Guide to the Papers of Burke and Wills


MS 30

National Library of Australia View Catalogue Record

Collection Summary

Burke and Wills
Papers of Burke and Wills Expedition
Date Range
Collection Number
MS 30
0.15 metres (3 original diaries, 3 binders of copies and transcripts)
Language of Materials
National Library of Australia


Scope and Contents

Papers relating to Robert O'Hara Burke, William John Wills and John King, including diaries, journals, notebooks, account books, letters, notes and a press sheet.

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is available for reference.

Conditions Governing Use

Copying and publishing of unpublished manuscript material is subject to copyright restrictions. For such material, written permission to publish must be obtained from the copyright holder(s). Copying of unpublished material for research purposes is permissible 50 years after the death of the creator of the material.

Preferred Citation

Items from this collection should be cited as '[Title or description of manuscript item], Papers of Burke and Wills Expedition, National Library of Australia, MS 30, [item number]'.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The diary kept by William John Wills from 23 April to 26 June 1861 was acquired by the National Library in 1909, along with the diary kept by Robert O'Hara Burke from 16 December 1860 to 20 January 1861. Both diaries were purchased from Mrs Grace Gavan Duffy for a total of 25 pounds. Mrs Gavan Duffy was the only surviving child of the original transcriber of the diaries, William Henry Archer. She married Philip, the son of Sir Charles Gavan Duffy. Philip was a surveyor and civil engineer. Sir Charles, who was an Irish nationalist and later Premier of Victoria, contributed 40 pounds to the funeral of Robert O'Hara Burke.

The Library bought the diary and other papers of John King in 1936. The diary was offered by H. Scholfield on behalf of Mr Potter of Kaniva, Victoria, together with the 70th Regiment of Foot account books of John King and one belonging to Henry King. The John King 'diary' is fragmentary and is in the form of a retrospective account covering the forward journey to the Gulf of Carpentaria, December 1860-January 1861. The date of writing is not known.

Locations of Other Papers Relating to the Australian Exploring Expedition

Most of the other papers of the expedition were deposited with State Library of Victoria by the Royal Society of Victoria's Expedition Committee in 1875. The papers include reports, despatches and water-colour drawings by members of the Burke and Wills expedition and the relief parties sent in search of it. The originals of Wills' other field notebooks are located in these papers. Transcribed by James Smith, they were published in the Report of the Royal Commission. The dates of these items are as follows: Fieldbooks No. 1 - 8, Cooper's Creek to Carpentaria, 16 December 1860 - February 1861. Fieldbook No. 9 and unnumbered notes, from Carpentaria to Cooper's Creek, February 1861 - 21 April 1861.

King's narrative supplied to A.W. Howitt is also held in State Library of Victoria.

Diaries of William Brahe, A.W. Howitt, W. Landsborough, Commander W.H. Norman and William Wright are held in the State Library of New South Wales.

Published Versions of the Diaries

Diaries of Wills and others were published as part of the report of the Royal Commission, as noted above. A pamphlet published by the Melbourne Argus in 1861 also contains transcripts of all the diaries as well as King's narrative.

Related Holdings of Original Items in the National Library of Australia's Manuscript Collection

Austin, Robert. 'Central Australia', 1860. Contents - Burke and Wills Exploration. Minindie to Cooper's Creek; Wills report. A. W. Howitt's Relief Expedition; Howitt's diary. A. W. Howitt's Recovery Expedition. MS transcript bound in 1 volume (MS 20)

Becker, Ludwig. Letter, 9 March 1860, to Ferdinand von Mueller. Written in German, it refers to the leadership of the Australian Exploring Expedition. (MS 1236)

Gow, Robert Biggart. Diary, 21 Aug. to 25 Oct. 1861, of travels in the pastoral districts of Victoria, N.S.W. and South Australia with cuttings illustrating the Burke and Wills expedition (91 p.). In it he describes meeting with the expedition just outside Melbourne. He was also in Menindie when Wright and the rest of the party returned, and the diary gives their version of what happened. (MS 24)

Somerville, J.D. Notes on aspects of the Burke and Wills Expedition. (MS 102)

Tyson, James. Papers, 1847-1961, including a group of personal papers of R.B. Gow, and maps, including one signed 'W.J. Wills'. (MS 34)

Walker, Frederick. Journal kept on an expedition in 1861 to search for Burke and Wills. (MS 23)

Weatherston, J.S. Unpublished typescript about the expedition (MS 1136)

White, John. Postscript to the author's book, "Burke and Wills: the stockade and the tree" (1992) in reply to David Corke's "Report of the 'Dig Tree' site" (1992). (MS 9042).

Useful Reference and Bibliography

Call Number: p919.4 MCL

McLaren, Ian F. The Victorian Exploring Expedition and relieving expeditions, 1860-61 : the Burke and Wills tragedy. [Melbourne] : Royal Historical Society of Victoria, 1960. [45] p. : ill., map ; 22 cm.

Reprint from the Victorian Historical Magazine, v. 29, no. 4, November 1959, p. 213-253. Bibliography: p. 242-253.

Historical Note

The Burke and Wills Expedition, also known as the Victorian or the Australian Exploring Expedition, was significant because it was the first to cross the continent from south to north. It was also notorious because it resulted in the greatest loss of life of any expedition to the Australian interior. The Expedition set out on 20 August 1860 to travel from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria and return. It was promoted and organised by the Royal Society of Victoria. Four men, including Burke and Wills, made it as far as the mangrove area close to the Gulf (Flinders River). One man (John King) survived the return journey. Burke and Wills starved to death in tragic circumstances on the banks of Cooper's Creek. The others who died were Charles Gray and members of William Wright's and William Brahe's parties: Ludwig Becker, Charles Stone, William Purcell and William Patton.

It is generally agreed that the many wrong decisions taken by Burke as leader of the expedition contributed to its tragic ending. A police officer by training, he was impatient, a poor leader, had little knowledge of bushcraft and no experience of how to live off the land. Wills, on the other hand, was modest. It has been suggested that if he had asserted his opinions more, the expedition might have been saved. A surveyor and good bushman, Wills was appointed at the age of 27 as astronomer and surveyor on the Victorian Exploring Expedition. He was made second-in-command of the expedition after Burke quarrelled with his original deputy, G.J. Landells.

The expedition reached Cooper's Creek on 11 November and set up a depot. From here, Burke and Wills, together with two other men, Gray and King, left on 16 December in a bid to reach the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The four explorers eventually reached the Gulf on 12 February 1861, then made their way back to Cooper's Creek. Gray died on the way and was buried in the bush. The three survivors found the depot deserted and endeavoured (against Wills' advice) to make their way down the Creek towards Adelaide. Burke and Wills died of malnutrition at the end of June. The only survivor was King, who was assisted by a tribe of Aborigines. He was found by the rescue party led by A.W. Howitt, which set out from Melbourne in late August 1861. King led the relief party back to the bodies of Wills and Burke. They were given a public funeral in Melbourne on 1 January 1863 and buried in Melbourne General Cemetery on 21 January.

Item Descriptions


Portion of diary kept by Robert O'Hara Burke on the expedition, 16 December 1860 - 20 January 1861 (Item 1)

Leather bound notebook with broken metal clasp. Measures circa 9 x 16 cms., paged 1-55; writing on 26 pages (in pencil); pages 20-21 and 42-45 torn or cut out leaving only a scrap on which page numbers are written. Burke was in the habit of tearing out pages and using them to write memos to others.

Bought by the National Library in 1909.

Photographs and Photocopy (Item 2)

Photographs of some pages of the diary of Robert O'Hara Burke on the expedition.

Photocopies of portion of journal.

Autographed letter, signed, from Robert O'Hara Burke to his uncle, John Burke, 30 October 1860 (Item 3)

Written from Torowata during the expedition, 30 Oct. 1860. Concerns desertion of Landells and Becker and outlines plans for the rest of the expedition. 2 pages

Transcript (Item 4)

Typed transcript of MS 30/3, above

Photographs of pages on which Burke pencilled his last messages (Item 5)

Headed, "Depot No.2, Cooper Cr., Camp No. LXV." The first four folios only are numbered.

Copied from originals held by the Public Library of Victoria. 9 pages

Engraving of Burke (Item 6)


William John Wills' journal of trip 'from Cooper Creek towards Adelaide', 23 April 1861 - 26 June 1861 (Item 7)

Blue notebook (c. 12.5 cm. X 20 cm.), cardboard covers one partly torn, 125 pages with writing in pencil on 115 pages.

Bought by the National Library in 1909.

William John Wills' journal of trip "from Cooper Creek towards Adelaide"

Photograph of note left by Wills at 'the creek', 30 May 1861 (Item 8)

2 pages


Press sheet The Argus Office announcing the deaths of Burke and Wills, 3 November 1861 (Item 9)

1 page

The Victorian exploration expedition [manuscript] : the continent crossed : death of Burke and Wills : their remains found, 1861 November 2

Account for funeral of Burke and Wills, 1863 (Item 10)

Account for funeral of Burke and Wills sent to the Exploration Committee, 1863. 1 page (copy).

Held in folio box.


Part of the retrospective account by John King, December 1860 - January 1861 (Item 11)

Part of the retrospective account by John King, sole survivor of the expedition, relating to the journey to the Gulf, Dec. 1860 - Jan. 1861. Date of writing not known.

Small unlined notebook without covers. 49 pages with pencilled writing on 33 pages. Very few dates given.

Typed transcript of the journal of John King (Item 12)

Typed transcript of the journal of John King, MS 30/12 above. 21 pages

Regimental account book, Monthly settlements (Item 13)

Regimental account book, 1853, of John King, 70th Regiment of Foot. Written on four pages.

Monthly settlements, clothing account and savings bank account book, 1859-60. Written on ten pages.

Monthly settlements, clothing account book of Henry King [? John King's father?], 1837. Written on five pages.

Typed notes on John King and on the Royal Hibernian Military School, 1769 - 1924 (Item 14)

By F.H. Hawkins and D.W. Roberts. 4 pages.

John King attended the Royal Hibernian Military School from 1847 to 1853.

Typescript The Victorian Exploring Expedition. Diary of Burke and Wills, and Narrative of King, 1861 (Item 15)

Published in Melbourne at The Age office, MDCCLXI (1861).