John McDouall Stuart

John McDouall Stuart

Today I find from my observations of the sun, that I am now camped in the Centre of Australia.

Stuart's Memorial
John McDouall Stuart, one of the most important people associated with South Australian exploration, was born in Dysart, Fifeshire, Scotland, on 7 September 1815. Educated at Edinburgh and attended the Scottish Naval and Military Academy and later graduated as a civil engineer. He arrived in South Australia in January 1839 and soon found work as a surveyor. Within a short time he bought is own instruments and horses and started out in business for himself. In 1843 he became a farmer but already was an excellent bushman and restless adventurer. After a year of farming he was glad to join Sturt's 1844 expedition. During this expedition they were stuck in the desert for six months. James Poole died and Stuart became second in command, drawing most of the maps as Sturt was almost blind. It was to be eighteen months later before they reached Adelaide again.

Later Stuart made several other expeditions before penetrating the desert areas beyond the salt lakes north of Port Augusta. During the 1850s there was a constant push for more discoveries to counteract the gold discoveries in Victoria which were draining South Australia of its male population. Not only did they search the Flinders Ranges for copper and gold, they were also looking for farming and grazing land and for several years the South Australian government kept men in the field for that purpose.

During these years Stuart was in the Northern Flinders Ranges surveying, prospecting and exploring, financed mainly by the Chambers brothers and his friend William Finke. In May 1858 Stuart set out, with one assistant, Mr Forster, and an Aborigine, on one of the most remarkable journeys in the whole of Australian exploration. They travelled four months, covered more than 2000 kilometres, discovered huge tracks of good grazing land and had survived on rations which were suppose to have lasted for only six weeks before arriving at Streaky Bay. His last diary entry for that trip read, Saturday, 11 September. Arrived at Mr Thompson's station, Mount Arden. I cannot conclude this narrative without acknowledging that it was with the advice and assistance of my friend Mr Finke solely, that I undertook this exploration of the country.

He continued, I therefore look upon him as the original pioneer of all my subsequent expeditions, in which our friend Mr Chambers afterwards joined. Stuart gave his maps and diary to the government and in return received....nothing. The Royal Geographical Society of London rewarded him with a gold watch.

In April 1859 he went north again and it was on this trip that his assistant David Herrgott found artesian springs on 12 April and had them named after him. Many other springs were discovered on that trip which eventually led them to The Neale. Stuart's third expedition started on 4 November 1859 from Chambers Creek. His fourth expedition also started from Chambers Creek where they left on 2 March 1860, this time to find the centre of the continent. On 4 April the party crossed a very large creek 'with the finest gum trees we have yet seen. I have named it the Finke after William Finke. On 22 April 1860 he had reached the centre of Australia and wrote in his journal, that he would plant the British flag tomorrow, 23 April, at what he had named Mount Sturt.

On 25 April 1860 he wrote 'There is a remarkable hill about two miles to the west, having another small hill at the north end in the shape of a bottle; this I named Mount Esther at the request of the maker of the flag'. Esther Knowles was working at Moolooloo when Stuart arrived for his trip to find the Centre of Australia. When Stuart realised that he had not taken a flag with him it was Esther who made one for him. Refusing any money she was happy to have a suitable place named after her by Stuart.

Stuart's greatest achievement was the south-north crossing of the continent and back in 1861-62. The party, which included, among others, 19 year old John William Billiatt and Stephen King, left Adelaide on 26 October 1861 and reached the Indian Ocean on 24 July 1862. The next day the Union Jack, embroidered by Elizabeth Chambers with Stuart's name, was nailed on a tree, followed by three cheers for the Queen. On his return Kekwick, who had been again second in command, wrote to his brother from Mount Margaret Station on 30 November 1862, You will, I am sure, be very much pleased and gratified to hear of the safe arrival here of all our party and the unbounded success that has attended Mr Stuart's third attempt to reach the coast'.

He went on to say that they had been away from Mount Margaret for forty-four weeks, but would remain at the station for some days to give the horses some time to recover before moving further south. Being well aware of the hopes and desires to have an overland telegraph connection with England, Stuart wrote in one of his reports that there would be a few difficulties in the way, but none which could not be overcome and make to repay the cost of such an undertaking.

As a result of this journey, the opening up of the Northern Territory was made possible, and a route discovered for an Overland Telegraph Line linking South Australia with England and the rest of the world in 1872.

In 1863 Britain added the whole of the Northern Territory to South Australia, a decision greeted with great enthusiasm by most South Australians. George Fife Angas though believed the new area to be too big a responsibility for South Australia.

Because of the severe hardships he suffered on his expeditions, Stuart was in poor health and tried to settle down at Moolooloo. He returned to Scotland on 25 April 1864, the same day the Henry Ellis left Port Adelaide for the Northern Territory with surveyors, settlers and officials. He lived with his sister and later moved to London with her where he died on 5 June 1866 at the age of fifty. His funeral was attended by only 7 people. They included 4 relatives, 2 members of the Royal Geographical Society and Alexander Hay who happened to be in London at that time and read his death notice in the Times.

The name Alexandra Land which Stuart would have liked for the Northern Territory was never used. The transcontinental highway still bears his name. Stuart Terrace, Stuarts Well, Stuart Town, Stuart Park, the schooner John McDouall Stuart, Stuart Caravan Park and Central Mount Stuart are all named after John McDouall Stuart.

On his arrival back in Adelaide in 1862, Caroline Carleton, author of the Song of Australia, wrote,

Full many a weary league
Of hunger, thirst, and pain
Our brave explorer trod,
And traversed o'er again,
Before he reached the goal,
And cooled his burning brow,
And stayed his halting steps
Where the northern waters flow.

Grim silence reigned supreme,
Save alligator's plash,
Or sea-mew's shrilly scream,
Or ocean's restless dash;
Yet flashed that leader's eye,
And triumph filled his soul
As he heard the bird's discordant cry,
And saw the waters roll.

Ten years later, to mark the tenth anniversary of Stuart's historic trip, Carleton added another two verses.

Methinks t'were worth a life
To stand as there he stood-
Forerunner of a dauntless race,
Proud rulers of the flood.
Across the desert waste
He hears their hurrying feet;
He sees the flashing wires
That mighty empires greet.

His dream is all fulfilled,
Responsive echoes ring
Around the circling earth,
Sped on the lightning's wing.
And what hath he? - a distant grave;
Unblazoned is his name;
And what have we? - a beaten path
To honour, wealth, and fame.


Stuart is buried in the Kensal Green Cemetery, London.
Pictures supplied by Glenn Trussell 'because of the close and friendly association between Stuart and my great grandfather James Trussell of Cobdogla Station'.

For information about the John McDouall Stuart Society Inc


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