Robert O''Hara Burke

Robert O’Hara Burke was born in 1821 in Ireland.  He migrated to Tasmania in 1853 and because he had some police experience, he decided he would do better in Victoria.  William ‘Jack’ Wills was born in England in 1834 and studied medicine with his father.  He migrated to Australia and landed at Port Phillip in 1853.  His family followed soon after and settled in Ballarat. 

Robert O''Hara Burke

William John WillsWilliam John Wills studied surveying and astronomy and this led him to being offered the position as Burke’s deputy.  Much of what we know of the expedition comes from a diary kept by Wills and it appears that Burke was an arrogant man who put little value on the lives of the men who made up his expedition.


William John Wills

The Great Northern Exploration Expedition was headed by Burke.  This expedition was funded and supported by the colonial government and the Royal Society and encouraged by financial support from Melbourne people who had been made very rich due to the gold rush.  Burke’s desire to gain acclaim, despite his sad lack of skills and experience, led him to be chosen as leader of this new exploration into inland Australia.  The goal was to cross Australia from Melbourne up to the northern coastline. It was an expedition that was judged to have failed even though the party did make the crossing.  The expedition departed Melbourne on 20th August 1860 and included George Landells, Burke’s second in command. 25 camels were imported for the trek as they were considered to be ideal for crossing the desert country.

Upon arrival at Menindee on the Darling River, Burke planned to form a depot and leave most of his men and supplies there. It was here that Burke and Landells argued and Landells went back to Melbourne.  After this, Burke appointed Wills his deputy and took a small party north to Cooper Creek.  They arrived in November and made camp.  William Wright went back to bring the rest of the party.  The relationship between Burke and Wills was not an easy one.

Burke waited for six weeks at Cooper Creek for the rest of the party and growing more and more impatient, he set out again before the return of his men. Four of them, Burke, Wills, King and Gray headed north in December with enough supplies to last six weeks.  They made it to the Gulf of Carpentaria at the mouth of the Norman River in February.  They should have stayed and rested longer, but two days after they arrived, the four of them headed south on the return journey.  Only three of them staggered into the camp at Cooper Creek in mid April as one of them had died on the hard trail back  They were exhausted and starving and unfortunately arrived at the camp just seven hours after the departure of the rest of the group southward.  They had been ordered by Burke to wait for three months and had waited five.  Luckily some supplies had been left for them so they could regain some strength. 

Burke now made a rash decision – instead of heading south to follow the main party, he with Wills and King, foolishly headed towards Mount Hopeless and despite some help given to them by the Aboriginals, their lack of skills in the bush meant they could not find any food or water.  Wills perished by June and two days later Burke died.  King survived by interacting with the Aboriginals and was found by a rescue party in September.

Burke Wills ExpeditionPainting by John Longstaff taken from National Gallery of Victoria, called: Arrival of Burke, Wills and King at the deserted camp at Cooper''s Creek, Sunday evening, 21st April 1861.