The South Australian Great Northern Exploring Expedition 1861-1862

Stuart’s Track 1861 – 1862. Map by David Kennett.

John McDouall Stuart officially set out on the 25th October 1861 from “Montefiore House”, the residence of James and Catherine Chambers in North Adelaide, on his sixth expedition. This was his third, and ultimately successful attempt to cross Australia.

The Expedition completed the first European crossing of Australia, from Adelaide to Van Diemen Gulf, passing through the Centre of the Continent, and returning along the same route without loss of life.

Members of the Party

The members of the party:
  • John McDouall Stuart……………..Commander
  • William Darton Kekwick…………..Second in Command
  • Francis William Thring…………… Third Officer
  • William Patrick Auld……………… Assistant
  • Stephen King Jnr.
  • John William Billiatt
  • James Frew Jnr.
  • Heath Nash
  • John McGorrery……………………..Shoeing Smith
  • Frederick George Waterhouse…… Naturalist
The Expedition departed from Chambers Creek on January 8, 1862 under the command of John McDouall Stuart. The other members were William Darton Kekwick – second officer, Francis William Thring – third officer, William Patrick Auld, Stephen King, John W. Billiatt, James Frew, Heath Nash, John McGorrery and Frederick George Waterhouse, naturalist.
Central Mt Stuart.

Central Mt Stuart.

Three months later, they reached the site of Stuart’s former camp at Newcastle Waters. He rested the horses for a week before facing the battle to cross Sturt’s Plains which had defeated him on his previous expedition. Stuart made many scouting trips ahead and eventually discovered a series of waterholes, creeks, springs and rivers, which he named after his companions. On Thursday, July 24, 1862, Stuart recorded:-
Stopped the horses to clear a way, whilst I advanced a few yards on to the beach, and was gratified and delighted to behold the water of the Indian Ocean in Van Diemen’s Gulf….I returned to the valley, where I had my initials cut on a large tree (J.M.D.S.)
Stuart’s tree

Stuart’s tree, since bunt down.

The next day, exactly nine months since leaving Adelaide, the British Flag (Union Jack) was raised on the northern shore at Chambers Bay, east of present day Darwin.
Field notebook

Field notebook from July to December 1862.

John McDouall Stuart’s great ambition in life was achieved – his mission accomplished. Years later Auld recalled that immediately he did it he seemed to collapse, and said:-
I have tried all my life to do this, and now have succeeded.
They faced a return journey of 3400 kilometres along the same route and this journey rates as one of the greatest feats of survival in Australian European exploration.
Stuart’s binoculars.

Stuart’s field glasses & case, Historical Relics Collection, photo courtesy History SA.

The men and horses were weary from the nine months travelling, camping out in the open and surviving on severely limited rations and poor water. Stuart’s journal for the return contains a vivid record of his sufferings. The years of continual hardship on his many trips, with only brief intervals between, were now taking their toll.
I am very doubtful of my being able to stand the journey back to Adelaide. Whatever may occur, I must submit to the will of Divine Providence.
His eye-sight failed and Auld, a cadet surveyor, was required to take the observations. Auld also nursed Stuart and, in later years, was moved to tears when he recalled the suffering experienced by Stuart. When Stuart could no longer ride, McGorrery, the blacksmith, constructed a stretcher mounted between two long poles and Stuart was carried some 960 kilometres between two horses.
The devotion, care and assistance of the men he called his Companions saved his life and he finally reach Adelaide on December 17, 1862. Of the 72 horses that left Chambers Creek, 48 returned to Adelaide.

Members by Age on the Day of Departure

The members of the Exploring Expedition are listed here with their age on the day of departure form North Adelaide.
  • John McDouall Stuart………………….46 years, 1 month
  • William Darton Kekwick……………….38 years, 10 months
  • Francis William Thring…………….. …24 years, 5 months
  • William Patrick Auld……………………21 years, 5 months
  • Stephen King Jnr………………………19 years, 10 months
  • John William Billiatt……………………19 years, 1 month
  • James Frew Jnr………………………..21 years, 4 days
  • Heath Nash…………………………….23 years, 1 month
  • John McGorrery………………………..21 years, 9 months
  • Frederick George Waterhouse………..46 years, 2 months

Place and Date of Birth

The members of the Exploring Expedition are listed here with their place and date of birth gleaned from records held by the John McDouall Stuart Society Inc.
  • John McDouall Stuart 07/09/1815….Dysart, Fifeshire, Scotland.
  • William Darton Kekwick 03/12/1822….East Ham, Essex, England.
  • Francis William Thring 01/05/1837….Netherton, England.
  • William Patrick Auld 27/05/1840….Stalybridge, near Manchester, England.
  • Stephen King Jnr 15/12/1841….Kingsford (near Gawler) South Australia.
  • John William Billiatt 11/09/1842….Honington, Lincolnshire, England.
  • James Frew Jnr 21/10/1840….Adelaide, South Australia.
  • Heath Nash 02/10/1838….Adelaide, South Australia.
  • John McGorrery ?/01/1840….County Tyrone, Ireland…. (McGorrery’s d.o.b. is an estimation based on his age and date of death recorded on his headstone).
  • Frederick George Waterhouse 25/08/1815…London, England.

The Last Years

While Adelaide celebrated, the people of Melbourne stood in silent tribute as the bodies of Burke and Wills were laid to rest. What should have been a joyful home-coming for Stuart was tempered by the news that his best friend, James Chambers, had died on August 7, 1862.
After the initial excitement of the great celebration had waned, Stuart found himself without home or family. His lease at Chambers Creek had been granted but his poor health influenced his decision to sell out to John Chambers and Alfred Barker. His right hand was crippled, the result of an accident on the day the final expedition left Adelaide, and he was unable to work as a surveyor.
Stuart had given everything he had to give to achieve his aim, and his life now seemed empty. He turned to William Finke for assistance but tragically, Finke died on January 18, 1864 and although John Chambers was supportive, Stuart decided to return to England. He sailed from Port Adelaide in April 1864 on the Indus, which was not the same diminutive barque which carried him to the colony twenty five years earlier. About the same time the Henry Ellis sailed, carrying the first party of officials, surveyors and prospective settlers to establish a new town on Australia’s north coast, close to the mouth of the Adelaide River.
Stuart’s grave

John McDouall Stuart’s grave at Kensal Green cemetery, London.

Stuart died on June 5, 1866, aged fifty years and was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery, London. Only seven people attended his funeral. His widowed sister, Mary Turnbull, arranged for the erection of the tombstone which still marks his grave. It was damaged during World War II, and the grey granite needle on top disappeared. In 2010 the Stuart Society in partnership with the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia, arranged for a replacement neeedle – a project completed 56 years after it commenced!
When Stuart died, his reputation and achievements as an explorer were being questioned. The first surveyors sent to locate the area where he reached the coast failed to locate the tree he had marked. Several of his companions who were working in the region, were challenged to identify the site, but after searching, they had to admit that they were unable to do so. Stuart’s latitudes were correct but his longitudes were less accurate (for navigators of that era, establishing longitude accurately was a serious issue) and so he followed the Mary River and not the Adelaide River to the coast. Half a degree of longitude (approximately 35 miles or 60 kilometres) separated the two rivers. Some critics cast doubts on his achievements and his character. It would be two decades before his tree was located and photographed, with his initials still clearly visible – his name at last was cleared!

Stuart’s Method of Exploration

Stuart’s approach to exploration was in stark contrast to Sturt’s. Stuart referred to his men as his Companions and did not have the military barriers of rank that Sturt had. Stuart aimed for maximum speed, with no slow moving wagons or travelling stock for rations. Horses were his only means of transport. Camels were not considered, nor were they available in Australia. He did not attempt, as Sturt had, to combine detailed surveying with exploration. He only used aboriginal guides on two occasions, then abandoned that idea. His only navigational instruments carried were the sextant, artificial horizon and prismatic compass. R.R. Knuckey, who later worked on the construction of the Overland Telegraph, wrote of Stuart:-
He was simply a marvel for horseback traverse. His map was so correct that we used simply to put a protractor and scale on it, get the bearing and distance, and ride with the same confidence as we would ride from Adelaide to Gawler.
As Aeneas Gunn, a well-known pioneer of the Northern Territory recorded:-
His expeditions were undertaken without ostentation. He took no theatrical risks nor hazardous shortcuts and he came through his journeys without tragic failures or dramatic incidents to mark them for public concern.
On the final journey, Stuart prohibited the keeping of private diaries, possibly at the insistence of his sponsors. Stuart had, after his first expedition of 1858, let others see his diaries. The commercial benefit of having first knowledge was immeasurable, and subsequently he always granted Finke and the Chambers brothers first access to his diaries and maps. The only exception was on the last expedition, because the Government had partially funded the expedition and appointed naturalist FG Waterhouse. Fortunately, Stephen King made a series of sketches. They are an invaluable record – the only images of the journey.
Stuart, to his credit, had an enlightened view of the aboriginal people – possibly due to his association with Sturt and Edward John Eyre. His journals contain many references which reveal his keen interest in their activities and characteristics. He admired the “bold spirit” of a child and the planning and execution of their attack on him at Attack Creek. He was sometimes amused by their antics. It is clear however, that he encountered increased hostility when he returned for his second and third attempts to cross the continent. Fire-arms were used as a last resort and then only to serve as a warning.
John McDouall Stuart spent half his life, 25 years, in South Australia. Mona Stuart Webster once wrote:-
The most important thing that Stuart gave his “adopted country,” as he called South Australia, is the route across the Continent! The search for it dominated the later years of his life to such an extent that nothing else — health, or money, or home and family — mattered to him so much as finding a way to reach the northern shore. When he had found it, his health was gone and with it all hope of wealth or a home of his own, but to the end he was confident that he had achieved something of real value for which his name would be remembered.