Explorers

Everyone knows about Burke and Wills. Some people remember the names of Gray, who died on the return journey from the Gulf, and King, who survived and returned to Melbourne. But what of the others? Do you know how many of the men who signed the Memorandum of Agreement on 18 August 1860 actually left with Burke on 20 August, two days later? Or how many others he dismissed and hired as he made his way to Cooper’s Creek? Or what became of all those who participated in the Expedition in some way? Read all their stories below.
Robert O’Hara Burke

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Aged 39 years, born in Galway, Ireland. Served in the Austrian Army and Irish Constabulary. Arrived in Australia in 1853 where I joined the Victoria Police, serving in Beechworth and in Castlemaine.I was appointed leader of the Victorian Exploring Expedition on 20 June 1860, a controversial choice as I had no experience of exploration. I started from Royal Park on 20 August 1860 with a party of 19 men, but made many personnel changes along the way, progressively reducing the size of the party, leaving the Supply Party at Menindee and the Depot Party at Cooper Creek. I led a party of four men from Cooper Creek to the Gulf and back through extraordinary difficulties,  missing the departure of the Depot Party by half a day.

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I died at Cooper Creek about 30 June 1861.

Dr Hermann Beckler

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Aged 32, born Hochstadt, Germany. Studied medicine in Munich. I arrived in Brisbane 1856. I came to Melbourne 1859, where I worked as a collector of botanical specimens for von Mueller. I was appointed medical officer and botanist to the Victorian Exploring Expedition in July 1860.Mr Burke wanted the scientists to abandon our equipment and investigations. I resigned in October 1860, but agreed to stay on in Menindee. For the next 3 months I collected specimens in the area.In January 1861, I left Menindee and travelled north with Wright’s Supply Party. It was a difficult journey.The Supply Party met the returning Depot Party at Bulloo. My services as a doctor were in demand for sick men in the two parties, but four men died despite my efforts. I returned to Melbourne with other members of the parties. After giving evidence at the Enquiry I returned to Germany, worked as a doctor, dying in 1914.

John King

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Aged 21, born Moy, Ireland. Posted to India as a soldier in 1853. Met Landells there while convalescing from a severe illness. Came to Australia with Landells as supervisor of the sepoy camel handlers in June 1860.
I was one of the eight men who went on with Mr Burke from Menindee to Cooper Creek.
Gray and I went with Mr Burke and Mr Wills all the way to the Gulf, but Gray died on the way back.
When there was no one waiting for us at the Depot we lived like the blacks for two months. I saw Mr Burke die and found Mr Wills dead, but the blacks cared for me until Mr Welch and Mr Howitt found me in September.
I returned to Melbourne a hero, but never fully recovered from my ordeal. I died in Melbourne aged 33.

Charles Ferguson
Aged 28, born Ohio, USA.
Arrived at Bendigo diggings in 1852. Famed coach-driver and horse-tamer.
Appointed Foreman to the VEE on £200 pa. During the signing-on ceremony, I argued with Sir William Stawell about pay arrangements.
At Balranald, Mr Burke wanted to leave some men behind, supposedly with stores. When I challenged him, he dismissed us and I returned to Melbourne.
In 1863 I successfully sued the Exploration Committee for wrongful dismissal, receiving £183.
I died in the USA in 1925.
Patrick Langan
Born Ireland, sawyer, cook and butcher. Knew Burke from Castlemaine. Employed in mid-July with Patten and Creber to assemble stores. Mr Burke discharged me and several others on 14 September 1860 at Balranald in NSW, and I returned to Melbourne.
Robert Fletcher
Born in England, gentleman by birth, studied medicine.First employed as a personal attendant to Burke, then as storekeeper and camel groom. Mr Burke discharged me on 19 August 1860, because I had a dispute with Mr Landells. Mr Burke claimed I was incompetent. In a letter to The Age in August 1860 I described him as too hasty and ‘likely to prove tyrannical’.
Belooch
Reported as being from Mahadpoor in the Punjab. (However Belooch later referred to Esau Khan as his ‘brother‘ so probably he was also from Baluchistan.) I was dismissed in Balranald, then re-instated. I stayed at Menindee to look after the Supply Party camels. I was one of the group sent north from Menindee to rescue Macpherson and Lyons. Later I travelled north with Wright’s Supply Party to Bulloo and returned with them to Menindee.Later, in 1861, I was member of Howitt’s Victorian Contingent Party and remained in Menindee to care for the pregnant and sick camels which were left behind.
James Lane
Aged 38. Submitted an application to join the Expedition, and was appointed to the Victorian Exploring Expedition as a wagon driver in Royal Park on the day of departure, 20 August 1860. I was discharged at Swan Hill on 6 September 1860.
Polongeaux
A Frenchman working at the diggings, claimed to be a good bushman, wagoner and cook. Hired by Burke at Mia Mia on 26 August.I was discharged at Swan Hill on 6 September 1860 with Lane and Brooks.
William Hodgkinson
Aged 25, English, sailor, miner, journalist and (later) politician.Burke requested that I join the VEE in Swan Hill. I  came from Melbourne to join on 10 September 1860. I was not selected as part of Burke’s party, so remained in Menindee, then went with Wright’s party as far as Bulloo where I resigned in June 1861, and returned to Menindee, then went to Adelaide.Later I joined Howitt’s Victorian Relief Expedition to search for Burke and Wills.
Charles Stone
Overseer for Mr McLeod on his Darling River Property.I was appointed by Wright at Menindee. I went with Wright’s Supply Party to Bulloo, where we met Brahe’s Depot Party returning. It was a very difficult journey in the height of summer. I became ill and on 22 April 1861 I died, one of the four men who died at Bulloo.
George Landells

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Aged 35 years, born in Barbados, came to Australia in 1856. Contracted by the Royal Society to travel to India to buy camels and ship them to Melbourne for the Victorian Exploring Expedition. Landed in June 1860. I joined the Expedition in July as Second in Command and officer in charge of camels at a salary of £600 (Burke was paid £500). As the VEE travelled through NSW, I quarrelled with Burke over management of the camels and resigned on 14 October 1860 at Menindee, after seeing the camels safely across the Darling. I returned to Melbourne, and in 1861 gave evidence at the Commission of Enquiry.

Dr Ludwig Becker

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Aged 52 years, born Darmstadt,Germany. I came to Launceston 1851, then the Victorian goldfields 1852-4. As a scientist, I was a member of the Royal Society of Victoria. I worked as an illustrator for McCoy and von Mueller. I was appointed artist and naturalist to the Expedition on 13 July 1860, against Burke’s wishes.Mr Burke and Mr Landells tried to break me by exhaustion as we came to Menindee, but I would not give in.I remained there at the Menindee Depot, continuing to draw all that I saw until January 1861, when I went north with Wright. I became ill with scurvy on the journey north with the Supply Party in January 1861. However, I continued to paint and make observations until 4 April 1861. I died on 29 April 1861 at Bulloo.

Charley Gray

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Born in Scotland and came to Australia as a sailor. Worked as a digger on the Bendigo goldfields.I became an ostler for Cobb & Co, then at the Lower Murray Inn in Swan Hill. The pub owner described me as “the best bushman in the region.” I was appointed to the VEE while the Expedition was at Swan Hill, in September 1860.Mr Burke chose me to go with him, Mr Wills and John King to try to reach the Gulf. We left on 16 December 1860.
I became very ill on the return journey. Mr Burke thought I was shamming, but I was not. Rations were very short. I was so hungry that I stole food from the rations. Mr Burke was very angry and beat me. With the others I reached Polygonum Swamp, only three days walk from the Cooper Creek depot. I died there on 17 April 1861.

William Patten
Born in Ireland, blacksmith and armourer. Employed as an assistant to the Victorian Exploring Expedition in mid-July 1860 to help assemble stores.I travelled to Cooper Creek where I was one of the Depot party under Brahe. I became ill after a fall from a horse and then got scurvy. It was due to my illness that Brahe decided to leave the Depot to return to Menindee. The scurvy I had developed at Cooper Creek became worse as I travelled south. We left Bulloo after Stone, Purcell and Dr Ludwig Becker had died. I was carried on a camel. I died near Rat Point, south of Bulloo, on 5 June 1861. I was the last expedition member to perish on the journey.
John Drakeford

Born in England and had served in the constabulary in South Africa. Was inIndia when Landells was buying camels, and sailed for Australia with Landells, John King, the camels and the sepoys.I was a camel-handler and cook. After several disputes, Mr Burke dismissed me and Mr Landells in October in Menindee. In 1863 I successfully sued the Exploring Committee for the balance of my wages.

Henry Creber
Born in Liverpool, a sailor and sail-maker. Submitted an application to join the Expedition in February 1860. Appointed in mid-July to help assemble stores. Mr Landells accused me of being drunk and disorderly, following which Mr Burke dismissed me on 19 August 1860. Fletcher defended me and was also dismissed.
Esau Khan
A Muslim, a Baluchi from Qalat, Baluchistan, now in Pakistan. I became ill on the journey through Victoria and left at Swan Hill. I returned to Melbourne. where I cared for the camels that had been left behind, first in Melbourne and later in Longerenong.
Brooks
Appointed on the day of Departure.  I was discharged at Swan Hill on 6 September 1860.
Robert Bowman
Experienced explorer. Applied to join in Melbourne, but not accepted. Hired at Tragowel in September 1860.I resigned on 18 September near Balranald.
Alexander Macpherson

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Aged 25, born Scotland, a saddler from Epsom. I was appointed saddler to the VEE at Swan Hill on 6 September 1860.

John Smith
Part aboriginal. Appointed by Wright at Menindee. After travelling to Bulloo, I returned to Melbourne and was a witness at the Commission of Enquiry.
Dick
One of a number of indigenous guides who assisted Burke north of the Murray. I guided Macpherson and Lyons when they went north with despatches for Burke. I saved their lives when they became lost. Becker painted me.

dick

In January I started north with Wright and the Supply Party, but left after one night.

Trooper Lyons
I arrived in Menindee in November 1860 with despatches for Burke. Finding his party gone, I followed with Macpherson and Dick, the aboriginal guide. We became lost and almost died through lack of food and water. Dick guided us back to Torowotto, left them in the company of other aborigines, then rode and walked back to Menindee to get help. A rescue party of Beckler, Belooch and the aboriginal guide Peter were successful in bringing Macpherson and me back to Menindee.
William John Wills

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Aged 26, born Totnes, England, migrated to Australia at 18, worked as a medical assistant, then studied surveying and joined Prof Georg Neumayer, the Government Astronomer. Appointed surveyor and astronomer and Third-in-Command of  the VEE in July 1860. I became Second-in-Command in October when Landells resigned. I remained loyal to Burke, navigating successfully to the Gulf and back to Cooper Creek. I kept meticulous diaries and fieldbooks all the way.In April 1861 I struggled toward Mt Hopeless with Burke and King, then returned to Cooper Creek. I went back to the Dig Tree on my own before returning to the camp where King and Burke waited. I died at Cooper Creek about 30 June 1861.

William Brahe

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Aged 25, born Padeborn Germany. Came to the Victorian Goldfields in 1852.I worked as a digger, carrier and stockkeeper. My brother was a friend of Neumayer, a prominent member of the Exploration Committee. I was appointed as one of the Expedition assistants in July 1862.I went with Burke, Wills, King, Gray, McDonough, Patten and Dost Mahomet from Menindee to CooperCreek. I was put in charge of the Depot Party at Cooper Creek and asked to wait 3 months for Mr Burke’s return.After waiting 4 months and 4 days I buried supplies at the Dig tree and left with my party of four, one of whom was very ill. I met the Supply party at Bulloo. Wright and I then returned to Cooper Creek, but found no sign of the Gulf party.I returned to Melbourne with the rest of the Supply and Depot parties. After clearing my name at the Enquiry, I went to New Zealand. Later I returned toAustralia, dying in Elwood in 1912.

William Wright
I had been searching for gold in the Barrier Ranges in 1859 and was the manager of Kinchega Station near Menindee. I volunteered to take Burke from Menindee to Torowotto. I was appointed Third-in-Command of the VEE when Landells resigned. Burke sent me back from Torowotto to take charge of the Supply Party in Menindee and bring them to Cooper Creek. I was delayed by transport and money issues and did not leave Menindee until January 1861. My party suffered on the journey north from Menindee. It was very hot, water was scarce, and we made slow progress. By early April we were in the Bulloo area, but three of my men were ill with scurvy and we had to rest there. All three had died by the end of April. Brahe’s depot party joined us in early May. He and I went back to the Dig Tree at the Cooper but found no trace of Burke. We did not dig up the cache of food as the ground appeared undisturbed. We returned to Bulloo and rejoined the rest of our combined parties. From there, I returned to Melbournewith Brahe and the other survivors.
Thomas McDonough
Aged 26 years, born in Ireland.
Reputed to have known Burke’s family in Ireland and had become a friend of Burke in Castlemaine. Appointed to the Victorian Exploring Expedition as one of the assistants.
I was one of the men left by Mr Burke under the command of Brahe at CooperCreek to await Burke’s return from the Gulf.
I left with Brahe, met up with Wright’s party at Bulloo and returned toMelbourne with the remaining members of the Depot and Supply parties.
Owen Cowen
Aged 37, born in Ireland. Served in the Victorian Police Force and the Native Police Corps, Senior Constable in Mansfield. Married with at least three children.Applied by letter, appointed 9 July 1860. Burke sacked me on 20 August 1860, the day of the departure, for being ‘a little too hilarious through excess of beer’.
Dost Mahomet
A Muslim from Ghazni, Afghanistan. One of four sepoys who came to Australia with Landells and the camels and who were hired as “day labourers” with the Exploring Expedition.I travelled as far as Cooper Creek with Burke. I remained at the Cooper Creek depot looking after the camels that were left there with Brahe’s Depot Party. I returned to Menindee with Brahe, and from there joined Howitt’s search party in 1861. I died in Menindee in 1880.
Samla
I left the Expedition at Bulla on 22 August, because my Hindu religion would not allow me to eat the Expedition rations.
James McIlwaine
Submitted an application to join the Expedition, but was not selected at the time. Appointed on the day of Departure.I was discharged at Balranald with Ferguson and Langan.
Professor Georg Neumayer

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Aged 34, born Bavaria. First visited Sydney in 1852, returned from Germany to Melbourne 1857. Appointed Government Astronomer.Scientist, hydrographer, oceanographer, meteorologist, member of the Royal Society and the Exploration Committee.I went to Swan Hill in order to accompany the VEE from the Murray to the Darling. I explored on my own, then travelled with the Expedition to north of Balranald, then returned to Melbourne.

William Purcell
Appointed by Wright as a cook, at Menindee. Wright’s Supply Party left Menindee in January 1861, travelling with difficulty in the height of summer.  At Bulloo we met Brahe’s Depot Party returning. I became ill and died on 23 April 1861, one of the four men who died at Bulloo.
Peter
Indigenous guide, also called Mountain by the white explorers. In November, I went with Beckler and Hodgkinson on a field trip to the ScropeRanges.I helped to find Macpherson and Lyons because Dick was too ill when he returned to Menindee to go out again.