Burke and Wills Memorial in Melbourne
Public Art: Burke and Wills Memorial
Sculptor: © Charles Summers
Description: Burke and Wills have long been a
misdenomar in Australian history. They represent the pioneer spirit but also the callamity that can so easily
befall even the greatest of explorers . Their plight highlights the power of miscomunication and how easily it can
happen. Their simple error makes their story so tragic.
Date Unveiled: 21st of April, 1865
Location: The Burke and Wills memorial is located on
the corner of Swanston and Collins Streets, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
So Who Were Burke and Wills?: Robert O'Hara
Burke (6 May 1820 or 1821– c.28 June 1861) and William John Wills (5 January 1834 – c.June/July 1861) were two
explorers who lead an ill fated expedition to be the first to cross Australia from south to north .
In 1860 Robert O'Hara Burke, William John Wills and a small party, left Melbourne in search of
suitable grazing land between Central Australia and the Gulf of Carpentaria, on the request of the Victorian
Government. The expedition left Melbourne in 1860 and travelled to Menindee on the Darling and then onto a depot at
For the journey the 19 men carried nearly 20 tonnes of supplies and equipment, including 6 tonnes
of firewood! All of these provisions were carried on 6 wagons, but this proved to be a disaster. One wagon didn't
even make the start of the expedition whilst two others broke down at Essendon.
Before long it was realised that the wagons were simply slowing down the journey. Roads were by no
means great and the wheels of the wagons struggled in the mud during the heavy rains. Burke decided to load
provisions onto camels to make the journey faster, despite some men having to now walk. The mood of the men was
starting to disintergrate and it was soon clear that many were not happy with Burke's decisions.
In October Landells (second in command) had had enough and resigned, followed shortly
after by Dr Hermann Beckler (the surgeon). Wills was now promoted to second in charge. With a great deal at stake
(2000 pounds) Burke was growing ever so impatient with the slow progress of his team. So when they arrived at
Menindee, Burke decided that they should split into two teams. He and seven others would head to Coppers Creek as
fast as possible and wait there, whilst the other team (with the majority of provisions) made their way slowly.
On reaching Cooper's Creek Burke set up a depot and scouted around while waiting for the second
team. It was intended that the party would wait until the summer months had passed before continuing their journey,
but Burke grew impatient and decided to leave for the Gulf of Carpentaria in December.
Again the team split up with Burke, Wills, Gray and King setting out for the Gulf while the
remaining party, led by Brahe, stayed at the depot. By February, 1861 Burke, Wills, Gray and King had successfully
made it to the Gulf of Carpentaria. On the way back, however, Gray fell ill and died. This left only a party
of three to struggle back to the depot at Cooper's Creek. When they eventually arrived back to the depot they
discovered that Brahe and his team had left. However, before leaving, Brahe had written a note to Burke and Wills
telling of his groups intentions. Brahe had buried the bottle under a tree and marked its location with the word
"Dig" carved into the bark.
After Burke retreived and read the note, he added a reply and placed it back in the same location for when Brahe
returned. Burke unfortunately forgot to re-mark the tree to indicate that the team had returned and had read
Brahe's note. The three then continued on to Mount Hopeless in South Australia, rather than take the original
When Brahe returned to the depot there appeared to be no sign that the team had returned and so
didn't bother to check the bottle. Brahe then promptly left. Meanwhile Burke, Wills and King struggled to survive
in the extreme conditions eventually forcing Wills to return once more to the depot. Wills dug up the bottle and
found it untouched and assumed that Brahe had not returned. He rejoined Burke and King only to find Burke near
death. Within a few days both Burke and Wills had perished.
When news filtered back of Burke and Wills disappearance six expeditions were sent to search
for them. Two were commissioned by the Exploration Committee, three by the Royal Society of Victoria and one by the
Government of South Australia.
King was eventually found in September by Alfred William Howitt after having be kept alive by
Aborigines. The remains of both Burke and Wills were later retrieved and on the 23rd of January 1863 they both
received a State Funeral.