The Recovery of Burke and Wills Remains - Clare’s link.

Saturday, Dec 08, 2012 at 21:29

Member - Stephen L (Clare SA)



Here is a very brief overview of the events that lead to the recovery of the remains of Burke and Wills from the Cooper Creek in the far north east of South Australia in 1862 and how my home town of Clare became involved in these events.

On the 20th August 1860, a party on 19 men under the command of Robert O’Hara Burke departed Melbourne with a crowd of around 15,000 spectators cheering the party on as they set off from Royal Park. Many months had now lapsed and with the lack of correspondence from the Victorian Exploring Expedition, the public wanted answers as to the fate of party that had left Melbourne as heroes just 10 months previously. On the 13th June 1861 the Exploration Committee agreed to send a search party in the hope of finding the final fate of the party.

Concerns were now National and a total of six expeditions were sent out to search for Burke's party, two commissioned by the Exploration Committee, three by the Royal Society of Victoria and one by the South Australian Government. The Victorian Relief Expedition under the Commands of Alfred William Howitt departed Melbourne on the 26th June 1861. By the 8th September 1861, Hewitt's party had arrived at the Cooper Creek and immediately set about the task of uncovering what was the ill fated VEE and by the 11th September were at the site of the Dig Tree.

On the 15th September 1861 the party’s surveyor, Edwin Weich was riding along the banks of the Cooper looking for any signs of the men that they were sent to look for. A group of Aboriginals on the opposite bank noticed Weich, and started to immediately shout out and made all efforts to get the attention of Weich, which they succeeded in doing.

Crossing the Cooper Creek the group of Aboriginals then scattered in all directions, leaving one man behind in an almost state of death, covered in what was described as scarecrow rags and part of a hat. Dismounting from his horse, Weich ask the near death person his name, to which the man replied ‘I am King sir, the last man of the Exploring Expedition’

Questioning the man further, he was told of the fate of the last two men of the party, Burke and Wills. King was in such a state, that Howitt thought that he might not survive more than a couple of days as King explained events of what had taken place over the previous months and what had happen to both Burke and Wills. The first remains to be found were those of William John Wills in a gunyah that King had described. Wills’ skull was missing, although his lower jaw was intact with pieces of beard still attached. Reading a verse from the Bible, Howitt buried the remains of Wills and marked a tree at the spot.

When they found the remains of Robert O’Hara Burke, his hands and feet were missing, but the revolver that King had left with Burke was still there. Howitt wrapped the remaining bones of Burke in a Union Jack flag and buried them in the sand and again blazed a nearby tree marking the final resting spot of Burke.

Returning to the Dig Tree, Howitt exhumed the hidden cache that included various notes and journals from the ill fated expedition and then departed immediately or Menindee, where upon their arrival, news was then telegraphed to Melbourne as to the fate of Burke and Wills the condition of the sole survivor, King. Within eleven days of arriving back in Melbourne, a meeting was held by the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria and moved that Howitt be in command of the Victorian Exploring Party for the task of exhuming the remains of Burke and Wills for a State Funeral to be held on their return back in Melbourne. On the 9th December 1861, Howitt was on his way back to the Cooper Creek and on the 8th January had left Menindee with a party of twelve men, forty-five horses and nine camels.

The Victorian Exploring Party had arrived at Cullyamurra Waterhole on the 25th February 1862, where they formed Depot Camp 25 on the northern side of the Cooper, making a number of reconnaissance trips out from the Cooper exploring the nearby area. A number of trips south as far as Blanchewater were conducted in the hope of finding reliable waterholes, with little found in the Strzelecki Creek. On one of the return reconnaissance trips from Blanchewater, Howitt returned by a new route and followed the tracks that John McKinlay, the Leader of the South Australian relief party that had left Adelaide on the 26th October 1861 had taken as part of the South Australian effort in finding out what had happened in to the Victorian Exploring Expedition. This new route took Howitt in a north westerly direction from Blanchewater to Lake Hope and follow the Cooper Creek back to their Depot Camp 25. Also of interest was the fact that local Aboriginals told Howitt’s party that there was going to be a great flood down the Cooper (The same events that we all saw during 2010 and 2011).

Also during this time, two South Australian Mounted Police Troopers were sent to the Cooper Creek with Despatches from the Exploration Committee that were forwarded to the South Australian Government. The Troopers followed the old route from Blanchewater that followed the Strzelecki Creek instead of the new route via Lake Hope and when they arrived at the Cooper, they suffered considerably from lack of water and feed. They did return via the Cooper and Lake Hope and in their reports, commented that the most suitable line of communications between the Far North of the Colony and the country watered by the Cooper Creek was via Lake Hope. They also noted that there was a very strong body of water slowly coming down the Cooper Creek.

When Howitt finally left the Cooper they arrived at Blanchewater on the 22nd October and rested the horse and camels there, while still trying to find a quicker way back to Victoria. The initial search took them east with the hope of finding a way through the Grey Ranges and then through to the Darling and Charles Sturt’s Depot at Providence Creek, but again the lack of water forced them to retrace their track and head back to Blanchewater. Further delays including searching for missing horses extended their stay at Blanchewater and finally on the 22nd November 1862 made their final push south to the settled northern areas of South Australia.

Sixteen days after leaving Blanchewater, the retrieval party arrived in Clare around 1.00pm on Monday 8th December 1862 and were greeted by hundreds of mourner that lined Main North Road. As the party passed, people bowed their heads and wore black armbands. Alfred Howitt and Dr Murray then went ahead to Adelaide, arriving the next day, Tuesday 9th December. Arriving in Adelaide, the pair were invited to a banquet dinner to honour John McKinlay. As the remainder of the party made their way south, public interest was so high that flags were lowered to half mast and shops shut to mark their respect for the death of these two great explorers. Arriving at Kapunda the retrieval party with the remains boarded a train and arrived in Adelaide with the remains of Burke and Wills on Friday 12 December 1862. From Adelaide, the remains were shipped back to Melbourne.

With the remains safely back in Melbourne, at State Funeral was finally held on the 21st January 1863 that attracted a crowd of around forty-thousand mourners. The Dean of Melbourne, the Reverend Hussey Burgh Macartney read the burial service and the coffins were then lowered into the vault followed by a volley of three shots by the Victorian Police before the vault was closed.



Now 150 years later to the day, riders gathered at Bungaree Station and had come from as far away as Adelaide and the Barossa Valley, as well as local Clare riders and prepared their horses, with the camels for some reason spooking the horses. The first to leave Bungaree were the camels that were going to travel directly to the racecourse, with the horses taking a route that would keep them off of Main North Road. After a hearty breakfast, final instructions were given by Mark Stewart from Bungaree as to the route that would be taken and riders set off across the recently harvested paddocks around 8.30am taking station tracks east of the station and then followed back roads to the Clare Racecourse, arriving there around 10am.






With horses watered, it was time for the camels to set off, with the horses keeping their distance and not wanting to get too close to the camels. Slowly travelling along Main North Road, all riders then made their way into Clare and to Pioneer Park, where the original party had camped under the very old River Red Gum and where today there in a memorial plaque commemoration the 100th Anniversary back in 1962. Two Union Jack flags were then draped over remains on the camels and the party then travelled the final 1 kilometre and into the Main Street and were greeted by the gathered crowd at Ennis Park, in the middle of the Main Street.





Gerald Lally from the Clare Regional History Group welcomed the riders and gave a brief background of the events that unfolded 150 years ago and then Clare’s Mayor, Allan Aughey Spoke to the gather crowd and spoke about this special event. From here the riders made their way to the Show Grounds for their lunch break. From here on, the wind had picked up and the temperature was now over 36° C and the horses slowly made their way to John Horrock’s Cottage at Penwortham, where the days events terminated . Wendy Spackman on behalf of the Mount Horrock Historic Society welcomed the rider and small crowd and then prepared some afternoon tea.




Sunday the 9th December was a big contrast to yesterday morning being nearly 10° C cooler in temperature as riders set off in warmer riding gear and the temperature was only 14° C. The scheduled arrival time was to be around 12 noon in Rhynie, but one thing is that you cannot control the speed at which the horses and camels will travel. A good crowd gathered to greet the cavalcade as it proceeded along the Main North Road and entered Rhynie around 12.30pm which was again lead by the camels and followed by the horses.

Once the horses were watered and unsaddled and the camels settled down, everyone was asked to meet in the Beer Garden of the Rhynie Hotel. Grant Hovey thanked the riders for their commitment over the weekend and gave the crowd a brief run down on the events and a background into the history of the event. Our local Member for Frome, Mr Geoff Brock also thanked all those had taken part in this historic re-enactment and thanked the Committee for their great job in the success of the weekend.

Following Geoff's speech Debbie Adams from the Central Operations of the Royal Flying Doctor Service was presented with a cheque by Geoff for the money that was raised over the weekend. Debbie thanked Geoff for this grateful donation and told the gathered crowd that the money would be going o a very worth cause and spoke about the role of the RFSD in Outback Australia. Awards were presented to the rider that took part in the event, with the youngest young rider only 12 years of age from Clare and was congratulated in completing the full 2 day ride.



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