and Burke, Wills and two other men pushed on to the north coast (although swampland stopped them from reaching the northern coastline).

Burke and Wills at the 'Dig Tree' near Cooper Creek

The return journey was plagued by delays and monsoon rains, and when they reached the depot at Cooper Creek, they found it had been abandoned just hours earlier.


  • Burke and Wills died on or about 30 June 1861.


Search for Burke and Wills

From: The Recovery of Burke and Wills Remains - Clare’s link. Saturday, Dec 08, 2012 at 21:29 Member - Stephen L (Clare SA)


(After) many months had lapsed, and with the lack of correspondence from the Victorian Exploring Expedition, the public wanted answers as to the fate of party that had left Melbourne as heroes just 10 months previously.


Such concerns were now National and a total of six expeditions were sent out to search for Burke's party,

  • On the 13th June 1861 the Exploration Committee agreed to send a search party in the hope of finding the final fate of the party.

  • two such explorations were commissioned by the Exploration Committee,

  • three by the Royal Society of Victoria and

  • one by the South Australian Government.


On the 15th September 1861 the party’s surveyor, Edwin Weich was riding along the banks of the Cooper looking for any signs of the men that they were sent to look for.

  • A group of Aboriginals on the opposite bank noticed Weich, and started to immediately shout out and made all efforts to get the attention of Weich, which they succeeded in doing.

  • Crossing the Cooper Creek the group of Aboriginals then scattered in all directions, leaving one man behind in an almost state of death, covered in what was described as scarecrow rags and part of a hat.

  • Dismounting from his horse, Weich asked the near death person his name, to which the man replied ‘I am King sir, the last man of the Exploring Expedition’


Finding the Explorers' Remains

The first remains to be found were those of William John Wills in a gunyah that King had described.

  • Reading a verse from the Bible, Howitt buried the remains of Wills and marked a tree at the spot.

  • When they found the remains of Robert O’Hara Burke, Howitt wrapped the remaining bones of Burke in a Union Jack flag and buried them in the sand and again, he blazed a nearby tree marking the final resting spot of Burke.

  • Altogether, seven men lost their lives, and only one man, the Irish soldier John King, crossed the continent with the expedition and returned alive to Melbourne. Read more at Wikipedia

Robert O'Hara Burke and William Wills in trouble

When the news reached Melbourne that Burke and Wills were dead and buried on the Cooper, debate raged about the proper resting place of the heroes' bones.


  • It was decided they should be reburied with all honours in Melbourne and

  • Alfred Howitt, who had found and buried them on the Cooper Creek, was sent back there to retrieve them.

  • The custom of the day favoured a variety of funerary souvenirs, and Howitt collected locks of the explorers' hair and specimens of nardoo from their last campsite.


On his return journey he was met in almost every township and village he passed through by crowds and delegations wishing to pay homage to the bones of Burke and Wills.


A unique re-enactment of the retrieval of the remains of these famous Australian explorers occurred on 8 –9 Dec 2012, departing from Bungaree, to Clare, Penwortham, and Rhynie, in the Mid-North of South Australia.

In Melbourne the remains lay in state in the hall of the Royal Society for two weeks in January 1863, where they were viewed by more than 100,000 people, out of a total city population of 120,000.


The Clare Connection

From: Northern Argus (Clare, SA : 1869 - 1954) Fri 10 Oct 1941 Page 4

The proprietor and editor of the Perth 'Sunday Times' and 'Western Press, Limited' (Mr. J. J. Symons) — an old Clare boy — has written a long letter to 'Clarion,' giving reminiscences of the days of early Clare, and wishing all success to the embryonic plans for the celebration of its 100 years in 1942.


  • In this letter, about 11 columns in length, Mr. Symons refers to an old Clare legend that the bodies of the famous explorers, Burke and Wills, were disinterred at Cooper's Creek in 1861, and brought via Clare by A.W. Howitt to Adelaide and Melbourne.

  • He goes on to tell how the funeral party, it is said, rested for some time beneath a big red gum tree on the old brewery flat (near the Bowling and Swimming Clubs).

Alfred William Howitt circa 1861

Point is lent to this data by authentic details recently taken in a Melbourne Hospital of the dying depositions of a 90 year-old man — who told a journalist of the 'Sydney Sun'—

  • 'that when 16 years of age in 1861, because of his knowledge of Northern waterholes, he guided the party that carried the mortal remains of Burke and Wills back to civilization from Cooper's Creek, as far as Clare.'

  • I read how a member of the expedition, A. W. Howitt, had led the party on the last sad journey and in 1934 the Melbourne and Sydney papers told a story which confirmed the early Clare legend.

A man named George Robertson, then a few weeks short of 90 years of age, was in a Melbourne hospital and he told how in 1861 when he was a lad of 16 years of age he acted as guide to Howitt. It seems that Robertson met Howitt, when, after the death of Burke and Wills, he was bringing the surviving member of the expedition — named King — back to civilization.


  • This is the way Robertson told the story: —

'I had met Howitt when he was taking King home,' and when he came to Mt. Margaret, where I was looking after some horses, and asked me to go with him as guide. I was only a boy of 16 and went like a shot.' 'When we had got the remains, Howitt asked me to pilot him to civilization, because I knew all the waterholes, and I took him as far as Clare.'


When Howitt finally left the Cooper Creek they arrived at Blanchewater on the 22nd October and rested the horse and camels there, while still trying to find a quicker way back to Victoria.


  • The initial search took them east with the hope of finding a way through the Grey Ranges and then through to the Darling and Charles Sturt’s Depot at Providence Creek,

  • but again the lack of water forced them to retrace their track and head back to Blanchewater.


Burke & Wills Funeral

Burke and Wills Funeral Car [picture]

Finally on the 22nd November 1862 the party made their final push south to the settled northern areas of South Australia.

  • Sixteen days after leaving Blanchewater, the retrieval party arrived in Clare around 1.00pm on Monday 8th December 1862 and were greeted by hundreds of mourners that lined Main North Road.

  • As the party passed, people bowed their heads and wore black armbands.


Alfred Howitt and Dr Murray then went ahead to Adelaide, arriving the next day, Tuesday 9th December.

  • Arriving in Adelaide, the pair were invited to a banquet dinner to honour John McKinlay.

  • As the remainder of the party made their way south, public interest was so high that flags were lowered to half mast and shops shut to mark their respect for the death of these two great explorers.

Arriving at Kapunda the retrieval party with the remains boarded a train and arrived in Adelaide with the remains of Burke and Wills on Friday 12 December 1862.

Burke and Wills' funeral - State Library Victoria

With the remains safely back in Melbourne, a State Funeral, (the First State Funeral in Australia) was finally held on the 21st January 1863 that attracted a crowd of around forty-thousand mourners.

  • The Dean of Melbourne, the Reverend Hussey Burgh Macartney read the burial service and

  • the coffins were then lowered into the vault followed by a volley of three shots by the Victorian Police before the vault was closed.


Read More:

  1. Wikipedia - Burke and Wills expedition

  2. State Library of Victoria -- Dig: the Burke & Wills research gateway

  3. State Library of Victoria -- Burke and Wills' funeral

  4. Member - Stephen L (Clare SA) The Recovery of Burke and Wills Remains - Clare’s link. Saturday, Dec 08, 2012 at 21:29

  5. Clare Re-enactment of ‘The Burke and Wills remains retrieval cavalcade'

  6. Burke and Wills Web Digital Research Archive


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