The Calvert Scientific and Exploring Expedition of 1896

Saturday, Dec 10, 2011 at 14:48


The Calvert Exploring Expedition was financed by Albert Calvert in an attempt to explore largely unknown areas of Western Australia. It is included in this website as it was led by a South Australian, Lawrence Allen Wells and managed from Adelaide by the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (South Australian Branch). The expedition consisted of Larry Wells, leader, Charles Wells (his cousin, and second in command); George Jones (mineralogist and photographer); George Keartland (naturalist) and James Trainor. Bejah and Said Ameer were engaged as camel drivers.

The expedition left Mullewa in Western Australia 13 June 1896 heading north towards the Fitzroy River. Following on the practice established on the Elder Expedition, Wells established a base from which he scouted ahead for water. In the early stages they travelled within the bounds of settlement, where water was good and feed for the camels adequate. These early stages were over territory Wells had covered on the Elder Expedition. Wells noted in his diary that Jones and Keartland had begun to collect specimens. All these were later abandoned as will be seen. By 21 July they had reached latitude 26 24' and filled the water-kegs as they were about to move into unexplored territory and could no longer be sure of water supplies. The country was sandy with porcupine grass, desert gums and bloodwoods. Mulga thickets and small forests of desert gums were encountered, as were occasional sand ridges. On 23 July a lagoon was discovered which Wells named after Adam Lindsay Gordon, the poet. Birds of all kinds were plentiful here. The immediate area was in stark contrast to the monotonous mulga scrub beyond. There were many indications of Aboriginal people in the area, but none were seen. The party crossed a low range of hills that Wells named the Princess range, and which he realised divided the watershed of the Murchison River from the country to the east. Several notable hills were named, and Wells noted that the creeks drained into a salt lake. The country was by now becoming rougher, broken sandstone and ironstone, with claypans and poor vegetation.

Into the Great Sandy Desert

On 29 July the first of their camels were stricken after eating poisonous plants. While Bejah and the others remained to dose the sick camels, Wells went ahead with George Jones and Charles Wells to look for a forward campsite. (See Did you know section Camels in Australian exploration for more information about plants poisonous to camels) The country ahead conisted of barren sandridges and the lake found by John Forrest in 1874 was dry.

The following day Wells struck out in another direction and found a good waterhole. A depot was established here and the sick camels coaxed towards it. The expedition recuperated here for a week, then Wells with Jones and Bejah, made a flying trip to the north, searching for water supplies. The party was advancing into the Great Sandy Desert. The sandridges and the weight of water they carried, exhausted the camels. There was also a shortage of good feed for the camels, but plenty of the poisonous variety. The party crossed the line of Ernest Giles' expedition and continued north-east. From a high point the view ahead was of more sandridges and porcupine grass, but no prospect of water. A small group of Aboriginal people was met but they fled in terror at the sight of the camels. A small supply of water was found nearby. Wells also sighted nearby the extremely rare Princess Alexandra parrot. The eyes of both Wells and Bejah were affected by the bright light and Wells recorded that it was only with great difficulty that he could take latitude readings. He also wrote 'water is far too precious a commodity for bathing [their eyes].'

Midway Well

Finally on 25 August they found a good water supply by digging in the sand and rubble. The presence of the well had been indicated by the flight of a bird. Wells named this Midway Well as it was halfway between their present depot and Joanna Spring, located by Warburton in 1873. The following day they began the return to the depot, with Wells mapping the country as they went (they were returning by a more direct route). They discovered nearby good camel feed and a number of quandong trees heavy with fruit - a large flour bag was filled with them - 'without by any means stripping it of all its fruit'. Some of the sandridges they crossed were over 100 feet high. There were also prominent features or headlands that Wells recorded details of. One was named the Calvert Range after the expedition's promoter. The camels were struggling over the incessant sandridges which lay across their path, and had to be climbed - Wells rested them whenever he could, preferably on good feed. He recorded always, the nature of the country they travelled over, including vegetation and bird life and encounters with, or evidence of, the Aboriginal inhabitants.

On 8 September the party had reached their depot and found the men and camels left there in much improved condition. Wells had been absent 30 days and they had travelled over 500 miles. He rested the camels for a week, water bags were repaired and some 170 pounds of tinned provisions were buried, to reduce weight. The entire expedition left for Midway Well on 14 September. This was reached on 29 September.

From here Wells and Bejah set out on a flying trip to find the next water. On 3 October they found it at Separation Well. Again the re-united expedition moved forward to this water, which was reached on 8 October. Already the season was well advanced and the daytime temperature well up - 'the sand becomes so hot after 11 am that the poor [camels] can barely endure walking over it.' Most of their travelling was being done in the early morning. The water attracted many birds, so the men were able to eat fresh meat, rather than the tinned provisions.

Separation Well

''Oct[ober] 12 The same disheartening outlook everywhere! Although there is no doubt that something fairer to look upon existed here before this terrible sand hid it from view.''
Wells, LA Journal of the Calvert Scientific Exploring Expedition, 1896-97 Perth, Government Printer, 1902: Page 30

It was from this well that Larry Wells wrote 'my cousin [Charles Wells] and Mr Jones will leave us, here, for a trip to the north-west, and we hope to meet eventually, somewhere in the vicinity of Joanna Spring. They propose proceeding along the flats or troughs between the sand-ridges, generally bearing North 290 deg. East to North 300 deg. East for eighty (80) miles, or even one hundred (100) should my cousin consider it advisable to go so far, and then in a north-easterly direction to cut the route I purpose taking, a point thirty (30) or forty (40) miles South of Joanna Spring.' Wells expected to reach Joanna Spring in 12 days; his cousin expected to take about 14 days, as his route was a little longer. If Joanna Spring was not located, they would 'continue on, without loss of time, for the Fitzroy [River] in a north-north-easterly direction.' Wells and Jones were equipped with 3 camels, 60 gallons of water and provisions for a month.

Larry Wells also buried some supplies at Separation Well. Both parties set out on their separate paths on 11 October. For the main party conditions only continued to get worse - same sand-ridges, lack of water, lack of camel feed, same excessive heat. They began the days' marches while it was still dark, travelled for six hours and then camped during the heat of the day. 'The days are now so frightfully hot that during the early morning, they [the camels] refuse to pass a shade of any kind, and when the caravan halts they all huddle together, trying to stand in one another's shade. I feel I must give up day travelling and endeavour to push on by moonlight.' On 19 October they located a well from which they extracted with great difficulty some 25 buckets of water. The camels were losing condition rapidly, unable to eat the poor feed, without water to assist.

Adverse Well

''Oct[ober] 26 We left all the tents, most of the tools, provision boxes, …small firearms and other articles which we can do without for the present, also all personal property, taking only bare necessaries….I felt this step to be absolutely necessary, as otherwise we should get nothing through this fiery furnace.''
Wells, LA Journal of the Calvert Scientific Exploring Expedition, 1896-97 Perth, Government Printer, 1902: Page 35

A few days later a soakage was found, from which water was painfully and slowly extracted - too late for several of the camels which were too far gone to be able to drink. It took 36 hours to obtain 65 buckets of water. Aboriginal people were encountered at the well, but trouble was avoided. Wells named this well Adverse Well. It was at this point that he decided to abandon nearly all of their equipment. He 'felt this step to be absolutely necessary, as otherwise we should get nothing through this fiery furnace.'

Again travelling at night, they found it difficult to locate crossing places on the sand-ridges; these seemed to be growing in height, and in one section there were 65 within 8 miles, with only narrow troughs between. One camel died on 26 October and the following day another six were very bad and unable even to chew the cud. Wells decided to abandon more equipment, and with the sick animals carrying nothing, moved on in the endeavour to reach Joanna Spring. He was also having concerns for the safety of Charles Wells and George Jones.

On the 28 and 29 the going became a little easier - still no water, but wider troughs between the sand- ridges, and some vegetation. They were rapidly nearing the position of Joanna Spring as given in Warburton's account of his 1873 expedition; one of the riding camels was abandoned, several others were coaxed along with difficulty. Wells searched fruitlessly for the water, but eventually after great privation and distress decided to give up the search and head directly for the Fitzroy River 125 miles away. On 31 October they set out; several more camels were abandoned; the conditions continued the same until 5 November when the travelling conditions improved, but still no water and food for the camels. On 6 November the party reached some lagoons; the camels were given a small amount of water; the Fitzroy River was crossed - it teemed with fish and wild fowl, and kangaroos and magnificent trees.

Nothing could have been a greater contrast to their journey of the last few weeks. Wells' 'only anxiety now is for my cousin Charles and Mr Jones. Although unsuccessful in getting the whole of my equipment through, and losing Messrs. Keartland and Jones' collection and five camels, now that I know the nature of the country and climate, I feel we did well to get through at all;...'

The search begins

By 7 November the camels were allowed to drink at will; the feed was good. Wells hoped they would recover, but two were in very poor condition. On 9 November they reached the track from Derby to the Fitzroy Crossing and a chance meeting with the mail contractor enabled Wells to send a telegraph to the Royal Geographical Society in Adelaide. He also sent a message to the Fitzroy Telegraph Station to ask if there was any news of his cousin and George Jones. The party reached Quanbun Station on 13 November. From here Wells wrote a full report for the expedition's agent, AT Magarey, at the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (South Australian Branch). Another camel died; news was received from the Telegraph Station that nothing had been heard of Charles Wells and George Jones. On instructions from Adelaide Wells took some casks of water back along the track. The camels were still in poor condition and they travelled only a few miles into the desert. The water was stowed under some boughs in the almost futile hope they would be found. Several days later Wells went out again, this time with a police trooper, an Aboriginal tracker and horses. No traces were found of the missing men.

On 4 December Wells joined with Nat Buchanan for another search expedition. Bejah and an Aboriginal tracker made up the party that was equipped with eight camels. They travelled 90 miles from the River and lost two camels which died from eating poison bush. They were forced to return due to lack of water, having found no trace of the missing men. Another search expedition was organised, this time with 10 camels leaving on 14 March 1897; they reached Joanna Spring on 9 April - Wells established that it was 15 miles east of the position plotted by Warburton. There was no evidence that Charles Wells and George Jones had ever reached Joanna Spring, but they did find an Aboriginal man who was wearing a part of Charles' tweed clothes, and a report of two men 'killed by the sun.' Wells proceeded east and found some items of equipment, but the Aboriginal people were unwilling to provide any information.


Larry Wells was forced back to the Fitzroy River. Meanwhile William Rudall, sent out by the Western Australian government, had led a search party from the Oakover River - this too was unsuccessful, although Rudall successfully mapped an area of 23,000 square miles of previously unexplored country, during the six months of his search. On his return he learnt that Wells had finally located the bodies of the missing men. He had set out again from Fitzroy Crossing with Sub-Inspector Ord, a police trooper and several Aboriginal troopers, on 14 May 1897. The missing men were found on 27 May, only a quarter of a mile off the track of the fourth search expedition.
''May 27 [1897] I could then see my cousin's iron-grey beard, and we were at last at the scene of their terrible death, with its horrible surroundings: …''
Wells, LA Journal of the Calvert Scientific Exploring Expedition, 1896-97 Perth, Government Printer, 1902.

The bodies mummified in the heat, were sewn up in sheets and returned to Adelaide for burial. A state funeral was held on 18 July 1897. George Jones' diary and his last letter for his parents were recovered and told the grim story - of extreme heat and lack of water. In desperation they had retraced their route and returned to Separation Well, and then struggled along in the tracks of the main party. They reached within 16 miles of Joanna Spring, when their remaining two camels were lost. They died around 21 November.

Jones’s notebook in which were written these, his last words:

My dearest Mother and Father,
I am writing this short note the last one I shall ever write I expect. We left the main party at the well and after 5 days travelling had to return being away 9 days as we were both far from well I had hardly any strength. After 5 days spell we started to follow the main party after severe trials some of the camels died so we have had to walk we are both very weak and ill the other two camels are gone and neither of us have the strength to go after them I managed to struggle half a mile yesterday but returned utterly exhausted. There is no sign of water near here, and we have nearly finished our small supply have about two quarts left so we cannot last long. Somehow or other I do not fear death itself I trust in the Almighty God. We have been hoping for relief from the main party but I am afraid they will be too late. Any money of mine I think I should like divided between Eve Laurie and Beatrice. Now my darling parents I wish you goodbye, but I trust we will meet in heaven. You both have always been so good to me I should so like to see you again. Mr Charles has been very good indeed to me during this trip he is not to blame that we are in this fix. It is Gods will so we should not object. Goodbye to Evie Jo and Beat and all our friends. And now darlings God give me strength till our next meeting. God’s will be done.
I remain,
Your loving son,
George Lindsay Jones

He was twenty-two years old!

For Larry Wells it was not quite the end of the story. It was two years before a Parliamentary Select Committee cleared him of blame and praised his leadership. In the mean time he had been harshly criticised by the public and in newspapers. Albert Calvert, the expedition's sponsor was unable to meet the full expenses of the expedition and the subsequent searches - the latter were paid for jointly by the South Australian and Western Australian governments. Wells was out of pocket as he was responsible for the men's wages, and having paid them, had nothing himself, as he was not paid from the Expedition's funds. The South Australian government finally paid him a small sum 'as a recognition of the intrepid and courageous conduct of a Public Servant, as well as on humanitarian grounds.'

The Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (South Australian Branch) endeavoured to obtain for Larry Wells and William Rudall the "Albert Medal" in recognition of their brave endeavours on the search expeditions. This was refused on the grounds that their deeds did not qualify under regulations of the Award but their bravery was much admired.

Mowing a path towards Joanna Spring 2009

Hard Going in the Great Sandy Desert - Day 3

Success in the desert - Joanna Springs achieved

Finding Griing Spring & counting the cost!

(Words SAmemory -
''We knew from the experience of well-known travelers that the
trip would doubtless be attended with much hardship.''
Richard Maurice - 1903
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