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through the Interior of Australia from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

From the Journals and Letters of William John Wills, edited by his father, William Wills.
London: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street.
(Ferguson 18622)
1862.

Chapter 4

  • My Son is appointed to the Magnetic Observatory at Melbourne, under Professor Neumayer
  • His Rapid Advance in the Study of Magnetism and Mineralogy
  • Letters to his Relatives at Home, descriptive of his Pursuits, Wishes, and Sentiments
  • First suggestions of his Probable Employment on the Exploring Expedition

In November 1858, my son received an appointment in the Magnetic Observatory at Melbourne, then recently established under Professor Neumayer, on the recommendation of Mr Ligar, the Surveyor-General. This gentleman had his eye on him, as he told me himself, to succeed the professor, in the event of his returning to his native country, Germany; and also with the view of his being employed, on attaining a thorough knowledge of magnetic science, in the geodetic survey of the colony. Such was the progress he made, that Mr Ellery, superintendent of the astronomical observatory at Williamstown, tried to dissuade him from engaging in the exploratory expedition, when formed. But notwithstanding the prospect of double pay and less danger, he yielded to his long-cherished desire of being one of the first to reach the Gulf of Carpentaria overland by a direct route, north from Melbourne; and therefore resolved to 'set his life upon a cast, and stand the hazard of the die' [from Shakespeare's 'Richard III'].

I now give a series of extracts from his letters to his mother, sisters, and brother, written during his residence at the Observatory. They indicate his character, sentiments, and occupations more distinctly than I could do by rendering them in my own words. He and his chief boarded together; a great advantage, as it gave him the opportunity, even at table, of conversing on his favourite subjects, astronomy and magnetism. At times, he feared that he should lose this position. One cause of apprehension was, that the local parliament would discontinue the grant for the Observatory; another, that superior interest might wrest it from him, as he had not been regularly appointed to the staff by Government, but by Mr Ligar himself, who had seen, by intercourse with him during the survey, that he was putting ' the right man in the right place.'

In a letter to me, December 1858, he says:

I hope I shall not have to go into the bush again, I like Melbourne and my present occupation so much. But everything must be uncertain until after Christmas, as all depends on Parliament voting money for the Observatory. Should they not allow the necessary sum, I must return to surveying once more.

Magnetic Observatory, Melbourne,
March 16th, 1859.

My dear Mother,
It gave me much pleasure to receive a letter from you by the last mail; but I can assure you that I am always so busy, and the time passes so quickly, that I had almost forgotten to write to you until it was too late, as the mail closes early to-morrow morning. I am now living at the Observatory, Professor Neumayer having kindly given me a room here, which is a great advantage in many ways.

I hope that Charley will take every opportunity of learning the things I mentioned in a letter to him some time ago, more especially mathematical drawing: and that I shall see in the next letter I receive from him that he has changed his mind as regards the profession he said he had a taste for. I wish he would find out for me whether there is a translation into English of Colonel Savage's Practical Astronomy. It is a Russian work, and the place to inquire is of some of the booksellers in London who confine themselves to foreign publications.

I like my present employment more and more every day. My only trouble is the want of time. I hope you all find your time pass as easily as I do; if the girls do not, they may as well kill some of it by writing letters. I have so much to do that.

I must conclude, with love to all.
Ever, my dear mother,
Your affectionate son,
William J Wills

Magnetic Observatory,
June 17th, 1859.

My dear Mother,
It was my intention to have sent you a stereoscopic photograph of your dear son by this mail; but owing to pressure of business I have been unable to get it done in time. I must therefore leave it until next month.

I received a letter from Ballaarat a day or two ago, containing one from you to my father; you say something in it about not hearing from me. I do not understand how that is, as I have been wonderfully regular lately, and have sent a letter every month to one of you. I am sorry to hear that the winter has been so mild, for I fear that may cause much damage from frost in the spring. We have had a considerable quantity of rain here already, which is a great benefit to the country generally, but makes it rather unpleasant in Melbourne.

Wonderful improvements have been made in our public library lately. It is now really a splendid one; in fact there are very few better anywhere.

I enclose a News Letter, which is a great convenience to lazy fellows, or to those who have too much work.

Give my love to all, and Believe me, my dear mother,
Your affectionate son,
William J Wills

Magnetic Observatory, Melbourne,
June 17th, 1859.

My dear Bessy,
I must write a few lines to you, more especially as I wrote to Hannah by the last mail; but mind, I must have a long answer by return of post. I want to know whether Charles got the maps of the stars that I told him to get some time ago. If so, he should begin at once to keep a register of meteors. In the first place, let him get a book--a good copybook would do--and rule it according to the following form, to which I have attached an example:--

Column
1
Column
2
Column
3
Column
4
Column
5
Number
(Name) of Meteor.
Day
of
Month.
Hour
of
Day.
Altitude.
At commencement
Altitude.
At
end.
1
June 1
8 P.M.
35
degrees
20 degrees

 

Column
6
Column
7
Column
8
Column
9
Azimuth.
At
commencement
Azimuth. At
end.
Description of its situation
with respect
to certain
Stars. At commencement
Description of its situation with respect
to certain Stars. At end.
north-east
east by south
2 or 3 degrees below Spica.
To Anthers.

Column
1
Column
2
Column
3
Column
4
Column
5
Column
6
Column
7
Size
of
Meteor.
Length
of
Tail.
Colour
of
Meteor.
Duration
of
Meteor.
Duration
of
Tail.
Remarks.
Observer.
May 2
5 degrees
Yellow
1 second
3 seconds
Small,
but very
bright.
west.

The time should be very carefully noted. If there is anything in the form that he does not understand he must ask me about it when he writes. The altitude and azimuths will only be approximate, but the main thing is to see how the shooting stars are situated with reference to the fixed stars. It is of great importance to note these meteors, even the small ones, as very little is yet known of them; and every observation, if carefully made, will some day help to show what they are. The object in noting the stars they pass by is this: that if two or more observers see the same meteor from places several miles from one another, the comparison of their observations will generally give a means of ascertaining the distance of the meteor from the earth.

But it is getting late, and I will write to Charley more about it by next mail; only tell him to make himself well acquainted with the stars. Give my love to him and Hannah, your aunt M, and old Anne; and tell me in your next how the latter is getting on: and do not forget to let me know all about Charley and how he spends his time. I am afraid that you little girls take him out walking too much, and make him read pretty stories instead of the books he ought to be studying.

Your affectionate brother,
William J Wills.

Magnetic Observatory, Melbourne,
July 14th, 1859.

My dear Mother,
The news by the last mail has put us all in a state of excitement about our defenses, in the event of England being involved in the continental war. Melbourne is badly situated in case of an invasion. There is at present not the least protection; and unless the home government sends us out two or three good war steamers, we shall most certainly get a good thrashing some day. The French have possession of the island of New Caledonia, which is not very far from here, and is a convenient place of rendezvous for them. I see by your letter to my father that you are rather afraid the French may invade England. For my part I believe they have more sense. It is the most hopeless thing they can attempt.

I send you two or three photographs; they are very poor, and not stereoscopic as I intended. The artist made a failure of the matter and gave me these. He is going to try it again some day with a better camera; but as that would be too late for the mail I must send you these now, and you may expect better next time. I find that the mail is to close this afternoon instead of Monday morning, but if a supplementary bag should be made up on Monday I will write again. I hope that in future you will direct my letters to Melbourne instead of Ballaarat, for I seldom get them until the return mail is about to start.

We have had some rather cold weather lately; that is, the thermometer has been below thirty-two degrees once or twice, which is cold for us.

I am glad to hear that Charley has been appointed to the Bank, as it is a good thing for all parties at present.

I fear that I shall be unable to send you a News Letter this time. I wish you would tell me whether you find anything of interest in them; also whether you would like to have the Argus sometimes.

Adieu for the present, my dear mother,
Your affectionate son,
William J Wills

August 6th, 1859.

My dear Mother,
You see I have sent you the News Letter for this month, with a long account of an unfortunate shipwreck that happened on the coast last month. It is a wonder how those passengers that were saved managed to exist so long without food. The only reasonable explanation that has been offered is, that as they were continually wet, from the sea breaking over them, a large quantity of moisture must have been absorbed by the skin, otherwise they could never have lived so long without fresh water. It must have been an awkward situation to be in. I fancy I would rather have been drowned at once; but it is not easy to judge how we should feel under the circumstances, unless we had tried it. As Pope says, Hope springs eternal in the human breast; man never is, etc. (of course you know the rest). It strikes me that the height of happiness is, to hope everything and expect nothing, because you have all the satisfaction of hope, and if you get nothing you are not disappointed; but if you obtain what you want, you are agreeably surprised.

Your affectionate son,
William J Wills

Flagstaff Observatory, Melbourne,
August 15th, 1859.

My dear Mother,
I am glad to be able to acknowledge the receipt by this mail of the first letter that you have sent to me direct since I have been in Melbourne. It is satisfactory to know that you are pleased with the News Letters; I must endeavour to send them regularly.

I had a letter from my father to-day. He has received yours, which we feared was lost, as he saw nothing of it for some days after the mail was in; but he found it at Bath's Hotel. One must make some little allowance for a mother's partiality in your account of B[essy] and H[annah]; I hope your prejudice against novels does not prevent their reading those of Thackeray and Dickens, every one of whose works, especially the former, should be read by them, for they contain some of the best things, both in a moral and literary point of view, that we have in the English language.

I shall be more careful in future about the postage; and now, my dear mother, with love to yourself and all,

I remain,
Your affectionate son,
William J Wills.

Flagstaff Observatory, Melbourne,
September 15th, 1859.

My dear Mother,
I was rather disappointed at not receiving a letter from any one by the last mail. I have not heard from my father since it arrived. I conclude he has not sent me your letters to him, thinking that I have received some myself.

I suppose you are all glad that the war has ended so unexpectedly. It is to be hoped that the peace will be a permanent one, although people here generally appear to think that it will not prove so. The election of members for our lower house will soon terminate. Judging from the results already known, we are likely to have a curious Parliament this time.

Our winter is nearly over. Last night there was a festival held in honour of Alexander von Humboldt. It was unfortunately a very wet evening, which prevented a great many from attending who would otherwise have been there.

I hope you are all in good health. It would have pleased you much to have seen the two splendid auroras, of which I have sent Charley a description. At one time it was light enough to read a newspaper out of doors, after the moon went down. I must now say adieu.

With much love to all,
Believe me, my dear mother,
Your affectionate son,
William J Wills

Melbourne,
September 15th, 1859.

My dear Charley,
I send you by this mail two accounts of auroras, which we have had the pleasure of observing here, one on the 28th ultimo, and the other on the 2nd instant. I would recommend you to take care of these papers, as you may find it very interesting to refer to them at some future period. You will perhaps be so good as to let me know by return of post whether anything of the kind was observed in England about the same time; and be careful to state the dates and hours, etc., as exactly as possible. You will find much, in the reports I have sent you, to object to, in the manner of expression and the words used; but you must make due allowance for their having been written by a German (Professor Neumayer). I have corrected some of the most prominent errors in the second. I wish you would look out for every description of auroras that may appear in the newspapers, as well as for the phenomena themselves. You might always cut out the paragraphs, and put them in a letter; and in the event of your seeing one yourself, you might write a description, being particular to note the time of the different phases as nearly as you can. By just taking this small amount of trouble you will be rendering a much greater service to the science of magnetism than you imagine; for one of the most important points is to establish or prove the existence of a simultaneity in the Northern and Southern Lights. If you have yet obtained those books that I told you some time ago to get, you will find some elementary information on the subject in them, particularly in Lardner's Museum of Science and Art.

I suppose I shall hear by the next mail whether you have been able to obtain for me Savage's Practical Astronomy. I want to trouble you with another commission of the same kind, namely, to find out whether there is a translation from the German into English of Professor Carl Kreil's Introduction to Magnetic Observations, 2nd edition, Vienna, 1858. I fear you will have some trouble in getting this book for me, but it is of great importance that I should have it if possible. It may not be translated yet, but it certainly will be before long. Whenever you get any catalogues of scientific books from the publishers in London, you might send them to me in a letter; or if they are too bulky, you have only to put a strip of paper round, and send it as a book, without letter or writing. The postage is sixpence for four ounces, and threepence for every two ounces more, up to three pounds, which is the greatest weight that may be sent in one parcel; its dimensions must not exceed two feet in any direction.

They have just succeeded in raising the two thousand pounds here, by subscription, that was wanted towards an exploration fund, for fitting out an expedition, that will probably start for the interior of our continent next March. Camels have been sent for, to be used in places where horses cannot go. You would be astonished at the number of applications that are being made by people anxious to join the expedition. Nine-tenths of them would wish themselves home again before they had been out three months.

Give my love to the two girls,
and believe me,
my dear Charley,
Your affectionate brother,
William J Wills.

Flagstaff Observatory, Melbourne,
November 18th, 1859.

My dear Mother,
The homeward mail closes in about half an hour, so that I have very little time to write. The mail did not arrive here until a few days ago, being more than a week after time. I was glad to receive your short letter.

We have had a very pleasant spring this year; not so many hot winds as usual. I have mentioned in my letter to B[essy] that it is probable I shall be going up the country again in a few months, but that need not make any difference in the address of my letters, as Professor Neumayer will have the best opportunities of forwarding them to me.

We have lately had a visit from Dr Hochstelter, a German professor, who came out in the Novara, an Austrian frigate, sent by the Austrian government to make a scientific tour round the world. Dr Hochstelter is a geologist, and has made a geological survey of New Zealand. He exhibited a few evenings ago at our philosophical institute a great number of maps which he has compiled during the short time he remained on the island, and stated many very interesting facts connected with them. From what he says, there is no place in the world, except Iceland, where boiling springs and geysers are so large and plentiful. The doctor goes home by this mail, and I suppose there will soon be a good work published by him, giving a description of all he has seen. I hope to visit New Zealand as soon as I return from the interior of this country.

Ever your affectionate son,
William J Wills.

It will be perceived by the foregoing letters how diligently and anxiously he corresponded with his mother, sisters, and brother in England, and how anxiously he desired the mental improvement of the latter. In his next communications he prepares them for the probability of his being one of the exploring party. Yet he wrote on the subject as he had done to me, with reserve, until the matter should be finally settled. He knew the anxiety it would occasion, and in the event of his not obtaining the appointment he so earnestly sought for, he wished to avoid creating that anxiety unnecessarily.

The same mail which bore his letter of the 18th of November to his mother, carried also the following to his sister:

[Flagstaff Observatory, Melbourne]
[18 November 1859]

My dear Bessy,
I do not mean to bother you with such a long letter this time as I did last month, and which I hope reached you. I rather expected to have received the photograph I wrote to you for by the last mail. I wish you would indite some good long letters by return of post, as it will probably be the last, or very nearly so, that I shall get from you for many months.

It seems very likely that I shall be leaving Melbourne in March, to accompany the expedition for the exploration of the interior of this continent. It is calculated that we shall be away for about three years. It may be more, but it is not likely to be much less. IT IS NOT YET CERTAIN that I shall go. In fact, nothing is decided, not even who will be the leader; but I thought it would be as well to mention it to you now, as your answer to this cannot reach me until March. But remember that my going away need not prevent your writing frequently; for it is likely there will be occasional means of communication with Melbourne for the first six months, and Professor Neumayer will take every opportunity of forwarding my letters. It is quite possible that I may not go, but it is more likely that I shall, as Professor N is very anxious that I should, to make magnetic and meteorological observations, and he is on the Exploration Committee. If you have not been able to get the books I wrote for, for myself, you may as well leave them for the present.

I have been indulging greatly in operas lately. I can understand that sort of music better than high-flown oratorios. The operatic company at the Theatre Royal is not first-rate, but as good as we can expect to have in a new colony like this. The pieces they have given are Il Trovatore, Lucia di Lammermoor, Lucrezia Borgia, and La Sonnambula; the latter is a delightful one, but they cannot manage it satisfactorily, some of the songs are so difficult of execution.

Please to give my love, etc., etc.
Your affectionate brother,
William J Wills.

The following reply to his mother alludes to the circumstance, which she had mentioned, of an aurora borealis, having appeared in England. This completes his letters for 1859:

Flagstaff Observatory,
December 18th, 1859.

My dear Mother,
Your letter of the 17th of October arrived here by the Columbian only three or four days after time, which is a wonderful piece of punctuality for that miserable old tub.

I am glad that you were so much pleased with the sketch of the Observatory that I sent you. I now forward a photograph made by a friend of mine, which will convey a better idea than the other of the appearance of our habitation, etc. You will find an explanation of the various parts of the picture written in pencil on the back of each respectively. You had better have it mounted on a piece of cardboard by some one who is accustomed to mounting photographs; when nicely done it looks twice as well. It was intended that we should all have been taken in this picture, but owing to some mismanagement, no notice was given, so no one was outside at the time.

Your remarks about the aurora borealis of the 12th of October were very interesting and valuable. We knew that there was an aurora there, but of course could not tell where it was visible. You little thought that while you were looking at the vibrations of those beautiful streamers of red and white light, I was watching sympathetic oscillations of little steel magnets, which we suspended by silk threads, in the underground magnetic house that you see the top of in the foreground of the picture. The magnets were sometimes moving about so rapidly that I could scarcely read them; and although the aurora was with you nearly at an end probably about ten o'clock, yet the magnets did not resume their normal position for nearly twenty-four hours after. You will see from this the advantage to be derived from noting all particulars with regard to these phenomena, whenever one has an opportunity of seeing them; for we must always consider the possibility of their not being visible at places where there are observatories, on account of clouds and other causes. One great point that has yet to be satisfactorily determined is, whether the effect on a magnet at one end of the world is simultaneous with the auroral discharge at the other; or whether a certain time is required for the effect to be communicated through the earth.

I had a letter from my father yesterday, enclosing the one you sent him. By-the-by, this day week is Christmas-day; and, if I am not mistaken, your birthday as well as Hannah's is near about this time. She must be thirteen or fourteen; but, upon my honour, I do not certainly know my own age. Was I born in January 1834 or 1835? I wish you all may have a merry Christmas and many returns of the same.

Please to give my love as usual, and
Believe me, my dear mother,
Your affectionate son,
William J Wills.

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