Burke & Wills
Australia Crest

Robert O'Hara Burke was born in Galway, Ireland in 1820. He joined the Irish police force in 1848 and then came to Australia in 1853.

He first went to Tasmania then to the Victorian goldfields where he became a police inspector at Beechworth.

In 1860 he was chosen to lead an expedition from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. The expedition was funded by extensive private and public subscriptions and was sponsored by the Royal Society of Victoria.


William John Wills was born in Devon, England on the 5th January, 1834, In 1852 Wills and his brother, Thomas, set sail for Victoria and arrived at Port Phillip Bay on the 3rd January, 1853.

Wills quickly found work as a surveyor at Melbourne's new meteorological observatory, surveying Crown lands.

Burk & Wills Expedition
Burk & Wills Expedition

In 1860 he was appointed to the expedition, becoming 2nd-in-command after a defection.

Burke and Wills with John King and Charles Gray and a party of 12 others left Melbourne on 20th August, 1860 by camel and with two years supply of food and 80 pairs of shoes.

Burke & Wills at Coopers Creek by Samuel Clifford
Burke & Wills at Coopers Creek by Samuel Clifford

By November 1860 they had set up base camp at Cooper's Creek and in December Burke decided to head for the Gulf, accompanied by Wills, King and Gray.

Burke and Wills did actually reach the coast when on the 11th of February, 1861, they found mangroves which they took to be the coast of Carpentaria. On the return journey, Gray died in the desert. The other 3 reached the base camp at Cooper's Creek on April 21st, 1861 only to find the waiting main party had left some 7 hours before, having given up on the foursome for dead. On the tree where supplies were left there was an inscription Dig dftw AP 21.

Against Wills' advice, the threesome headed south towards Mount Hopeless with Burke and Wills both perishing in the desert from starvation and exhaustion on or around June 30th, 1861. King survived the ordeal.

Although Wills constantly disagreed with Burke, he stayed loyal to him throughout, though this was clearly wearing thin as intimated in letters written by Wills to his father when he knew he was close to death.

It is said that the expedition failed because of the party's lack of bushmanship and Burke's impatience in proceeding without carefully planning the course of action.

However, this was the first crossing of the continent of Australia and the bravery of men like Burke and Wills helped build the nation we have, going into the new Millenium.

Burke and Wills were given a hero's funeral in Melbourne on 21st January, 1863.

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