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  Original item bought by the National Library of Australia in June 1936 and is held at NLA MS 30/11.
Papers of Burke and Wills Expedition, National Library of Australia, MS 30.
Part of the retrospective account by John King, relating to the journey to the Gulf, Dec 1860-Jan 1861. Date of writing not known. Small unlined notebook without covers. 49 pages with pencilled writing on 33 pages

Friday 12 June 1936, page 2.

Latest acquisitions
Burke and Wills Expedition: Sole survivor's diary

The Commonwealth National Library has acquired two interesting records connected with the ill-fated Burke and Wills Expedition.

The first of these is a fragmentary diary kept by John King, who was the sole survivor of the advance party of the Burke and Wills Expedition. Though fragmentary, this diary is of great interest as supplementing the other manuscript already in the Library. The diary gives some account of the country traversed, describes in some detail an encounter with the aboriginals, and contains strictures on Wright, the leader of the rear party, for prematurely giving up hope of the return of the advance party.

The second item is a diary kept by R. B. Gow during his travels on pastoral business, looking for a suitable property from August 21 1860 to October 25, 1861. In his search for pastoral land Gow travelled through and gives good descriptions of, much of Victoria, South Australia, and the Murray and Darling regions. He met the Burke and Wills Expedition at its start, a few miles out of Melbourne, and was later at Menindie preparing an expedition into the interior when Wright arrived from Cooper's Creek with the first news of the disaster. Gow makes' this the occasion for a long and interesting account of the fate of the Expedition and its two leaders. Later he refers to a story of white men and camels among the blacks, which he proved had no relation to the fate of the Expedition. This diary was presented by J B Gow, Esq., of Bowden. Cheshire, England, a son of the writer.

John King never mentioned that he had kept a diary on the expedition. The National Library of Australia purchased a fragmented manuscript in 1936 which was attributed to King. It was transcribed and a typescript copy was made in 1962. Dr Thomas John Bergin reassesed the order of the typescript copy in 1982.

The following is an extract from:

Courage and Corruption:
An analysis of the Burke and Wills Expedition and of the subsequent Royal Commission of Enquiry
Thomas John Bergin BSc(Hons), BVSc, MA, being a thesis submitted for the degree of Masters of Arts with Honours at the University of New England (Armidale) in 1982.

This extract is pp. 231-250, Appendix A: The Diary of John King and relates to a manuscript held at MS30/11 (mfm3748) in the National Library of Australia in Canberra. This revised view of the manuscript has never before been published.

The Diary of John King.

The National Library of Australia has in its possession a manuscript indexed as Portion of the Diary of John King, Burke and Wills Expedition. Whilst there has been no published dispute to this claim there appears to have been no attempt made to establish its authenticity nor any use made of its source material.

The Manuscript and Typescript Copies.

The manuscript measures six inches by four inches and consists of 24 leaves, four of which are detached, and it has no covers. The writing is in faded pencil, and the style is cramped by the size and nature of the manuscript.

The first three pages are numbered and are on two loose leaves, followed by a break in the script indicating the loss of a number of leaves. The subsequent pages are headed alphabetically 'a' to 's', followed by a page with no heading, followed by one headed 'T' followed by ten pages of script without headings, ending with five blank pages. A typescript copy of the manuscript entitled 'Typescript B', was made in 1962 to replace an earlier copy.

History and Authenticity of the Manuscript.

There were no contemporary records of John King having kept a diary. Further, although King had ample opportunity to mention a diary during the Enquiry he did not do so, despite the fact that he was questioned on the diary keeping practices of Burke and Wills. He did mention a pocketbook given to him by Burke shortly before his death, and which contained 'some notes'.

However, since Burke died at the end of the journey and the manuscript in question related to events at the start of the journey, either Burke's pocket book is not the manuscript under discussion, or it indicates that the manuscript was not a diary but was written on Cooper Creek in retrospect.

King indicated at the time that he considered it a personal notebook which he had not wanted to 'come into the possession of the Committee', and which, by inference, it had. He indicated at the same time that he had handed Burke's notebook to Sir William Stawell personally.

No further, record of either of these documents is available until in 1909 they were acquired by the Commonwealth National Library, along with a number of other papers relating to the expedition including Wills' last field book. The source of these items was not recorded but since Burke's notebook had definitely been given to Sir William, it and the other documents quite possibly were retained by the Stawell family. In all events, the fact that King's notebook was acquired along with these verified items supports the idea that the notebook is authentic. Further, amongst the material are King's army papers and pay book.

The incidents described in the manuscript are all consistent with those recorded by Burke and Wills, for example King described an incident which he stated occurred on New Years Day 1861, an aggressive display by a group of Aborigines, which was briefly mentioned in Burke's notebook also as occurring on that date.

Further evidence of authenticity is the correct description of terrain which was not mentioned by either of the other survivors, for example the country‑side a day's march north of the Diamantina and the country between Swift's Range and the Selwyn Ranges.

In summary, the manuscript appears to be authentic, and may have been in the possession of the family of Sir William Stawell until 1909, when it was acquired with other documents from the expedition by the National Library of Australia.

Existing Page Sequence.

The sequence of pages as given in 'Typescript B' is not consistent with the actual sequence of events. For example the passage referring to New Years Day 1861 is preceded by passages referring to the crossing of the ranges, an event which occurred a month later.

This confusion in the sequence appears to have been caused by the detachment of a number of leaves and their replacement in the wrong order, and on one occasion by King losing his place and beginning to duplicate two pages.

By re‑arranging the page sequence on the basis of dates given in the text, of text continuity and of comparison with the other diaries and maps, it is possible to derive the original sequence of text; and this sequence, with annotations follows.

John King's Diary – Page Sequence Amended.

Page 1a. (Not numbered). Writing indecipherable, page bears the printed number '51', a date and the stamp of the Commonwealth National Library.

14 MAY 1936


Page 1b. (1). This reference to Brahe's appointment and shaking hands with the depot team fixes the date and place as 16 December 1860 at Camp 65 on Cooper Creek.

& said he would not
forget mentioning it
to the committee at the
same time appointing
W. Brahe as officer
in charge of the Depot
he said he expected
Mr Write Daily from
The Darling & that when
he arrived he was
to assume the commd
(‑) he then shook
hands with the men (for)
the Depot

Page 2a. (2). This follows the text of 1b, and refers to 16 December 1860.

& in the of shaking
hands with W. Patten
he said he was
sorry he could not take
him with him Patten
and a seep speedy trip
across Mr Burke in
a cheerful manner said
that if he was not back
in three months that he
was to make his way to
the Darling. this

Page 2b. (3). The text follows 2a and refers to 16 December 1860. This is followed by a break in the text indicating that one or more leaves are missing.

was said to Patten
alone as no person
was within 4 or 5 yard (s)
at the time except mys(elf)
this was said to cheer
            I hav Believ
him as he seemed very
sad at not being
one of the party going
w Brahe accompanied
us to our first camp
what ever instructi(ons)
Mr Burke gave to
Brahe I know no(t)
when he was about
to return to the Dep(ot)

Page 3a. (a)

but they would
not come for them
the flats ajecent
to the creek are
well covered with
salt bush we camp(ed)
were best feed could
be found for camels
Mr Burke named
this the great un(known)
after the person who
contributed the

Page 3b. (b). The creek which they traced for three days instead of making for Eyre's Creek must have been the Diamantina River since it is the only water between Cooper Creek and Eyre's Creek. Wills recorded that they struck it on Christmas Day 1860, so that the above, written on the third day on tracing the creek would refer to the 27 of December, and '4 day' would refer to the 28 of December.

the 1000 towards
the expedition we
traced this cr. as it
kept prety nearly
our course third day
in taking it Mr Burke
that he should not make for ears cr.
as he intended 4
day we came to w ere
the cr. took its rise
If principly from

Page 4a. (c). The numerals would represent the 28, 29 and 30th of December 1860. Wills and Burke both recorded the date of departure from the Diamantina across the desert as the 30th, not the 29th as King describes.

large stony rises
ranges here we
saw plenty of
turkies 28 camped
at a large water
hole now we had
to face the Deser(t)
again. 29 we stare(d)
travelling over stony
desert intersected
By mud plans
camped. 30 travelling
as yesterday.

Page 4b. (d). The text follows 4a and the (31st) was 31st December 1860. No page remains with text following the end of this page, suggesting that another leaf is missing.

as yesterday saw
a few crows flying
to westward saw
some old mia mias
31st country sand
hills, flats between
stony, and our water
Bags did not hold
as well as could
be expected so our
water was getting per (-)

Page 5a. (e). The reference to the want of water and two buckets per day suggests that they were in the stony waterless country north of the Diamantina, i.e.; that this is referring to 31st December still.

evening the country
had a better appe
rance Box trees
growing betw in
the flats between
the ridges we had
hopes of finding
water the same
evening the horse
began to look
show the want of
water though he
got two Buckets
per day at about

Page 5b. (f). The text follows 5a and the change of direction to the east is shown on their map as having occurred just prior to camp LXXX, i.e. on 31st December 1860.

4 oclock we saw
smoke both to
east & west we
changed our course
& stearing east as
the smoke their
seemed higher than
that to west camels
were very tired as
there were traveling
over sand hills
all day after travell(ing)
about 3 miles to

Page 6a. (g). Text follows 5b, particularly the reference to three days without water.

eastward we came
to a p flat thickly
timbered with Box
trees & there found
a small pool of
water sufficient
to water horse & camels
we the camels though
3 days without wat(er)
only drank Bucke(ts)
we caught some
small fish in the

Page 6b. (h). Text follows 6a, and shows that this refers to 31st December 1860 and 1st January 1861.

water hole sufficien(t)
for tea & Breakfast
next morning for all
we saw we could
not make the place
were we saw the
smoke that day
so we camped
in the   ridges next
morning New Years
day we did not
go above a few miles
before we heard

Page 7a. [Not numbered]. This page duplicates in part the information on page 6b, suggesting that initially King could not find 6b, but did so after completing 7a.

for a m two miles &
hel camped. Next
day being New Years
day we started about
half past 4. continuing
to make east were
we saw the smoke
the previous day
still crossing s. [-]
we had not gone
above 3 miles when we
heard the muttering of
Blacks soon after
saw numbers of

Page 7b. [Not numbered]

then Mr Burke

Page 8a (i). Text follows 6b and refers to 1st January 1861.

the noise of Blacks
in the direction we
were going they must
have saw our fire
& were making to the
spot when
they saw us they kept
going away & point(ing)
to where the water
was they seemed very
shy & would not
come near us Mr
Burke took the hors(e)
& rode up to the trib(e)
which numbered

Page 8b. (j) . Text follows 8a.

about 50 they did
not seem the least
alarmed at him
when close to them
he gave them a few
which they faught
over to see who wou
ld be owner of the
property we then
continued on and in
    an hour we
struck on a cr.

Page 9a. (k). Text follows 9b.

with Box & gums
on't we halted
there for they day
at a fine w hole
to rest the camels(.)
about 500 yards
from our camp
was a few old
mia mias wich by
their look were long
deserted(.) when we
were at breakfast
15 strong able looking
Blacks came with
in 30 yards

[Text follows 8b (1).]

of our camp led
by an ealderly man
they all had spear(s)
& Bomerangs the
leader's spear was
about 25 foot long
they others' were short.
then once they
made signs to us
to leave the place,
Mr Burke went
up to them & gave

Page 10a. (m). Text follows 9b.

some beads & other
presents to them
thinking they would
go when they receive(d)
them: but they beg(an)
worse than before
the leader advan
cing in front sticking
his long spear in
the earth then taking
a handful sand
first rubbing it his
hands with it

Page 10a. (n). Text follows 10a.

it & then the spe(ar)
the others following
up closely, until then
we took but little
notice of them. Mr
Burke ordered
us to get ready ou(r)
revolvers & amuniti(on)
well got them together.
when a shot was
fired in over their
heads they ran
of(f) a few hundred
yards the leader

Page 11a. (o). Text follows 10b.

encourageing the
remainder to follow.
up they came again
with 40 yards of
us when Mr Burke
ordered us all to
fire over their hea(ds);
off they ran we saw
no more of them till
evening when they cam(e)
again & gave us nets
& slings in exchange
for a few matches
they seemed very

Page 11b. (p). Text follows 11a, and "struts track” probably refers to Sturt's most northerly point, reached on 8 September 1845.

very much afraid
stricking a match
they pointed of to
the east meaning
that they were going
there the left we sa(w)
no more of them we
were now 75
miles east of struts track
and 5 miles past his far
furthest Mr Burke
called this Kings cr
we could see the

Page 12a. [Not numbered]. The text follows 11b as does the date (2nd January). The numeral 3 appears to refer to the next day's date, 3 January.

y stone Desert to east
we saw some lines
of timber to west we
to in water & started
2nd January in one
hours travel we were
in the stony Desert
again the stones were
much larger here
than in any we yet
crossed great many
mud plains with patch(es)
of salt Bush in
them 3 we travel(ed)

Page 12b [Not numbered]. Text follows 12a, and the numeral 4 refers to 4 January.

ever several mud plains
that day we had to p
nothing but stony
Desert 4 mostly
mud plans nothing to
be seen not even
a bush we pushed
that day making
51 miles & nothing to
be seen but mud plains.
the last two days
we were on 7 pints
of water per day

Page 13a. 1Not numbered]. Text follows 12b, and concurs with Wills' entry for 5 January.

today reduced to 5
Mr Burke took
particular notice
to all the water enclin
ning to fall to west
he changed the course
to N.W. towards
evening we got in
sight of cr. timber
about ½ past 3
we came to smal(l)
pool of water &
camped here com
mences the change

Page 13b. [Not numbered]. Text follows 13a and the Numeral 6 refers to 6 January, and the entry is consistent with Wills' entry for that date.

of country there was
surface water
in many places. about.
next day 6 we made
a larger sheet of water
about 2 ½ miles long
after 2 hours traveling
& camped still
seing the line of
timber running para(llel)
with us next day we
7 after a few hours
travel we struck

Page 14a. (q). Text follows 13b.

the cr. with fine
large watersholes
one found to be 10 mi(les)
long here we halted
a day we saw
no natives though
there was fires lit
there the appear
ance of the country
& vegetation changi(ng)
almost immediately
plenty of portulaca

Page 14b. (r) Text follows 14a.

growing & good
salt Bush
Wills creek
from that we always
had plenty of water
we were now in the
tropics magnificent
cr. intersecting the
country around country
young grass springing
up and any quantity
of that previous
vegetable portulac

Page 15a. (s). Text follows 14b. Wills' recorded crossing the slaty ranges on 10 January, 1861.

accordingly as we went
north the country
improved & the quantity
of water increased
also we continued
travelling through
good country for several
days when we came
in sight of ranges ahead
we saw several volumes
of smoke to E & V we
we crossed slaty
ranges within 60 miles
of the foot of the
main ranges.

Page 15b. [Not numbered]. Text follows 15a.

We crossed them
in one day we found
plenty of water in them
and patches of good country
at intervals between the
to two ranges are 60
miles of well grassed
country well water
ed cr. turning east
& west it was the finest
peice of country I
ever saw & fish in the
creeks we next made
the ranges they opened

Page 16b. [Not numbered]. Text follows 16a. The remainder of the page is blank, and the diary contains no further references to the journey to the Gulf.

to push our way through
which was the only means

Page 17a. [Not numbered]. Blank.



Page 17b. [Not numbered]. This, dated 23rd October, was obviously written by King after his rescue by Howitt's party on 15th September, 1861.

Memorandum 23rd Oct
In accordance Mrs

Page 18a. [Not numbered]. This must have been written after King's rescue, as this was the first opportunity he would have had to discover that Wright and Brahe had met up.

why did not Mr Wright
take provisions to Coopers
cr. when Brahe arrive(d)
at Bullo (Inn) they both
started for Coopers Cr.
taking 7 or 8 days
provisions with them
at the same time
not having the least
hopes of our ever
returning it was the
general opinion of
of all that it was
quite useless

Page 18b. [Not numbered]

to make any arrangements
for our safety as they
I believe often express(ed)
None should ever
return they had no
right to form such
an opinion and I
consider. Mr Wright
neglected his duty
in acting as he did
& more over I have
heard from some of
his men that instead
of keeping Mr B.

Text follows 18a. Text follows 18b. This is the last entry in the diary.

Page 19a. [Not numbered]
track he was looking
for country for to
suit his own pur
pose at Bullo they
to (him)


The manuscript in the National Library of Australia would appear to be a notebook kept by John King. It contains details of the journey from Cooper Creek to the Selwyn Ranges, and some brief notes written after his rescue.

Dr Tom Bergin, © University of New England, Armidale. 1982.

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