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The Leichhardt nameplate and medal

At a glance

  • Scientist and explorer Ludwig Leichhardt (1813–?1848)
  • Disappearance of 1848 exploration party
  • Small brass nameplate and Royal Geographical Society medal
  • Scientific and historical evidence
  • Marked trees

An exploration of Ludwig Leichhardt

The disappearance of Ludwig Leichhardt's third expedition in 1848 and the failure to find any definite artefacts of the expedition has been one of the great mysteries of Australian exploration.

A small brass nameplate marked 'LUDWIG LEICHHARDT 1848' is the first relic with a corroborated provenance. It was acquired by the National Museum of Australia in 2006.

More recently, the National Museum purchased a medal awarded to Leichhardt by London's Royal Geographical Society in 1847. This is the first time the medal has been in Australia. It came directly from descendants of the Leichhardt family in Mexico and is now permanently united it with the nameplate – the last object thought to have been in Leichhardt's possession.

Image showing two sides of a gold medal on a black backdrop. The face on the left shows a figure of a woman with a laurel wreath in her right arm and a map in her left, with a sextant and globe behind her. The face on the right shows the profile of a woman wearing a crown.
The medal awarded to Leichhardt in 1847 by the Royal Geographical Society of London, showing Britannia and the Society's motto 'OB TERRAS RECLUSAS' (For regions explored) on the obverse, left, and patron, Queen Victoria on the reverse, right. Photo: Jason McCarthy.

The Leichhardt mystery

The German-born scientist and naturalist arrived in Sydney in 1842 and mounted three expeditions to explore Australia's inland. The disappearance of Leichhardt's third expedition in 1848 and the failure to find any definite artefacts of the expedition has been one of the great mysteries of Australian exploration. Many theories have been proposed over the years to explain where Leichhardt died, numbers of them concluding he perished somewhere near the Simpson Desert.

Leichhardt remains a household name in Australia, routinely a subject of primary school study. The mystery of the apparently total disappearance of his entire expedition party still has the power to compel curiosity, as investigations as recently as the 1990s demonstrate. The expeditions of Leichhardt and Sir Thomas Mitchell opened up the northern interior for settlement and convinced pastoralists that there was viable grazing land.

The Leichhardt nameplate is the first relic with a corroborated provenance from the 1848 journey and it resolves substantial aspects of the mystery. While the plate cannot tell us where Leichhardt died, it proves that he made it at least two-thirds of the way across the continent during his east–west crossing attempt. For a European to do this in 1848 represents a considerable achievement.

Front view of the Leichhardt nameplate which is a piece of brass 15 cm x 2 cm marked LUDWIG. LEICHHARDT. 1848
The Leichhardt nameplate. Photo: Dragi Markovic.

The Royal Geographical Society medal

A gold medal in a presentation box. The medal shows an image of a woman holding a wreath and a scroll, with the text 'OB TERRAS RECLUSAS / ROYAL GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY OF LONDON'. The case is lined purple velvet, and white satin on the lid.
The medal and presentation box awarded to Leichhardt, and held by his family until acquired by the National Museum. Photo: Jason McCarthy.

The Royal Geographical Society of London awarded the 1847 medal to Leichhardt in recognition of his contribution to geographic and scientific knowledge from the overland voyage between Moreton Bay (Brisbane) and Port Essington (Darwin) in 1844–5.

Leichhardt himself never saw the medal but knew of this award, and another by the Geographical Society in Paris. He is quoted, writing in one of his last known letters, to his brother-in-law Carl Schmalfuss, in the book Der Australienforscher F.W. Ludwig Leichhardt in der zoologie:

I've had the pleasure of hearing that the geographical society in London has awarded me one of its medals, and that the Parisian geographical society has conferred a similar honour upon me. Naturally I'm very pleased to think that such discerning authorities consider me worthy of such honour; but whatever I have done has never been for honour. I have worked for the sake of science, and for nothing else.

The gold and leaded glass medal has been held by the Leichhardt family in its original presentation box and is accompanied by a small archive of photographs and documents relating to Leichhardt and the family. The medal was made by William Wyon RA at the Royal Mint in 1836. The surface is so immaculate that a fingerprint has been preserved under the glass.

Discovery of the Leichhardt nameplate

The Leichhardt nameplate is a piece of brass 15cm x 2cm marked LUDWIG LEICHHARDT 1848. It was discovered attached to a partly burnt firearm in a bottle tree (boab) near Sturt Creek, between the Tanami and Great Sandy Deserts, just inside Western Australia from the Northern Territory border. Like a number of trees that have been identified elsewhere, and accepted as having been marked by Leichhardt on his fatal attempt to cross the continent in 1848, the boab tree was inscribed with an 'L'.

Location of the nameplate, 1900 to 2006

Colour photograph showing a man and woman standing beside a display case, with a small metal plate partially visible at the right.
Senator Rod Kemp and Catherine Bristow-Smith,whose family held the plate for many years. Photo: Dragi Markovic.

The burnt firearm with the nameplate was discovered around 1900 by an Aboriginal man, known as 'Jackie', who was working for an outback drover and prospector named Charles Harding. Harding disposed of the burnt firearm but recognised the plate as something important. JF Hill, who also worked for Harding, remembered Harding having the plate. Harding kept it wrapped up and 'polished' it with ash from his fireplace whenever he got it out to show to someone. This care indicates that Harding believed in the plate's authenticity and value. Reginald Bristow-Smith (subsequently District Clerk at Laura, and later at Goolwa, South Australia) got to know Harding and, in about 1917–1918, Harding gave the plate to the then teenaged Bristow-Smith.

In 1920 Bristow-Smith loaned the plate to the South Australian Museum but declined the museum's request to donate the plate. In 1934 Bristow-Smith corresponded with surveyor and explorer LA Wells and loaned him the plate. Wells enabled JD Somerville, of the South Australian Branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, to begin an exhaustive investigation of the plate. Somerville was particularly interested in identifying the place of the plate's discovery. Bristow-Smith readily provided information to Somerville during this project and Somerville published a paper in the Society's 1937 proceedings where he concluded that the plate was genuine.

The trail of the plate becomes somewhat confused in the late 1930s. LA Wells died in a rail accident in 1938, but the plate was in the possession JM Maughan who worked at the South Australian Lands Department. When Maughan died in the 1940s no-one in the South Australian bureaucracy knew who owned plate and it ended up with the Public Library of South Australia, which was administered by the Libraries Board of South Australia. After lengthy correspondence, Bristow-Smith was finally able to get the plate returned to him in 1964. Bristow-Smith died several years later and the plate passed to his son Jeffery. Since Jeffery's death in 2004, the plate has been held by his wife Catherine and jointly owned by her and their four children. The National Museum of Australia acquired the nameplate from the Bristow-Smith family in October 2006.

Close up image of the 'HHARD' lettering on the Leichhardt nameplate.
The double 'h' on the Leichhardt nameplate. Photo: Dragi Markovic.

Proof that the nameplate is genuine

Both the historical record and scientific investigation support the conclusion that both the Leichhardt nameplate and its place of discovery are genuine.

Evidence from the historical record

  • The behaviour of both Harding and Bristow-Smith is inconsistent with people who might have fabricated the plate for fraudulent purposes. Neither man sought rapid sale for profit or other reward, and Bristow-Smith was always ready to make the plate available for analysis and examination by experts who could have exposed a fraud.
  • The nameplate correctly spells Leichhardt's name with the double 'h'. If it had been fabricated by Harding – a bushman with no formal education – it is unlikely the name would be correctly spelt. In fact Leichhardt's name was often spelt incorrectly with one 'h', and often still is.
  • Leichhardt was methodical and systematic in his preparation for expeditions. He is known to have identified the equipment carried by the expedition, by marking it either with numbers or another system. Therefore a nameplate that identified Leichhardt's firearm is consistent with his usual behaviour. Equally plausible is the suggestion that the firearm (with plate) was a gift, perhaps from a station owner. Leichhardt was given a pair of pistols (with engraved initials of donor and recipient) before the expedition set out. The nameplate's rudimentary lettering is suggestive of it having been made by a station blacksmith prior to Leichhardt's departure from the settled districts.
  • The tree in which the firearm was discovered was marked with an 'L'. This adds corroborative evidence to the presence of the Leichhardt expedition at the tree and to Leichhardt having placed the weapon in the tree, rather than Aborigines finding the firearm elsewhere or trading it, carrying it to the tree and placing it there.
  • JD Somerville was told that the bottle tree was near Sturt Creek, near a Mt Inkerman, approximately a day's ride from the Musgrave Range, and within a certain distance of the Northern Territory – Western Australia border. Sturt Creek can be found on modern maps. Musgrave Range has erroneously been thought to be the South Australian range of that name. But there is a Western Australian Musgrave Range named by explorer PE Warburton in 1873. This range is south of Sturt Creek at Balgo. In addition, there is evidence that the Gardner Range (sometimes spelt Gardiner), closer to Sturt Creek, was also known by some as Musgrave. Mt Inkerman has been a source of confusion. 'Inkerman' is usually a name associated with the Crimean War. In the 1930s JD Somerville established it to be an Anglicisation of the Aboriginal name 'Inkermane' for a hill west of Mt Brophy near Sturt Creek and the Gardner Range.
  • Finally, the area of the plate's discovery is consistent with the stated route of Leichhardt's third expedition. Dr Darrell Lewis has shown that Leichhardt planned to cross Australia from Moreton Bay to Swan River not via a direct east–west line (which would have taken him into desert country) but along an arc to the north along the headwaters of rivers flowing into the Gulf of Carpentaria and elsewhere along the north coast. There is evidence that he then hoped to find a south-westerly flowing stream that he could follow toward Swan River. Examination of Leichhardt's papers indicates that his thinking – and therefore his choice of route – was influenced by German scientist Alexander von Humboldt. Leichhardt systematically sought to discover the interconnectedness of the elements in the new country that he was exploring, including topographical or geomorphological relationships between rivers and their watersheds. Numbers of 'L'-marked trees along parts of his route, eg on the Barcoo and Flinders rivers in Queensland, strongly support the conclusion that Leichhardt followed his planned route. Beyond the northern rivers, Sturt Creek, flowing to the south-west offered Leichhardt a route in that direction.
National Museum Senior Conservator David Hallam and Senior Curator Matthew Higgins analyse the Leichhardt nameplate.
National Museum Senior Conservator David Hallam and Senior Curator Matthew Higgins. Photo: Dragi Markovic.

Evidence from scientific analysis

The National Museum of Australia commissioned extensive scientific analysis of the Leichhardt plate. Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) tests were conducted under the leadership of Dr Ian MacLeod of the Western Australian Museum.

  • SEM tests show the brass dates from the first half of the nineteenth century, owing to the presence and percentage of lead. The crystal structure of the metal is consistent with brass from the early 1800s.
  • SEM tests prove that a residue of sulphur was consistent with the black powder used in muzzle-loading firearms of the time. Powder was often spilt during loading and sulphur was present in the smoke the firearms produced when fired.
  • SEM tests found the presence of zinc hydroxy chlorides which indicate the location of the plate in an arid environment.
  • SEM tests found the presence of other elements (potassium, aluminium, silicon) that are consistent with rubbing the plate with earth and fireplace ash. Other scientific tests also support the nameplate's authenticity.
  • Raman testing found colloidal carbon. It is highly likely this indicates exposure of the plate to a low temperature fire, such as that which burnt the firearm.
  • Expert visual examination confirms that the corrosion product on the rear of the plate is consistent with brass in contact with wood and supports Harding's assertion that the plate was located on the stock of a firearm.
  • The plate shows evidence of having been bent around the fastening hole, which would be expected from a plate removed from another surface such as the stock of a firearm.
  • The nameplate was re-formed from another brass object (perhaps a marine nail or spike). The scoring that resulted from cold working of the metal, together with the lettering, contain corrosion products which were laid down early in the object's life. The presence of these products make it impossible for the plate to be a recent fabrication using nineteenth-century materials.

SEM testing also identified titanium oxides in the lettering which provides information about later alterations of the nameplate. The letters were originally unpainted but were subsequently painted to highlight them. The painting is first indicated in a January 1935 photograph of the plate in the Adelaide Advertiser newspaper. Titanium oxides started to be used in paint from the 1930s.

Close up image of the '1848' date stamp on the Leichhardt nameplate.
The '1848' date stamp on the Leichhardt nameplate. Photo: Dragi Markovic.

 

Leichhardt and his expeditions

Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig Leichhardt was born in Prussia in 1813. He studied at the universities of Berlin and Göttingen with a particular interest in the natural sciences. Though he never obtained a degree he was well regarded for his scientific knowledge. He studied further in Britain and France and did fieldwork there and elsewhere. Leichhardt arrived in Sydney on 14 February 1842, aiming to explore inland Australia and hopeful of a government appointment in his fields of interest. He began making field studies in the Hunter region of New South Wales and then travelled alone from Newcastle to Moreton Bay, collecting specimens.

Leichhardt hoped to be part of a government-sponsored expedition from Moreton Bay (Brisbane) to Port Essington (300km north of Darwin, Northern Territory) to be led by Surveyor-General Sir Thomas Mitchell. This fell through and Leichhardt decided to mount the expedition himself, with private funding and accompanied by volunteers. The party left Sydney in August 1844, gained more members at Moreton Bay, and departed the Darling Downs (southern Queensland) on 1 October. Leichhardt reached Port Essington on 17 December 1845, having covered 3000 miles (nearly 5000km). Long given up for dead, Leichhardt and companions were feted as heroes upon their return to Sydney. Leichhardt's journey resulted in a massive amount of information about the new country he explored.

Leichhardt next planned to cross the continent, east to west, from Moreton Bay to Swan River (eg Brisbane to Perth). He and his party started from the Darling Downs in December 1846 but after 800km were forced to return in June 1847. Leichhardt then explored the area around the Condamine River.

Leichhardt mounted his second attempt to cross from Moreton Bay to Swan River the following year. He and his party were on the Darling Downs by February 1848 and they left the Condamine River the following month. After departing Cogoon Station in April, the party was not heard of again.

It was expected that the expedition would take two to three years, but after no sign or word was received from the explorer, it was gradually assumed the party had died. Expeditions were mounted in the 1850s to try to find a sign of the party. Hovenden Hely in 1852, Augustus Gregory in 1855–56 and again in 1858, and many others looked for signs of Leichhardt's 1848 expedition. Some evidence of the party, such as the 'L' trees and a possible camp site were found, but nothing more.

The Leichhardt mystery continued to attract attention into the twentieth century and further attempts were made to find relics or explain the fate of Leichhardt and his companions. Although human and other remains were found, there was nothing to positively link them with Leichhardt.

Until the 2006 research into the Leichhardt nameplate, no artefacts with corroborated provenance have been able to shed light on Leichhardt's ill-fated 1848 expedition.

Black and white portrait of Ludwig Leichhardt.
Ludwig Leichhardt.

Leichhardt's place in history

Leichhardt has been officially recognised for his contribution to science, especially for his successful expedition to Port Essington in 1845. In 1847 the Geographical Society, Paris, awarded its annual prize for geographic discovery equally to Leichhardt and a French explorer. The Royal Geographical Society in London awarded Leichhardt its Patron's medal, and Prussia also recognised his achievement.

Leichhardt's accounts and collections were valued, and his observations accurate. Some decades after his disappearance, however, harsh criticism of his character was published and his reputation suffered. The fairness of this criticism has been debated. Nevertheless, his scientific contribution has continued to be recognised and he is remembered today as 'one of the most authoritative early recorders of Australia's environment'. He was the best-trained scientist to explore Australia to that time.

The Leichhardt story is a key one in the annals of Australian inland exploration. His failed attempt to make the first east–west crossing may be compared with the tragic Burke and Wills expedition which, while successful in crossing from south to north, failed to return. Leichhardt's success in making it to Port Essington in 1845 was a major achievement, and his name deserves to be ranked with Charles Sturt, John McDouall Stuart, Edward John Eyre and other successful explorers.

Twenty-first century Australia continues to commemorate Ludwig Leichhardt. A Queensland river, a Sydney suburb, numerous streets and other places across Australia, as well as a species of tree, bear Leichhardt's name.

Landmarks gallery

The Leichhardt medal and nameplate are on show in the National Museum's Landmarks gallery.

Landmarks: People and Places across Australia

Images

For more detailed images of the Leichhardt nameplate view the slideshow

References

Aplin, G, 1987, Graeme (ed.) et al, Australians: A Historical Dictionary, Sydney.

Bristow-Smith family, collection of correspondence and newspaper cuttings.

Hallam, D, 2006, 'The Leichhardt nameplate – a report on authenticity testing', (PDF 338kb) National Museum of Australia, Canberra.

Lewis, D, 2006, 'The fate of Leichhardt', Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 17, pp. 1-30, published at: http://www.publish.csiro.au/nid/108/paper/HR05010.htm

MacLeod, ID, 2006, 'The surface analysis of a brass plate "Ludwig Leichhardt 1848" and assessment of authenticity' (PDF 3116kb), Collections Management and Conservation, Western Australian Museum.

Pike, D (ed.) and Ritchie, J (ed.), 1979 and 1990, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne, vol. 2 and vol. 12. See also Renee Erdos, 'Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig Leichhardt', Australian Dictionary of Biography Online Edition, published at: http://www.adb.online.anu.edu.au/biogs/A020090b.htm?hilite=leichhardt

Roderick, C, 1988, Leichhardt the Dauntless Explorer, Sydney.

[Somerville, JD, 1937], 'The Leichhardt plate', Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, South Australian Branch, vol. XXXVII, pp. 37–68.

Webster, EM, 1980, Whirlwinds in the Plain: Ludwig Leichhardt – Friends, Foes and History, Melbourne.