Skip to main content

COVID-19 Update: From Thursday 15 July 11:59 pm all funerals will be restricted to a 10-person maximum Learn more

Unique Australian History: The Burke and Wills Expedition

08 October 2018
Unique Australian History: The Burke and Wills Expedition

What better way to celebrate our unique Australian history during history week than with the tale of two of Australia's most famous and tragic explorers - Robert O’Hara Burke (1821 – 1861) and William John Wills (1834 – 1861). They are one of Melbourne General Cemetery’s most notable tour stops for a reason, sharing what was at the time, the largest stone monument in Victoria.

The Burke and Wills Expedition

Burke and Wills tragically died just days apart in June 1861. They were on the return journey of their great expedition to be the first European settlers to cross Australia from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria (South to North), a distance of 3,250 km.

Robert O'Hara Burke (1821 - 1861) and William John Wills (1834 - 1861)

The two men began their journey from Melbourne on 20 August 1860, with a total of 19 men in the expedition. They packed a two year supply of food, 23 horses, 6 wagons and 26 camels (24 of the camels were purchased in India and imported into Australia).

On 11 November 1860, the group arrived at Cooper Creek - the outer limit of land already explored by Europeans. From here, Burke decided to make the trek to the Gulf of Carpentaria, taking only Wills, John King and Charles Gray and instructing the rest of the group to set up camp and wait a few months for their return.

Burke and Wills' monument at Melbourne General Cemetery

Burke, Wills, King and Gray completed their journey South, becoming the first European settlers to explore the region. On their return to join the rest of their group camped at Coopers Creek, Gray became ill and died on 17 April. The three surviving men made it back to Coopers Creek on 21 April only to discover that the rest of their group were no longer there.

Already extremely low on supplies, the three men were too weak and malnourished to continue the journey home from Cooper Creek to Melbourne.They set out along the creek to find the indigenous Yandruwandha campsite, but through exhaustion and lack of food, Wills and Burke died just days apart.

Burke and Wills' monument being transported through Melbourne streets

King went on to find a group of Yandruwandha who helped care for him. He became the only one of the first four men to make the complete trek from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria and return home.

The story of Burke and Wills being shared during a tour at Melbourne General Cemetery

To see Burke and Wills’ final resting place and learn about other historic and notable Australian figures take a tour of Melbourne General Cemetery here.

Images sourced courtesy of State Library Victoria.