JOHN McDOUALL STUART
SURVEYOR-EXPLORER 1815 – 1866
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William Hardman, Editor of “The Journals of John McDouall Stuart,” first published in 1864 by Saunders, Otley & Co., London, wrote:-
The explorations of Mr. John McDouall Stuart may truly be said, without disparaging his brother explorers, to be amongst the most important in the history of Australian discovery.
T.G.H. Strehlow, reader in Australian Linguistics, University of Adelaide, 1967:-
In Stuart, Australia possessed a man cast in the mould of a hero – a man whose amazing persistence, indomitable courage, and unfailing common sense enabled him to succeed in a mighty task in which most others would have failed.
This brief summary of his life and achievements is presented by the John McDouall Stuart Society, to promulgate an important chapter in Australian history – when a “Wee Scot” unlocked Australia’s centre, and blazed a south to north route across the continent.
The John McDouall Stuart Society acknowledges Mona Stuart Webster, who, in 1958, published the first full-length biography of her great-grand-uncle. Her book ” John McDouall Stuart” is the main reference used in this summary.
Among the 73 passengers aboard the 422 ton barque, which sailed on her maiden voyage from Dundee, Scotland, on September 13, 1838, were two young Scots who would form a lifelong friendship in the new colony of South Australia. James Sinclair, from the Isle of Arran, was destined to be a pioneer pastoralist and John McDouall Stuart would rise from obscurity, to be acclaimed as Australia’s greatest inland explorer, but would leave the colony with his constitution thoroughly broken down and nearly blind – a forgotten hero !
John, aged 23, was described by a fellow passenger as somewhat “delicate,” having two rather severe attacks of vomiting blood. He was, by 21st Century standards, of small stature, standing 5 foot 6 inches (168cm) and weighing less than nine stone (54kg) – hardly the description of a man destined for hero status. Had he possessed a more imposing physique, he may well have followed in the family tradition of an officer in the British Army.
John was the youngest son of nine children (three died in infancy) born to William and Mary (née McDouall) Stuart on September 7, 1815. William, an ex-Army Captain, moved with his family to Dysart where he was appointed as Customs Officer.
Dysart, a once important commercial port, stands on the northern shore of the Firth of Forth, almost directly opposite Edinburgh. The family resided in possibly the oldest remaining sixteenth century house on the corner of Fitzroy Place (formerly The Coalgate) and Rectory Lane. It was here that John was born and today it offers accommodation for the public.
Both parents died when John was in his early teens and he and his brothers and sisters were cared for by relatives and friends. John attended the Scottish Naval and Military Academy and graduated as a Civil Engineer. The recorded reasons for his decision to emigrate are interesting but are not included in this text.
Stuart arrived in South Australia on January 21, 1839. Adelaide was then a rough settlement just over two years old – a collection of tents and wooden huts with earth floors and thatched roofs. Thick scrub still covered much of the surveyed area and the majority of the colony’s population congregated on the site of the city. This isolated colony on the shore of Gulf St. Vincent was the result of years of work and planning by the Systematic Colonisers, a group of people in England led by Edward Gibbon Wakefield.
At the time of Stuart’s arrival, the local administration of the colony was in turmoil. The Surveyor-General, Colonel William Light, who selected the site and surveyed Adelaide, had resigned and would-be land owners were demanding that surveys of their land be completed.
Stuart obtained work, possibly as a draughtsman on the Survey Staff, where resources were stretched to the limit, endeavouring to meet the demands of officials and settlers in the new colony. Life in the survey camps was rough and Stuart soon learnt to recognise the signs and symptoms of scurvy, the disease which devastated him in later years.
Captain Charles Sturt was appointed Surveyor-General in early 1839 and re-established the Survey Department, making conditions and equipment more adequate for his men. In 1842 Stuart was retrenched, possibly due to government down-sizing. He then worked privately as a surveyor and was involved in sheep farming with his ship-mate, James Sinclair, at Nairne in the Mount Lofty Ranges.It is likely he kept in touch with Sturt because, in 1844, he was engaged as draughtsman on Sturt’s expedition into the interior of Australia. Sturt was hoping to:-
unfold the secrets of the interior and plant the ensign of our country in the centre of this mysterious land.
This epic journey, which saw Sturt reach a point closer to the centre of the continent than any other recorded European,was Sturt’s final expedition, but Stuart gained valuable experience. Following the death of James Poole (Sturt’s second-in-command) from scurvy, Stuart was appointed assistant to Sturt. The expedition failed to achieve its main objectives, being repelled by the harshness of Sturt’s Stony Desert and the waterless wastes of the Simpson Desert. To Sturt, the interior of Australia was alien, hostile, malign, almost terrifying. But to Stuart, the inland was wonder-inspiring, enthralling – he admired the stupendous works of nature.
Both Sturt and Stuart suffered from the effects of scurvy and, on their return to Adelaide, Stuart recorded that he lost the power of his limbs and was laid up for twelve months. Sturt recorded the valuable and cheerful assistance he received from Stuart and commended him for his labour on the charts.
Stuart continued to work as a private surveyor but his experiences with Sturt had influenced his life and he became restless. He preferred the bush environment and was advised by his doctor to reside in the country for the benefit of his health. He moved to Port Lincoln, possibly in 1846, and was involved in private surveys. In 1848 he joined the household of James Sinclair, who had moved into the district. By day he was employed as a shepherd and, at night, gave lessons to the Sinclair children – their only schooling.
In the early 1850’s, Stuart left the employment of James Sinclair and accompanied William Finke to the northern Flinders Ranges, a region then largely unexplored. He was engaged to survey pastoral leases, explore and prospect for minerals – an offer he could not resist. This association with Finke and his business partners, James and John Chambers, changed the course of Stuart’s life.
Principally as a result of Stuart’s Expeditions
- The riddle of the geographical nature of the centre of Australia was solved.
- The western border of South Australia was moved from the 132 degree east longitude to 129 degree east longitude.
- Control of the Northern Territory was transferred to South Australia.
- The Overland Telegraph Line, linking Adelaide to the world via Darwin, was constructed along his route.
- The original Central Australia Railway (Ghan) from Adelaide to Alice Springs followed a similar route.
- South Australia established settlement on the north coast at Darwin and vast areas of the north were opened up for pastoral and mineral development.
Today, his name is perpetuated by:
- The Stuart Highway linking Adelaide to Darwin.
- Geographical features named in his honour.
- His statue – in Victoria Square, Adelaide, where an annual Remembrance Ceremony is held.
- Memorials and plaques throughout South Australia and the Northern Territory.
- The John McDouall Stuart Collection, housed at the Adelaide Masonic Centre, 254 North Terrace, Adelaide.
- The John McDouall Stuart Museum in Dysart, Kircaldy, Scotland. Open Thursday – Sunday, 1-5 pm.
- The existence of the John McDouall Stuart Society Incorporated
- Stuart was born on the 7th September 1815 in the Burgh of Dysart situated on the northern shore of the Firth of Forth – almost directly opposite the city of Edinburgh, Scotland. He was the fifth son of a young ex-army officer, Captain William Stuart and Mary McDouall of Logan. (The fifth son was given the maternal surnaming as a given name – hence the name John McDouall Stuart). The family moved to Dysart in 1812. A museum dedicated to Stuart now occupies the 18th century house where he was born. Both his parents died early in Stuart’s life (when he was eleven or twelve). He was schooled at first privately and then at the Scottish Naval and Military Academy where he graduated as a Civil Engineer. When he completed his studies he went to Glasgow to live and was ‘engaged in business’ before leaving for Australia.
- In 1838, Stuart aged 23 years, embarked on the ‘Indus’ as a passenger. The voyage took the usual four months. Thirty-four ships carried settlers to the newly established colony of South Australia, many of them from Scotland. On the 13th September of that year the barque Indus sailed from Dundee for Adelaide with 73 passengers, (men, women and children). The barque called only at Tenerife and Pernambuco on the way to South Australia.
- The next land seen was Kangaroo Island, on the 16th January 1839 and on the morning of the 17th she anchored at Holdfast Bay. On the afternoon of that day Stuart first stepped on Australian soil.
- On the 19th January the ‘Indus’ left Holdfast bay and went around as far as the North Arm of the Port River where passengers and cargo were discharged.
- On the 21st Stuart disembarked.
- Stuart was employed as a surveyor’s labourer in the Government survey department, 20 miles south of Adelaide.
- Listed as a surveyor’s labourer.
- Topical sketch by Stuart of Hut River Survey, 70 miles north of Adelaide.
- “Dictionary of National Biography” refers to Stuart as a surveyor and tried his hand at sheep farming.
- In August 1844, Stuart was assigned as draughtsman with Captain Charles Sturt’s expedition in search of an inland sea and aiming to reach the centre of Australia.
- Advertisements in the “Observor” and “South Australian” from the 6 September 1845. “Stuart & co.” services included architecture, civil engineering and real estate.
- Advertisment in the ‘Observor’ 9 May Port Lincoln.
- Plan survey
- Letter written 23rd October 1848 by Stuart while residing at Port Lincoln.
- Stuart was in the employ of his old shipmate James Sinclair, teaching the Sinclair children at night, and shepherding sheep and bullock driving by day.
- Court hearing at Port Lincoln following a spearing of a man at “Malicha”.
- Surveying a run at Tumby Bay.
- That part of the Flinders Ranges lying north of the latitude of “Oratunga” was comparatively unexplored. Stuart surveyed all the Chambers’s runs in the northern Flinders as well as Mount McKinlay for Alfred Barker.
- In 1855, Mr. Loudon manager at Mt. Arden allowed Hillary Boucaut to accompany Stuart (the famous explorer) on a search for pastoral country in the … in the direction now taken by the East-West Railway – 6 weeks.
- Minbue run plan bears annotations drawn by Stuart.
- Draughtsman to the party Stephen Hack in April.
- July 1857 – Chambers and Finke began making applications for “Orutunga” run.
- Article published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in London on 2 May 1866 states that in 1857 Staurt “made an effort to explore the range of country westward of Lake Torrens.”
- (William Russell became lost from Stuart’s party – this may have taken place in 1857).
- Stuart made a second attempt, which was more fortunate.
- (W.F. Wheeler, surgeon to A.W. Howitt’s party went two times with Stuart. (written by William Russell – Stuart’s nephew).
In 1858, Stuart embarked upon the first of three expeditions (as leader) in search of new grazing lands, minerals and to survey leases for his sponsors, the Chambers brothers, James and John and William Finke.
- First expedition – May – September 1858.
- Second expedition – April – July 1859.
- Third expedition – October 1859 – January 1860.
Then followed three successive attempts to cross the continent.
- Fourth expedition – March – September 1860.
- Fifth expedition – November 1860 – September 1861.
- Sixth expedition – October 1861 – December 1862.
- James Chambers died August 1862.
- On his return Stuart stayed briefly at James Chambers home at North Adelaide, but was staying at the Freemason’s Tavern by Christmas.
- Great Demonstration in Adelaide, January 21st. Stuart was staying at “Murray House” at this time.
- Moved to the Seaside Family Hotel at Brighton. There he stayed for some months.
- Letter to Captain Sturt in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
- Letter dated March 23rd 1863 to the Commissioner of Crown lands.
- Letter to Mrs. King.
- Left Brighton some-time late in 1863 and went to Cobdogla Station, where he made his will.
- In August the grant of a pastoral lease was finally issued in his name.
- Wm Finke died 7th January.
- Went to Chambers Creek and Moolooloo.
- Lease sold to John Chambers and Alfred Barker on 18th March.
- Stuart sailed in the ship Indus, 25th April 1864 for London.
- He stayed in London for the publication of Hardman’s edition of his journals, and in March presented copies of his expeditions to the Queen and the Prince of Wales.
- Stuart presented a paper to the Royal Geographical Society, London, on November 28th.
- Staying at the Arthur’s home, Glasgow, Scotland.
- Mid year, returned to London to stay with his widowed sister at Notting Hill Square.
- Stuart died aged 50 years, 5th June 1866 and was buried at the nearby Kensal Green Cemetery.