Burke and Wills – 150 years celebration

Burke and Wills – 150years celebration

When Burke and Wills rode away from the Royal Society building on the edge of what is now the city of Melbourne, there was not a lot of today’s North Melbourne for them to pass through. A letter to The Age written in the 1930s recalls that the party went along Shiel Street. The year was 1860. Melbourne itself was twenty-five years old and the Colony of Victoria, whose separation from New South Wales had been celebrated with a ball in a North Melbourne building, was nine. What there was of present day North Melbourne was contained within the area bounded by Flemington Road and Royal Park to the north, and to the. southwest by swamp lands and the Blue Lake, both of which disappeared altogether in the next few years. Hotham Hill and the land between today’s Dryburgh Street and the Moonee Ponds creek did not yet have any streets or houses. The Mattingley and Buncle families were residents and Hotham was already a place to be in the ebullient Melbourne of the Gold Rush era.

On the afternoon of August 21, nineteen men set out on the expedition. Some were dismissed on the way; others died; one came back alive. Of the six wagons that were to carry gear and provisions, two broke down before they got to Essendon on the evening of the first day. Some lucky people were able to help by taking away provisions that could no longer be carried to the inland, including (according to one family’s anecdote) flour and firewood.

Many of us grew up believing that Burke and Wills had starved to death, but they did not. They set out with enough food to last them for 27 days. They died because they had been living off ngardu seeds, fish and baked rats. If ngardu seeds are not cooked properly, the body loses Vitamin B1 (Thiamin), which causes beriberi deficiency and if the Vitamin B is not replaced, can lead to death. Despite their deaths, the expedition was hailed as a success because they reached the Gulf of Carpentaria and collected reliable scientific information along the way.

The event was a source of great local excitement. Father Bleasdale, the Catholic priest at St Mary’s Star of the Sea, had been an active member of the Exploration Committee and local residents were among the 15,000 who came out that afternoon to see the party off. Locals would later read about the deaths of Burke and Wills from The Argus newspaper of 4 November 1861. Some skipped work to be among the 40,000 at the state funeral which wound its way to the Melbourne General Cemetery in the January of 1863.

Robert O’Hara Burke, son of a Protestant Irish family from County Galway and the appointed leader of the expedition, had already served in the cavalry of the Austrian army and the Irish Mounted Constabulary before arriving in the Colony of Victoria. As Superintendent of Police in Castlemaine, Burke was familiar with the roads taken by so many hopeful gold seekers to the Mount Alexander goldfield. One local, Margaret Hogan (herself of another Galway family, some of whom lived for a time in Hotham), was fond in her later old age of telling her grandchildren (of whom I am one) that she had served Burke with beer. He was, she said, a man of charm and a great dancer.

In these ways, Burke’s second-in-command William John Wills did not compare favourably. Wills was a doctor’s son and immigrant from Devon in the south of England. Margaret, who was about eight when she saw him, always said he was dour. On arrival in Victoria as a boy, Wills had been a shepherd. As a young man, he studied surveying with Professor Georg Neumayer at the Melbourne observatory. Neumayer, one of the expedition’s organisers, had great confidence in his former student who was heading off to find out whether there was a sea in the centre of Australia.

So important has the story been that some spoke of their leaving as a major event in their lives. For example, a notice in The Hobart Mercury of January 7.1937, headed

SAW BURKE AND WILLS, states that Mr. Patrick Blake, of Maryborough, ‘who as a child saw the start of the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition’, had died aged 82 years.

The Whole affair has been variously commemorated over the years. Nearly a hundred years ago, The Argus of August 2 1918 described celebration plans: “Arrangements by the Early Pioneers’ Association for celebrating, on the afternoon of Wednesday August 20 the 53rd anniversary of the departure of Burke and Wills from Melbourne on the then unfortunate mission to explore Central Australia are almost completed.

The proceedings Will begin at a quarter past 2 o clock. The Lord Mayor (Councillor Hennessy) will preside and give an address. The Federal Treasurer (Sir John Forrest) will take part in the demonstration. The Secretary (Mr.W Smithers Gadd) is anxious to send invitations to the relations of the late explorers. The Early Pioneers’ Association have taken the Temperance Hall for Wednesday evening August 20, when Professor Baldwin Spencer will give a lecture entitled “Across Australia” profusely illustrated by lantern slides and moving pictures.” This year marks the 150th anniversary of their departure.

by Loma Hannan – chair of the Hotham History Project