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Burke and Wills collection

At a glance

  • Victorian Exploring Expedition
  • Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills
  • Water bottle, breastplate and other National Historical Collection objects

A growing collection

The National Museum of Australia has a growing collection of objects related to the Burke and Wills expedition.

This includes a breastplate awarded to the Aboriginal people who came to their assistance, a water bottle which belonged to Burke and various tributes to the explorers.

The Victorian Exploring Expedition, 1860–61

Detail of Ambrose Kyte illumination featuring a rondel housing a print photograph of Robert O'Hara Burke.
Detail of the illumination given to Ambrose Kyte, MP, showing a portrait of Robert O'Hara Burke. Photo: National Museum of Australia.

The Victorian Exploring Expedition, usually known as the Burke and Wills expedition, remains one of the most celebrated journeys of the 'heroic era' of Australian land exploration. In the 1860s the colony of Victoria was flush with wealth from the gold fields and wanted to enter the field of exploration. Supported by the Victorian government, the Royal Society of Victoria and private citizens, the expedition hoped to be the first to cross the continent from south to north.

Robert O'Hara Burke (1821–1861) led the expedition. Burke was an Irish-born soldier who emigrated to Melbourne in 1853. He served as a police inspector and superintendent in Victoria, and was involved in policing at the Buckland River riots in 1857. Despite having little exploration or navigation experience, he was chosen to lead the expedition.

William John Wills (1834–1861) was the expedition's surveyor and astronomer, and was second-in-command. Wills had arrived in Victoria in 1853, first working as a shepherd and then as an assistant to his father, a surgeon. He studied surveying and was appointed to a position at the Melbourne Observatory.

Described as the best equipped expedition in Australia's history, the explorers set off for the Gulf of Carpentaria carrying some 21 tonnes of equipment. The departure from Royal Park in Melbourne on 20 August 1860 was a grand public event – the expedition party was farewelled by 15,000 Victorians.

As they progressed northward, Burke found the expedition overburdened and the wagons unreliable. Furthermore, he feared that South Australian explorer John McDouall Stuart, who was also heading for the Gulf, might get there first. At Menindie, Burke appointed William Wright to be in charge and left for Cooper Creek. Wright was to bring up the party and supplies. Burke grew impatient waiting for Wright to arrive and decided to leave Depot Camp 65 for the Gulf.

On 16 December 1860, Burke, Wills, Charles Gray and John King left Cooper Creek to make a dash for the northern shoreline. Burke and Wills eventually encountered salty marshes and a shifting tide, and could proceed no further. They had reached their goal, even though they could not see the open water.

The return journey proved fatal. Charles Gray died and the others limped back to the Cooper Creek camp only to find that rest of the depot party had departed just hours earlier. Burke and Wills died attempting to reach Mount Hopeless. King, near death, was cared for by the Yandruwandha people until a relief expedition rescued him.

When news of their disappearance reached Melbourne, four relief parties were despatched to search for them. One of the parties, led by Alfred Howitt, rescued King and buried Wills and Burke at Cooper Creek.

An expedition led by William Landsborough worked south from the Gulf through the Flinders, Gregory and Georgina River regions. Landsborough continued all the way to Melbourne and was the first European to cross the continent from north to south. John McKinlay and his party left from Adelaide and found the flood plains of the Diamantina and travelled through northern Queensland. Frederick Walker's party left from Rockhampton and travelled across northern Queensland. They did not find the expedition party, but these three relief parties made significant tracts of grazing land known and accessible to pastoralists. John McDouall Stuart reached the ocean and returned to Adelaide in 1863.

In 1862, Howitt returned to Cooper Creek and retrieved the remains of Burke and Wills. They lay in state at the Royal Society of Victoria in Melbourne and were viewed by over 100,000 people. Some estimated that three-quarters of the city's population watched the funeral procession in January 1863. The tragic fate of the Burke and Wills expedition received international attention. King was given a public welcome on his return to Melbourne but never recovered from the expedition ordeal.

Burke and Wills material in the National Historical Collection

Robert O'Hara Burke's water bottle

The Robert O'Hara Burke water bottle collection is a tear-shaped water bottle of hardened leather with a cylindrical horn lid. String connects the horn lid to the bottle. Part of the spout of the bottle exhibits wear suggestive of extended rubbing. The water bottle is aged and in fair condition.

Tear-shaped water bottle of hardened leather with a cylindrical horn lid.
Leather water bottle belonging to Robert O'Hara Burke. Photo: Dean McNicoll.

Victorian Exploring Expedition breastplate

This breastplate was one of three presented to the Yandruwandha people in appreciation for the assistance they gave to Burke, Wills and King.

More on the Victorian Exploring Expedition breastplate

Golden crescent-shaped metallic plate inscribed with th words 'Presented to (blank) by the Exploration Committee Victoria for the Humanity shewn to the Explorers Burke, Wills & King 1861'.
A breastplate from the Victorian Exploration Committee presented to the Yandruwandha people of Cooper Creek as a token of appreciation for the care they extended to Burke, Wills and King. Photo: Lannon Harley.
Map in black ink on white paper which is stained. The map is set in a buff-coloured mat, with has a thin clear plastic window.
Map of the route taken by the Victorian Exploring Expedition, lithographed at the Office of Lands & Survey, Melbourne, 1861. Photo: National Museum of Australia.

Map of the route taken by Burke and Wills

Map in black ink on white paper which is stained. The map is set in a buff-coloured mat, with has a thin clear plastic window.
It is titled:

MAP OF
BURKE & WILLS' ROUTE
FROM COOPER'S CREEK TO CARPENTARIA
(Copied from the map prepared by Wills.)
Scale about 20 Miles to 1 Inch.
Lithographed at the Office of Lands & Survey, Melbourne, Victoria, Nov. 25th 1861
by J. B. Philp & W. Collis.

Copy of the survey that belonged to William Wills. The title page is signed 'William Wills / July 31st 1860' above his black wax seal.
William Wills' copy of Georg von Neumayer's Magnetical, Nautical and Meteorological Observations, Parliament of Victoria. Photo: National Museum of Australia.

Neumayer's observations

The copy of the survey in the Museum's collection belonged to William John Wills who worked at the Melbourne Observatory. The title page is signed 'William Wills / July 31st 1860' above his black wax seal. The survey is an official Parliament of Victoria report by Professor Georg von Neumayer, a Bavarian scientist. The full title of the report reads:

1859-60
VICTORIA.
RESULTS
OF THE
MAGNETICAL, NAUTICAL
and
METEOROLOGICAL OBSERVATIONS
MADE AND COLLECTED
AT THE FLAGSTAFF OBSERVATORY, MELBOURNE
AND AT VARIOUS
STATIONS IN THE COLONY OF VICTORIA.
MARCH, 1858, TO FEBRUARY, 1859.
PRESENTED TO BOTH HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT BY HIS EXCELLENCY'S COMMAND
Detail of Georg von Neumayer's Observations showing William Wills' name and black wax seal, dated 31 July 1860.
Detail of Georg von Neumayer's Observations showing William Wills' name and black wax seal, dated 31 July 1860. Photo: National Museum of Australia.
A framed manuscript, written in black ink and coloured paints recognising Ambrose Kyte's support of the Victorian Exploring Expedition.
Illuminated address given to Ambrose Kyte, MP, in recognition of his financial support of the Victorian Exploring Expedition. Photo: National Museum of Australia.

Ambrose Kyte illuminated address

A framed manuscript, written in black ink and coloured paints recognising Ambrose Kyte's support of the Victorian Exploring Expedition.

The manuscript features two rondels housing albumen print photographs of Kyte (left) and Burke (right). It is housed in an elaborate, carved timber, glazed frame which features the Australian coat of arms on the top.

The illumination was presented to Kyte by the Governor of Victoria, Sir Henry Barkly, on behalf of the Victorian Exploration Committee, on 21 January 1863, in recognition of Kyte's support of the Burke and Wills expedition. In 1858, Kyte had donated £1000 towards the fit-out of the expedition. This enabled the Committee to raise further funds required for the expedition.

Herbert Basedow image of blazed tree at Cooper Creek

An original negative taken by Herbert Basedow in 1919. Basedow's caption reads 'The famous tree at Fort Wills on the Cooper, under which a relief party buried a cache containing provisions for members of the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition in 1861. The tree was marked: "Dig three feet westward"'.

Herbert Basedow's photo of a tree beside Cooper Creek in 1919. Timber can be seen jutting diagonally out of the bank just behind and to the left of the tree.
'The famous tree at Fort Wills on the Cooper'. Fort Wills was the stockade built to protect the expedition's animals and supplies. The remains can be seen to the right of the tree. Photo: Herbert Basedow, 1919, reproduced from glass negative by George Serras.
The egg, carved by craftsman Peter Harris, depicts a map of the journey of Burke and Wills. The egg rests on a marble base with a gold-plated plaque. The engraved text reads 'HAND CARVED / EMU EGG / Peter J. Harris GL 470'.
Hand carved emu egg showing a map of the route taken by Burke and Wills, carved by Peter Harris. Photo: Dragi Markovic.

Carved and mounted emu egg

The egg, carved by craftsman Peter Harris, depicts a map of the journey of Burke and Wills. The egg rests on a marble base with a plaque with gold lettering. The engraved text reads 'HAND CARVED / EMU EGG / Peter J. Harris GL 470'.

An unused postcard featuring a slightly pressed black and white photograph of a stone or concrete obelisk with a fence around it. The text reads 'BURKE AND WILLS MONUMENT, CASTLEMAINE'.
Postcard of a Burke and Wills monument located in Castlemaine, Victoria. Photo: National Museum of Australia.

Burke and Wills have been the subject of art, craft and popular media since the outset of their journey. Mr Harris has carved two eggs relating to Burke and Wills. They display his interest in local and national history as his home in Lake Cargelligo, New South Wales lies on the explorers' route.

Emu egg carving has its origins from the 1930s when it was first taken up by Aboriginal people. Mr Harris' compositions reflect the style of these early carvers. He is regarded as one of the most skilled contemporary emu egg carvers.

Postcard of a Burke and Wills monument, Castlemaine, Victoria

An unused postcard featuring a slightly pressed black and white photograph of an obelisk with a fence around it.

The text reads 'BURKE AND WILLS MONUMENT, CASTLEMAINE'.

The postcard was made by Ward, Lock and Co Ltd in England and is part of the Museum's Josef Lebovic Gallery collection.