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John King (1838-1872) was an Irish soldier who achieved fame as an Australian explorer. He was the sole survivor of the four men from the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition who reached the Gulf of Carpentaria. The expedition was the first to cross Australia from south to north, finding a route across the continent from the settled areas of Victoria to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Early years
He was born at Moy in County Tyrone, Ireland on either the 5 or 15 December 1838.


His parents were Henry King (d.May/June 1839) and Ellen Orn (d. September 1847). King was the youngest of four siblings;

• William King (b.1823)
• Elizabeth or Elizabeth Anne (1835-1890); migrated to Australia in 1858; married Thomas Bunting, 9 June 1871 in Melbourne. Died November 1890 and was buried in John King's grave.
(Note: Nora King was a name invented by Alan Attwood for his 2003 novel Burke's Soldier).
• Samuel King (b.1838)
• John King (5 December 1838-15 January 1872).

John King was educated at the Royal Hibernian School at Phoenix Park in Dublin before joining the 70th Regiment on 15 January 1853 at the age of 14. King was sent to Chatham and then posted to India, where the Regiment had been stationed since 1848.

King arrived in India on either 28 September 1853 or 29 October 1853. The regiment, under Colonel Galway and then Colonel Chute, was stationed in Cawnpore in the Northern Province. King worked as an assistant teacher in the Regimental School. He was later stationed in Peshawar in the North West Frontier Province where he was involved in some of the principal engagements during the Indian Mutiny. He suffered a severe illness and spent sixteen months convalescing in the Rawalpindi District, probably at Murree.

While convalescing he met George Landells at Muridke. George James Landells had been sent to India by the Victorian Government to purchase 24 camels to be used for exploration of the Australian desert. King obtained his army discharge in Rawalpindi in January 1860 and then travelled to Karachi where he was engaged by Landells to supervise the sepoys who had charge of the camels. Landells, King, two other Europeans, eight Indian sepoys and 24 camels sailed for Melbourne aboard the SS Chinsurah on 30 March 1860.

King arrived in Melbourne on 8 June 1860. They camels were offloaded a week later and accommodated at the Victorian Parliament House stables in Spring Street. They were later moved to newly constructed stables at Royal Park from whence the Expedition left.

Burke and Wills expedition
Robert O'Hara Burke was appointed leader of the Victorian Exploring Expedition with Landells as second-in-command. William John Wills was surveyor and astronomical observer and King was appointed as one of the Expedition Assistants on a salary of £120 a year.

The expedition left Melbourne on Monday, 20 August 1860 with a total of 19 men, 27 camels and 23 horses. They reached Menindee on 16 October 1860 where Landells resigned following an argument with Burke. Wills was promoted to second-in-command and King was placed in charge of the camels.

Burke split the expedition at Menindee and the lead party reached Cooper Creek on 11 November 1860 where they formed a depot. The remaining men were expected to follow up from Menindee and so after a break, Burke decided to make a dash to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Burke split the party again and left on 16 December 1860, placing William Brahe in charge of the depot on Cooper Creek. Burke, Wills, King and Charley Gray reached the mangroves on the estuary of the Flinders River, near where the town of Normanton now stands, on 9 February 1861. Flooding rains and swamps meant they never saw open ocean.

Already weakened by starvation and exposure, progress on the return journey was slow and hampered by the tropical monsoon downpours of the wet season. Gray died four days before they reached the depot at Cooper Creek and the other three took a day to bury him. They eventually reached the depot on Sunday, 21 April 1861 to find the men had not arrived from Menindee and Brahe and the Depot Party had given up waiting and left just 9 hours earlier. Brahe had buried a note and some food underneath a tree which is now known as the Dig Tree.

Burke, Wills and King attempted to reach Mount Hopeless, the furthest extent of settlement in South Australia, which was closer than Menindie, but failed and returned to Cooper Creek. While waiting for rescue Burke and Wills died of exhaustion and starvation. The exact date of their deaths is uncertain, but has generally been accepted to be 28 June 1861.

King survived with the help of Aborigines until he was found on 15 September by Edwin Welch, the surveyor in Alfred William Howitt's Victorian Contingent Party. Howitt buried Burke and Wills before returning to Melbourne. In 1862 Howitt returned to Cooper Creek and disinterred Burke and Wills' bodies, taking them first to Adelaide and then by steamer to Melbourne where they were laid in state for two weeks. On 23 January 1863 Burke and Wills received a State Funeral and were buried in Melbourne General Cemetery.

After the expedition
Edwin Welch returned King to Melbourne. When they arrived at the end of November 1861 King was hailed as a hero and mobbed by the admiring colonists of Victoria. King received a gold watch from the Royal Geographical Society and a pension of £180 a year from the Victorian Gvernment. He was present at the inauguration of the Burke & Wills statue on the corner of Collins and Russell Streets in Melbourne on 21 April 1865, the fourth anniversary of their return to Cooper Creek.

King lived with his sister, Elizabeth in St Kilda. Elizabeth moved to Kew and King purchsed two houses on Octavia Street, St Kilda. On 22 August 1871 he married Mary Richmond nee Bunting (aged 21) of County Tyrone (his cousin?) at the Wesley Church, Melbourne. Mary had been married and had a child, but was widowed in 1867.

King never fully recovered from the privations suffered while on the Expedition and he died prematurely of pulmonary tuberculosis on 15 January 1872 aged 33. His pall-bearers were Ferdinand von Mueller, Dr David Wilkie and Inspector J M Gilmour. He is buried in the Plot Number 339, Compartment A in the Weslyan Section of Melbourne General Cemetery.

Thursday 23 January 1862.
Page 5.

King, the companion of Burke and Wills, was entertained at a public banquet on Tuesday evening, at Castlemaine, when an address having above 800 signatures, and a valuable watch and chain, were presented to him.


Tuesday, 16 January 1872.
Page 5.

It is with regret that we have to announce the death of Mr John King, a prominent member of the Burke and Wills Exploring Expedition, who expired on Monday morning, at 7 o'clock, at his residence, Octavia-street, St Kilda. We learn that he had suffered very much from the heat of the last few days, but sank into a very quiet state before his death. His decease revives one of the most painful chapters in the history of Australian exploration, while at the same time it brings to mind the rare courage and endurance exhibited by King and his leaders under circumstances the moat trying and painful.

The life of John King, though short, has not been an uneventful one. he was born in Moy, in the county of Antrim, Ireland, on the 15th December, 1838. his father being a soldier in the 95th Highlanders. He was educated at the Royal Hibernian School, Phoenix Park, Dublin, and at 14 years of age joined the 70th Regiment, which was soon afterwards ordered to India, where it arrived in October, 1853. The regiment subsequently took part in the suppression of the Sepoy mutiny, and King was present at some of the principal engagements. Afterwards he suffered a severe illness which lasted over sixteen months, and while at the convalescent depot he met Mr Landells, who had been sent over from Victoria for the purpose of procuring camels for the exploring expedition. Having obtained his discharge, he was engaged by Mr Landells to superintend the coolies who had charge of the camels, and he eventually accompanied the expedition in that capacity. When Mr Landells, at fin early stage of affairs, left the party, the entire charge of the camels was entrusted to King, who very faithfully performed his duties. As tho expedition proceeded on its way, the party became reduced in numbers, but King still remained a member of it, and he was chosen by Mr Burke to form one of the band of four by whom the formidable journey from Cooper's Creek to Carpentaria was made. Mr Wills and Gray were the other two, and, as will be remembered, the latter died on the way back from Carpentaria.

The party of four left Cooper's Creek on the 16th December, 1880, reached Carpentaria in February, 1861, and after much hardship and suffering got back to Cooper's Creek in an utterly exhausted state on the 21st April, the very day on which the depot party commanded by Mr Brahe had left. The brave little party made several efforts to escape from Cooper's Creek, but were unable to do so, and at last, both Burke and Wills having succumbed to hunger and exhaustion, King was thrown upon the mercy of the blacks. By them he was very well treated, and he lived as one of the tribe for several months, lie was ultimately found by Howitt's relief party on the 15th September, 1871, a day which was ever afterwards observed by his family as his birthday. When he reached Melbourne, he received a very warm welcome, and the Parliament recognised his services by voting a sum of £3,000 for the purchase of debentures for his benefit. Such a reward was fully deserved. From first to last King did his duty well. He was brave faithful, and enduring, and by exertions helped to prolong the lives of Burke and Wills for many days. The last words written by the commander of the expedition were;

'King has behaved nobly, and deserves to be well regarded'

The ordeal through which he had passed had a lasting effect on King's constitution and it was a long time before he recovered even the semblance of health or spirits. He never afterwards enjoyed thoroughly sound health, and about four years ago symptoms of pulmonary consumption made their appearance. The medical treatment he received, and the careful nursing of his sister, who has exhibited the greatest devotion in her care of him during many years checked if it could not overcome the disease. There were times when hopes of ultimate recovery were sanguinely entertained, and not many months ago King was married to one of his cousins. Latterly the malady became more pronounced in its character and more rapid in its progress. The end was soon at hand, and King at last passed peacefully and quietly away.


Issue Number 1976.
30 January 1872.
Page 2.

The funeral took place on Wednesday. The arrangements were carried out in a simple, unostentatious manner. Soon after 4 o'clock the procession came over Prince's bridge, from St Kilda, and passed up through the city, by way of Swanston-street, to the General Cemetery. The line of vehicles was short, and save that persons were on the lookout, the procession might have been unnoticed. There were, however, some hundreds of the ordinary crowd on the streets waiting for the funeral party in the lower portion of Swanston Street and on Prince's bridge. A few minutes' halt was made at the bridge, where the procession was joined by the mourning-coach of the Exploration Committee, who were represented by Dr Wilkie and Mr Donald (secretary of the committee). Baron you Mueller, another member, was in his private carriage. There were four other mourning coaches and eight or nine private vehicles. At the time the cortege passed through the city the weather was fair, but rain had been falling, sometimes heavily, up to a quarter to 4 o'clock. The gloomy unpleasant weather, no doubt, prevented a large gathering of spectators in the streets.

It was the last wish of Mr King that he should be laid near to the tomb of the Reverend Mr William Hill, and the spot chosen is only a few feet from the railings round the murdered chaplain's grave. The headstone marking the place where the Rev Dr Corrigan was interred is about the same distance away in another direction. The mention of these names will indicate that King was buried in a distinguished portion of the Wesleyan division of the cemetery. A considerable number of parties were collected round the grave to witness the service. The pall-bearers were Baron von Mueller, Dr Wilkie, Mr J Morris, Mr J T [Mckeisell?], Mr J Henry, Mr Barrett, Mr W Jones, and Inspector Gilmour, of the Queensland mounted police, whose name is connected with expeditions in search of the explorer Leichhardt. The Reyerend James Bickford, who had been a constant attendant upon King for years past, assisted by the Rev J Dare, conducted the religious service. The inscription on the coffin was;

John King, died 15th January, 1872; aged 32 years.

It is intended that a suitable stone shall be erected over the grave. After paying a warm tribute to the memory of King, the explorer, the Ballarat Courier remarks;

King is now beyond the power of the colony to more tangibly recognise his worth, the measure of which is only known to those who enjoyed his personal acquaintance. But it is in Mr Duffy's power to do an act which will be cordially endorsed from one end of the colony to the other. With John King's death ends his pension. Let that pension be continued to his wife as long as she lives, and thus the worth and gallant services of the deceased be recognised beyond his grave. The country will be eternally disgraced if this suggestion is not adopted, or if the widow of such a man as Mr John King is allowed to starve.


Related archive: SLV MS13071: Testimonials presented to John King.
Map Case 5, drawer 2: Testimonial presented by Amherst, Chairman and members of the Municipal Council.
Map Case 6, drawer 2. Testimonial presented by East Collingwood Municipal Council.
Map Case 6, drawer 2. Testimonial presented by Swan Hill inhabitants.
Map Case 6, drawer 2. Testimonial presented by Melbourne Mayor, Aldermen, councillors and citizens.

Where King went on the expedition

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