Chapter 4: Assembling the expedition...
Despite the interest in exploration, enthusiasm for raising the additional £2,000 was limited and it took a year to raise enough money to secure the £1,000 offered by Ambrose Kyte. The Exploration Committee then applied to the government for a further £6,000, which Chief Justice Sir William Stawell approved.
The camels arrived in Hobson's Bay, Port Melbourne aboard the Chinsurah on Wednesday 13th June 1860 and the next day they were unloaded and taken along over the Princess Bridge and along Swanston and Bourke Streets to stables at Parliament House. These strange oriental beasts caused a great stir in the city and police were forced to clear a path as large crowds gathered to watch the colourful procession.
The Exploration Committee set about securing a leader for the expedition, their initial choice was the South Australian, Peter Egerton Warburton, but they also considered A C Gregory and William Blandowski. The debate over the leader continued throughout the early months of 1860 and many meetings and several votes were taken without a clear majority for one leader over another. The meeting of the 20th June 1860 ended with a vote, Robert O'Hara Burke got 10 votes, Warburton 5 and von Tempsky none. Burke was announced as leader.
Robert O'Hara Burke was born at Saint Clerans, County Galway, Ireland in 1821. He joined the 7th Reuss Regiment of the Hungarian Hussars in 1841 and was promoted to lieutenant. After leaving the army in 1847 he returned to Ireland and joined the Irish Mounted Constabulary before migrating to Australia 1853, where he joined the Victorian Police, firstly as Acting Inspector at Carlsruhe on the Campaspe River, then Senior Inspector at Beechworth. In 1858 he took leave of absence to fight in Crimea but arrived after war had finished. Burke returned to Victoria and was appointed Superintendent of Police for the Castlemaine district. He had no experience of exploration, navigation or surveying and had never been outside the settled districts.
The expedition was known as the "Victorian Exploring Expedition" (VEE), and once Burke had been appointed as leader, the Royal Society set about appointing the other officers. George Landells, who had brought the camels from the Karachi, was appointed Second-in-command. William John Wills was appointed third in command, astronomer and surveyor. Wills' was born in Totnes, England on 5th January 1834 and educated at St Andrews Grammar School, Ashburton. He migrated to Australia in 1852 with his younger brother Thomas where they found work in Deniliquin as shepherds. In 1855, Wills began to study surveying and moved to Melbourne to work under Georg Neumeyer at the Flagstaff Observatory.
Two other officers were appointed, both Germans, Dr Hermann Beckler became Scientific Observers' Botanical Observer and Dr Ludwig Becker was appointed as Artist, Naturalist and Geographer.
Applications for assistants were called for and 700 were received. Burke interviewed 300 of these men in three hours at the Royal Society halls on 4th July 1860 and then appointed people he already knew. An American, Charles Ferguson, was appointed foreman, William Patten was the blacksmith, John Drakeford the cook, Robert Fletcher the storekeeper and six other men were appointed as assistants and four Indian sepoys were employed to look after the camels.
The VEE began to assemble in Royal Park, Melbourne. The men were instructed on rifle shooting and caring for camels, and up to 20 tonnes of stores were amassed. Several farewell dinners and church services were held for the expedition party and a formal MEMORANDUM OF AGREEMENT was signed by all the men at the hall of the Royal Society of Victoria, where Sir William Stawell gave his farewell speech which emphasised the hardships and duty required of all the men.
The day before departure there was a conflict between Landells and one of the men, Creber, after Landells accused Creber of drunkenness. Burke dismissed both Creber and Fletcher (who had supported Creber) for incompetence.
The Victorian Exploring Expedition departed Royal Park on the Monday 20th August 1860. As many as 15,000 people were at the park that day and the crowd hindered the departure, a camel broke away from its handler and bolted through the crowd, frightening a horse which threw its mistress, breaking her leg. Burke dismissed one of the assistants, Owen Cowen for becoming:
...a little too hilarious through excess of beer.
He then hired three more men on the spot. Finally, at around 4.00 pm Melbourne's mayor, Dr Eades, mounted one of the drays and made a FAREWELL SPEECH before calling for 'Three cheers for Mr Burke, Mr Landells and the party as a whole.'
The band struck up 'Cheer boys, cheer' and the party headed off along Mount Alexander Road towards Essendon. One of the wagons broke down immediately it started and two of the others only made three miles before breaking down. The party only travelled four miles down the road to the little village of Essendon before camping at Moonee Ponds.
The expedition at this stage consisted of 6 Irishmen, 5 Englishmen, 1 American, 3 Germans and four Indians.
Listen to 'Cheer Boys Cheer'