Monday 19 March 2012


In 1860–61, Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills led an expedition of 19 men with the intention of crossing Australia from Melbourne in the south to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, a distance of around 3,250 kilometres (approximately 2,000 miles). At that time most of the inland of Australia had not been explored by non-indigenous people and was completely unknown to the European settlers. The south-north leg was successfully completed (except that they were stopped by swampland 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) from the northern coastline), but owing to poor leadership and bad luck, both of the expedition's leaders died on the return journey. Altogether, seven men lost their lives, and only one man, John King, crossed the continent with the expedition and returned alive to Melbourne.

The Victorian Government held a Commission of Enquiry into the deaths of Burke and Wills. Howitt was sent back to Cooper Creek to recover their bodies and the explorers were given a state funeral in Melbourne on Wednesday, 21 January 1863. The funeral car was modelled on the design used for the Duke of Wellington ten years earlier. There were reported to have been 40,000 spectators. Burke and Wills were then buried at the Melbourne General Cemetery.

The memorial in Melbourne General Cemetery consists of a massive granite slab. Around the four sides of the base are the following inscriptions:
In memory of
 Robert O'Hara Burke
 and William John Wills leader 
and second in command 
of the
 Victorian exploring expedition
 died at Cooper’s Creek
 June 1861.
Comrades in a great achievement 
companions in death
 associates in renown. The first to cross
 the continent of Australia
 Burke Wills
 Gray King survivor.

Burke and Wills Statue (1865) by Charles Summers on the corner of Collins and Swanston Streets, Melbourne. Charles Summers was born in England in 1825. After gaining his early training with his stonemason father, he studied at London’s Royal Academy. Summers arrived in Australia in 1852, setting up his Melbourne studio three years later. He undertook many significant commissions around fledgling Melbourne, and designed one of the earliest sculptures erected in Fitzroy Gardens, River God Fountain
Artist  William Strutt (3 July 1825 - 3 January 1915) was only in Melbourne for a period of about twelve years. However the years from 1850 to 1862 were highly significant ones in the history of Melbourne, and Strutt, along with S.T. Gill left us some of our most enduring visual images of the period. Some of his works were painted in retrospect after returning to England.  William Strutt's Burial of Burke  is usually considered to be his finest painting and is on display at the State Library of Victoria.
This post is part of Julie's Taphophile Tragics meme.


  1. Fascinating post and marvelous captures as always, Nick! As I've written before, I do so appreciate the history that you share with us!! Hope your week is off to a great start! Enjoy!


  2. Surprenante cette sculpture en hommage, et impressionnante

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  3. Hi Nick, thank you for giving me a nice post. I love the last painting, which is very appealing.

  4. This is quite fascinating, Nick. I knew the general background, but was unaware of the reburial and the adoration. I thought somehow, that their bodies were just left where they fell. The statue brings our their youth and their athleticism. Whereas the granite plinth for their Melbourne General marker is all hardness and determination. I guess all of these attributes were required by both men in bucket-loads.

    I, too, like the painting. I wonder if it is his burial in the outback or his reburial in Melbourne. It does not appear to be in the outback! It has a most modern composition to it.

    Thanks, yet again, for your contribution to Taphophile Tragics, Nick. And for the detail which you include each week. I, for one, thrive on it.

  5. What amazing vision these guys had ... I must watch out for the statue in Collins St when next in Melbourne.... Well captured Nick.

  6. Interesting. I always thought they were buried where they died.

  7. These are the men, who helped England to expand their empire. In helping England they also helped mankind to show how courage and adventure is needed by men, to advance civilisation!

    Well done Melbourne.

  8. I find the story of Burke and Wills very sad - and full of 'what ifs'. But it's also a cautionary tale for people who even today want to explore very remote areas of Australia without making adequate preparation! Like several above, I didn't know where they were buried - the 'Dig' tree at Innamincka would have been my guess!

  9. The certainly were icons of our great land. Great post.

  10. This is a really great post ... I had no idea about the final resting place of these explorers.

  11. lovely photos with a great sense of history. thanks for sharing your world.

  12. Always believed that all these memorials to Burke and Wills seem to symbolise the value of vision in the evolving Australian identity. Not often does a memorial look forward as well as back to the past. Wonderful post gathering all these Burke and Wills tributes together.

  13. I remember reading about this bit of history (though I would not have remembered their names). Yes, this is nice to have all these different tributes to these men together.

  14. That's a big monument. Thanks for the history.

  15. Fascinating history. The stone monument is stunning. The sculpture too is just wonderful. Love the final painting, so full of life and remorse of death all at the same time. Thank you for the history lesson.

  16. I am really enjoying learning bits about Australia's history...this reminds me of our Lewis n Clark explorers or John Wesley Powell. The memorial is fantastic the story is priceless...Thank you for this post!!

  17. Nice post - so much of what is written about Burke and Wills is inaccurate - pleasing to see someone has really done their homework and got the story right. If this has whetted anyone's appetite for more info, try or There are also some facebook pages.

  18. That is a huge tombstone! The story is very interesting!

  19. Fascinating glimpse into an unfamiliar history (for me at least) of intrepid Victorian exploration in Australia. The painting is very moving, it looks like the tree has been carved as a memorial marker, an appropriate tribute.

  20. Interesting bit of history! I also find the smaller "visited by" from the 50th anniversary marker interesting. Hard to make out all the text, though.


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