by Edwin James Welch
Edwin James Welch, The Tragedy of Cooper's Creek
King's return to Melbourne
After leaving the Bulloo on the 11th October, the Party experienced generally fair weather, with the exception of a few hot wind days, and arrived at Menindie on the 28th, when the Darling was over its banks and much of the surrounding country totally submerged. This was unfortunate, as it was desirable to get King through to Melbourne as early as possible, but there was no immediate prospect of getting him across, and it was not until the 6th of November that this could be effected. He was then transferred to the care of Welch, with Weston Phillips – a good all-round bushman and capital traveling companion - as assistant, and the journey was commenced by swimming the Darling and getting the saddler and swags across in a black's old leaky canoe. For miles down the river the backwaters were up and long rides to get round some of them became a daily necessity.
Others that were not too wide were crossed, but occasionally with great difficulty as King was not only unable to swim but had a great dread of immersion, fearing that he might be drowned. But hemmed in on all sides by flood waters, progress had to be made, and the following plan was adopted. Phillips, a strong swimmer, would first cross, pushing in front of him a sheet of bark on which swags and clothes were piled. He would then return, and King, being securely attached to the long switch tail of a quiet pony, was led into the water and practically towed across with Welch swimming on one side and Phillips on the other cheering him up during the passage. Arrived on the other side, he was well rubbed down, given some of his favorite rice and ghee, a little weak brandy and water and the march resumed after a short spell. At the few stations at which it was possible to touch, the greatest hospitality and kindness were extended to the visitors, notably by the Reid's, McPherson's and Fletcher's, from which last-named place a short cut across country took them over to the Murray.
At every station on the Murray, similar treatment was experienced but at Swan Hill the whole township turned out, although it was practically an island, at the time, the Murray being in high flood. Splashing through the mud and water they came, in and on every possible conveyance, headed by Captain Crawford Pasco, RN., the police magistrate; Superintendent Foster of the Police, and Inspector Chomley, and squatters and station hands from all directions followed. A public reception in the Court House, and the presentation of an address were only the prelude to a public banquet on the following day, after which they went on their way in a gorgeously decorated Cobb's Coach to Bendigo. There, the excitement was intense, Burke having been, so well known in the district. From Eaglehawk to the city the road was lined with thousands of diggers, women and children. Strickland, the Mayor, with all the Aldermen, met them at the head of a string of vehicles past counting. The horses were taken out of the Strickland carriage, the three men lifted bodily from the coach and placed in it, the diggers harnessed themselves, and the procession went the round of all the principal streets, to the accompaniment of cheers, brass bands and revolver shots. Madness was in the air, for, no sooner were the men housed in Billy Heffernan's Shamrock Hotel and listening to the eloquence of many speakers proposing many toasts, and absorbing champagne, than Heffernan fought his way into the room imploring everybody to leave the house and take King into the theatre at the rear, where he could be seen by the crowd. They had torn down the balustrade and broken many of the stairs in the struggle to rush in from the street, and the distracted landlord was vehement in his demands for instant departure. This was managed with great difficulty owing to the dense throng, and the theatre was packed in a few minutes, when King was taken on the stage, but all efforts to induce him to say a few words were unavailing. He broke down utterly, and, in a flood of tears, was carried to his room.
The next morning, during Welch's temporary absence, King disappeared from his room and could not be found. Search was made in every direction, until a little boy was met with who had seen him driven away in a cab by an official of one of the cemeteries; two of these institutions were fighting for the honor of being chosen as a site for a monument to the dead explorer, and the mayor at once seized up the situation. Another cab went in pursuit and the first was soon overtaken. The official and King were in front, and the rear was occupied by a garrulous old lady guarding a basket of fruit and tarts, and he was being driven out to choose a site for the memorial. A shrewd way of circumventing a rival, possibly, but a most unfair advantage to take of a man in his weak state. The same day when the three men were at dinner in a private room, they were surprised when a fourth - who had bribed the waiter - crawled out from under the table and proposed in an unmistakable twang that they should honor his theatre with their presence that evening, at the same time offering as many seats in the dress circle for themselves and friends as they chose to select. The offer was politely declined, but King pleaded to be allowed to go, and they went. Strickland and many others accompanied them, and no sooner were they seated, than the theatre was crammed. The smart agent of the troupe had bellmen ready to rush around the city and announce - "King is in the theatre. Roll up, roll up, and give him a rousing welcome!" And they did, but few of them waited at the entrance to pay, and once inside it, it was King they wanted in preference to the play. He had to be taken into a stage box so that all might see him, the curtain was lowered, and he stood bowing mechanically and crying pitifully until led away to bed in a state of exhaustion. The most pleasing feature in connection with this exhibition of smartness, was an admission by the perpetrator that he lost money by it.
Early the next morning, shortly after having had breakfast in his own room, King was besieged by a number of ladies in search of something to remember him by. He was in a state of exhaustion when next seen. One matron was kissing him, two were vigorously fanning him, and most of his hair had been cut off! His only comment was that - "they had been very kind to him!" Went on by coach to Castlemaine afterwards, under a canopy of flags and flowers, the guard playing occasional snatches of "See the conquering hero", on a cornet. A procession met the coach about two miles out and escorted it to Bignell's Hotel, where more champagne was opened and speeches made, then into the coach again and on to Woodend, the terminus of the railway at that time. Here again a great crowd had gathered, and the station master kindly sheltered King and his companions till the train was ready to start, for everyone present tried to insist upon shaking hands and telling him how they admired him. The engine was as gaily decorated as the coach had been, and the platforms at each station on the way were packed with people, who threw bouquets in at the windows, bags of lollies, and many other things, cheering wildly all the time. North Melbourne station was reached, and Dr Wills – the father of the dead explorer - had the train delayed on the ground that the Governor had authorised him to take charge, but as he had no credentials to show, the officer in charge of King declined to give him up, a decision in which he was subsequently shown to be justified, as the Governor had not interfered in any way with the arrangements made by the Committee for his reception. But these were all upset by the report having been spread, with the result that no preparations had been made at Spencer Street, the whole area of that station and the adjoining street being densely crowded with people anxious to see the man of whom Burke , in his dying moments had scrawled, rather than written, in his pocket book:
Ultimately, and when the pressure of the crowd threatened danger, all the available porters, backed up by police, managed to open a lane through the mass and the men were assisted to reach a cab, which drove off to the Government Offices in William Street, the crowd still following and cheering madly.
After a short interval, Sir Henry Barkly and some members of his staff, with some few of the Committee, relieved Welch of his charge, who was shortly after driven with his sister to her home by Sir William and Lady Don, then performing in high-class comedy at the Theatre Royal. So ended the Victorian Expedition of 1860-61, as far as its individual existence was concerned, but it was not altogether done with, as shown by what follows; and that it was not hurriedly forgotten, the columns of the daily press amply testified, being largely utilized by a small army of indignant correspondents, many of whom were bushmen in theory only, but all appeared to be able to apportion the blame of the catastrophe which marked its lamentable end, to their own entire satisfaction.
King was accorded much praise on all sides, and was made the recipient of many valuable presentations, in addition to a pension of £180 per annum by the Government which he lived for many years to enjoy. He well deserved all that was done for him. Few men could have acted better than he did under such stress, and many would have failed in making the attempt. Astonishment was frequently expressed at his survival, where two such men as Burke and Wills perished, but the explanation is simple. King was young, only 23, when they went out; he was of splendid physique, but of limited mental apprehension. No responsibility rested upon his shoulders; beyond the proper discharge of his daily duties, and to worry or anxiety of any kind he was a stranger. His leaders carried the double burden of physical suffering and heavy responsibilities, and succumbed.