From the Archives, 1860: Burke and Wills expedition departs Royal Park

First published in The Age on August 21, 1860


Yesterday will be a memorable day in the annals of Australian history. The twentieth of August, 1860, will long be remembered as the day upon which the largest and best appointed expedition yet organised in the Australian colonies started from Melbourne for the purpose of exploring the vast unknown interior of the Australian continent.

The Burke and Wills expedition departs on August 20, 1860.Credit:State Library of Victoria

Perhaps no similar expedition has ever excited greater interest that the one which has just gone forth; the difficulty at first experienced in obtaining the necessary funds, the munificent donation of £1000 from an unknown person, and the first employment of the “ships in the desert” in the undertaking, all have combined to add additional interest to the event.

The expedition has now started, and time alone will show in what manner the attempt to further explore that territory into which as yet no white man has penetrated will eventuate. One o’clock was the time appointed, but long before that thousands of persons were wending their way to the Royal Park.

The road was crowded with vehicles of every description, and all classes of society hastened to take a farewell of these pioneers of civilisation and progress, some of whom perchance may never return to reap the reward of their labors, or live to see the results of their enterprise.

The Royal Park presented a very gay and animated appearance, horseman and equipages of every description were dashing and hither and thither. Some 15,000 persons were scattered about, conversing in groups upon the all-engrossing subject, or thronging the stable-doors endeavoring to catch a glimpse of the camels.

This wood engraving of the departure was later published by The Age.Credit:Fairfax Photographic

Artists, with sketchbook and pencil at hand, were anxiously looking around for some quiet and favorable spot from whence they might take an outline of the scene, to be filled in afterwards at their leisure, whilst the leaders of the party were hurrying to and fro hastening on the arrangements of departure, and seeing that everything was in order, and occasionally the picturesque red shirts and elevated broad-brimmed hats of the men themselves were seen emerging from the stables, as the wearers either expelled the curious crowd, who again and again intruded into the forbidden enclosure, or as he went in search for some of the equipments of his desert steed.

During the earlier portion of the day the immense crowd of persons who surrounded the stables materially interfered with the preparations that were going forward, and it was not until the arrival of a body of police under the orders of Inspectors Branigan and Weldon that the men were enabled to press forward their arrangements with anything like comfort or dispatch.

Generally speaking the party appear to be excellently equipped for their arduous undertaking. The boots for the men and the greater part of the harness and saddlery for the horses and camels have been manufactured at Pentridge, under the strictest supervision. Shoes have also been provided for the camels, to protect their feet when travelling over rough and stony ground.

The whole of the stores, with the exception of some ten tons of gram, which will be forwarded via the Murray, and which will be delivered to the party at the junction of the Murray and the Darling, the expedition take with them, in six American wagons, three the property of the party, and three hired ones. These wagons will proceed as far as Swan Hill, when the loading will be transferred to the backs of the camels.

Preparations have been made for every emergency; cots for the conveyance of the sick, which can be slung on either side of a camel, have been provided, and a good supply of medicines for both man and beast; and included amongst the list of medical comforts may be mentioned seven hundredweight of Bencraft’s colonial oatmeal.

Mr Burke has also taken with him everything necessary for making signals in case any of the party should become separated in the bush, or if from any other cause such should be necessary. He has a large Chinese gong, two Union Jacks, and an ample supply of rockets and blue lights. The tents which the party take with them are in every way fitted for the purpose they are intended, being made out of the best American drill and lined with green baize.

We are sorry we cannot speak so favorably regarding the wagons, the pole of one of them broke in attempting to start it, and we have since been informed that two of them broke down between the Park and Essendon, and will be unable to proceed until they are repaired.

Mr Landells states it will be absolutely necessary for the party to remain some considerable time at Cooper’s Creek, in order to refresh the camels, since by the time they arrive there their energies will be wholly exhausted. Eighty camels he says would not be too many for the purposes of the expedition.

We have previously recorded our opinion of the horses that accompany the party, viz., that they are wholly unfit for their work; and a more minute inspection of the team only confirms that judgement, added to which, when they were yesterday called upon to start, they showed the greatest aversion to the collar, some of them indeed proving themselves “rank jibs”.

One consolation, however, as regards to this matter is, that there is but little doubt that as Mr Burke proceeds up the country he will be able to exchange these worthless animals for a better description of cattle. Four camels have been left behind – two females with young, one male, and Mr Landells’ “Pet”, a young thing, but very well bred, and which promises to be a very valuable animal.

The start was to have taken place at one o’clock, but from the interruptions and delays caused by the immense crowds who were present, and from other causes, the preparations were not completed until about half-past three o’clock.

At that time all the camels were out of the stables and saddled, the drays were loaded and all was ready. The Mayor then mounting one of the drays bid the party goodbye, and all success, and called cheers for Mr. Burke, Mr Landells, and the members of the party. The call having been most enthusiastically responded to, Mr Burke replied in a brief sentence expressive of his determination to do all that lay in his power to conduct the expedition to a successful termination.

The party then started amidst the loud and repeated cheers of those present. Mr Burke, on horseback, led the way, followed by a number of pack horses. Then came Mr Landells and his camels, he himself being mounted upon one of the largest, and the drays bringing up the rear.

The party intended to camp last evening at Essendon. We before omitted to mention that Dr. Milton presented each of the party with a small copy of the New Testament and the Psalter.

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