William John Wills


William John Wills : biography

5 January 1834 – 28 June 1861

Burke and Wills expedition

Robert O’Hara Burke was appointed leader of the Victorian Exploring Expedition with George James Landells as second-in-command. Wills was appointed third-in-command, surveyor, astronomical and meteorological observer in July 1860 on a salary of £300 a year.

The expedition left Melbourne on Monday, 20 August 1860 with a total of 19 men, 27 camels and 23 horses. They reached Menindee on 16 October 1860 where Landells resigned following an argument with Burke. Wills was promoted to second-in-command.

Burke split the expedition at Menindee and the lead party reached Cooper Creek on 11 November 1860 where they formed a depot. The remaining men were expected to follow up from Menindee and so after a break, Burke decided to make a dash to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Burke split the party again and left on 16 December 1860, placing William Brahe in charge of the depot on Cooper Creek. Burke, Wills, John King and Charley Gray reached the mangroves on the estuary of the Flinders River, near where the town of Normanton now stands, on 9 February 1861. Flooding rains and swamps meant they never saw open ocean.

Already weakened by starvation and exposure, progress on the return journey was slow and hampered by the tropical monsoon downpours of the wet season. Gray died four days before they reached the depot at Cooper Creek and the other three took a day to bury him. They eventually reached the depot on 21 April 1861 to find the men had not arrived from Menindee, and ironically that Brahe and the Depot Party had given up waiting and left just 9 hours earlier. Brahe had already waited 18 weeks for their return (he and Burke had agreed to 13 weeks) and had buried a note and some food underneath a tree which is now known as the Dig Tree.

Burke, Wills and King attempted to reach Mount Hopeless, the furthest extent of settlement in South Australia, which was closer than Menindee (the route preferred by Wills), but failed and returned to Cooper Creek. While waiting for rescue Wills became exhausted and was unable to continue. He urged Burke and King to continue on, leaving him alone with food, water and shelter. Wills died alone at a place called Breerily Waterhole on Cooper Creek in South Australia. Burke died soon after. The exact date of their deaths is unknown, but has generally been accepted to be 28 June 1861.

King survived with the help of Aborigines until he was rescued in September by Alfred William Howitt. Howitt buried Burke and Wills before returning to Melbourne. In 1862 Howitt returned to Cooper Creek and disinterred Burke and Wills’ bodies, taking them first to Adelaide and then by steamer to Melbourne where they were laid in state for two weeks. On 23 January 1863 Burke and Wills received a State Funeral and were buried in Melbourne General Cemetery.

A monument to Wills is located in Totnes, Devon.