Burke & Wills Web
The online digital research archive of expedition records
© 2020

In 1863 the Honorary Secretary of the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria, John Macadam was compiling the papers relating to the Burke & Wills Expedition. In a letter to the Chief Secretary of the Colony of Victoria, he wrote :


To: The Hon. James McCulloch,
Chief Secretary of Victoria

20th August 1863.

...I may add that all papers, note books, sketches, maps and records [of the Expedition] are carefully preserved and it is earnestly hoped that the Government will liberally support the [Exploration] Committee in giving to the world this accumulated mass of valuable geographical and other information in a suitable and permanent form.

John Macadam, MD.
Honorary Secretary to the Exploration Committee.


Unfortunately Macadam's wishes were not complied with.

Missing records.
Wills' astronomical records of the journey from Cooper Creek to the Gulf of Carpentaria went missing before they could be transcribed and have never been found. Wills' map, prepared from these records also went missing after being lithographed by the Office of Lands and Survey in Melbourne and has never been found. Wills' field-books of the journey from Cooper Creek to the Gulf and the return to the Cooper went missing after being transcribed by Ferdinand von Mueller and/or James Smith of the Exploration Fund Raising Committee and have never been found. Burke's notebook and Wills' field-book of the journey from Cooper Creek to Mount Hopeless went missing after being transcribed by William Henry Archer. Archer's daughter sold both the notebook and field-book to the National Library of Australia in 1909. Wills' notebook of astronomical observations on the return journey were donated to the Public Library of Victoria in 1932 by Dr Baldwin of the Melbourne Observatory.

Availability of material.
In the immediate aftermath of the expedition, public interest was enormous and much of the available information was published. Today these books and newspapers are old and fragile and kept in the rare book collection of libraries. Unpublished manuscript archives are fragmented and stored in several Australian repositories. Gerard Hayes of the Australian Manuscripts Collection at the State Library of Victoria wrote :

Perhaps it is best to start with two blunt facts about these records. They are incomplete and to some extent they are unreliable.

Gerard Hayes, 'Paper trails', La Trobe Library Journal, No. 58, 1996.

Many of the State Libraries and the National_Library_of_Australia are undergoing extensive digitisation projects. The NLA already has 75,500 items digitised on 2,500,000 Mb with plans to increase storage to 18,100,000 Mb. The archives and the staff at all of the repositories are extremely helpful but it is a daunting and time consuming task to decipher these records. To illustrate this, Hayes wrote:

The [archive] is often visited by prospective outback travellers....[who] are confronted by a mass of material which is reluctant to yield its secrets to all but the most determined researcher.

Op. cit.

Access to the archives involves travel to cities in the south of Australia and many hours at microfilm readers or in secure reading rooms. Burke & Wills Web aims to provide access to the accumulated mass of information and be an historical research resource for anyone interested in the expedition and the exploration of Australia. All text content on Burke & Wills Web is licensed under the terms of an 'Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike' Creative_Commons_4.0_International_License.

Although Burke & Wills Web endeavours to provide current, accurate and reliable information on this site, it does not warrant or make any representations regarding the accuracy or reliability of any information on this site. You acknowledge by your use of the site, that you do so at your own risk and that you assume full responsibility for any costs incurred subject to your interpretation of any information on this site. Please read the Disclaimer and Privacy Statement.

Source material for Burke & Wills Web:
Burke & Wills Web
was compiled from material in the public domain which has been published between 1857 and 1946. Much of the original material and manuscripts from the Victorian Exploring Expedition are held on microfilm at the Petherick Collection of the National_Library_of_Australia, Canberra, the La Trobe Collection of the State_Library_of_Victoria, Melbourne, the Mortlock Collection of the State_Library_of_South_Australia, Adelaide, the Oxley Collection of the State_Library_of_Queensland, Brisbane, the Mitchell and Dixson Collections of the the State_Library_of_New_South_Wales, Sydney, the Royal_Society_of_Victoria, the Royal_Historical_Society_of_Victoria, the Royal_Historical_Society_of_Queensland and the Royal_Geographical Society of South Australia.

www.burkeandwills.net.au Burke & Wills Web The digital research archive of expedition records
© 2020, Dave Phoenix