Home Australia Great Australians: John McDouall Stuart

Great Australians: John McDouall Stuart


john_mcdouall_stuartJohn McDouall Stuart 

by Mal Hughes

I think it’s time we got off the tack of worrying about our future and do some stocktaking of the past. Some amazing men and women did great things for Australia. This is the first in a series, and is appropriately about an explorer.

Greatness is in the eyes of the beholder. Naturally I will pick Australians who seem to me great. This series is also open to your contributions. The person you celebrate can be living or deceased and may have worked in any field of endeavor.

We now know that the continent of Australia is a very large land mass of 7,692,024 square kilometres, compared to the area of the British Isles of 315,159 square kilometres.

Most of our early explorers originated in Britain, so to them this one country was enormous.

Because of its size and position on the planet in regard to the equator, Australia has large expanses of desert areas, having harsh climatic conditions (and flies) which any inland explorer and animal had to endure.

Some other deserts of the world also have permanent flowing watercourses, which can be harvested for stock and crops, but inland Australia has none.

Thanks can be given to our early day explorers for the lifestyle that we can appreciate today. The river systems discovered, that now supply our food and water, artesian springs,the areas of fertile soil and  the mineral ores which generate most of our wealth, are the result of their providence.

One such person was John McDouall Stuart.

John McDouall Stuart was born in Fife, Scotland in 1815. At the age of 23 years he decided to migrate to South Australia.

John Stuart was the son of an army captain. He was educated at the Scottish Naval and Military Academy to be a civil engineer. Appropriately, he found employment as a surveyor under the Surveyor-General, Captain Charles Sturt.

Sorry, but there is inevitable confusion of names here. The dates for the British explorer Charles Sturt are 1795-1869, while the dates for the younger man, John McDouall Stuart, are 1815-1866. He died at age 50. 

sturt-charlesCaptain Charles Sturt was involved with several exploratory expeditions into the dry interior of Australia

Charles Sturt had followed the rivers that flow westward in NSW, hoping to find an in-land sea. Of course that discovery did not eventuate, but important knowledge of some of the interior was recorded.

Charles had discovered that most of the westward flowing rivers flowed into the Darling River (which until then was unknown), and then onward into the Murray River. From there, they enter the sea, by way of South Australia’s Lake Alexandria.

John Stuart was involved with seven exploratory expeditions into the dry interior of Australia, overall. The first was under the leadership of his boss, Captain Charles Sturt, with John being engaged as a draughtsman.

They headed into the arid country of South Australia in an attempt to find that theoretical inland sea, but instead found the Sturt Stony Desert and the Simpson Desert.

After the second-in charge of the group died of scurvy, Stuart was promoted to that position. Both Sturt and Stuart suffered scurvy, but survived, however Charles Sturt never really recovered and returned to England.


The various adventures of John McDouall Stuart 

After this expedition, John was employed as a surveyor on the Eyre Peninsula where he met William Finke. They both moved to the Flinders Ranges where he met up with the Chambers brothers, James and John.

The expedition’s mission under Stuart’s leadership was to find minerals and new grazing land to the northwest of South Australia on behalf of the Chambers brothers.

They took two other men, one of whom was Aboriginal. They had six horses and provisions for six weeks and a compass and a watch.

They found an isolated chain of tree-lined semi-permanent water holes, which he named Chambers Creek — a very important finding as these became water localities for later expeditions.

From here they travelled northwest to what is now known as Coober Pedy. They dealt with an unrelenting harsh landscape, coming out at Denial Bay, then went along the coast to Streaky Bay and back to Adelaide.

Stuart’s second expedition was to survey, himself, a pastoral lease granted to him by the state for the achievement of his first expedition, and extra land requested by him.

There are different versions of the reason for this venture, but it appears that supplementary finance was supplied by both Chambers and Finke. This allowed for a larger team to accompany him and supply more instruments to establish bearings.

After the survey work he decided to travel to the South Australian border with what is now known as the Northern Territory. Along the way they found reliable water at a group of springs named Hergott Springs.

They then headed west following Warburton’s track to Finniss Springs and on to their previous locale, Chambers Creek.

On the next stage they encountered a succession of good springs: Elizabeth Springs, Hawker Springs, and Beresford Springs, all fed by the Great Artesian Basin. The group travelled to as far as 27 degrees north, where John considered the country to be as good as that around Chambers Creek.

From here, although 100 miles short of the border, he decided to turn back as they were down to the last set of horseshoes!

The water supplies discovered were Stuart’s most valuable knowledge so far obtained, for the expansion of the pastoral industry in South Australia.

Governor MacDonnell sent a report to London that he thought that this country would serve as “ the most practicable route for the Electric wire intended to unite the continent with India and Europe.” He was of course referring to the Overland Telegraph Line, to be erected in the near future.

The government offered a 2,000-pound reward to

“the person who shall succeed in crossing through the country lately discovered by Mr Stuart either to the north or northwestern shores of the Australian continent.”

On Stuart’s third expedition, he had as a companion William Darton Kekwick.

The partnership with Kekwick was to be vital in all future expeditions. They spent the spring and summer exploring the area west of Lake Eyre, finding several more artesian springs. Stuart started to experience eye problems due to the glare of the sun. This, with a lack of provisions, forced the party to return.

The fourth expedition was to pinpoint the centre of Australia. Stuart had always insisted on travelling light, so as to cover the ground more quickly than better-equipped groups. This party was made up of Stuart, Kekwick and Benjamin Head.

By the time they got to what is now known as Oodnadatta, unexpected rains had spoiled much of their stores, but they continued on, using half rations.

Water became hard to find and scurvy reared its head again, while Stuart’s right eye was giving him trouble. They discovered a watercourse, which Stuart named The Finke River, after one of his sponsors.

They followed this river in a north-west direction across the South Australian border and came to the MacDonnell Ranges (so named by Stuart) — thus becoming the first white fellas to cross South Australia’s northern border.

By Stuart’s calculations they reached the “centre” of Australia on 22nd April 1860 – but it is no longer regarded as the true centre.

On this trip they also discovered the large feature shown below, which Stuart named “Chambers Pillar” after one of his sponsors.

Note: my uncle, John Hamersley guided me and a doctor friend of his, Geoff Wearne, on a Stuart-like adventure in 2008, which is when I took this photo. Our trip covered the Gun Barrel Highway, then Coober Pedy, Alice Springs, Finke River and Chambers Pillar.

chambers-pillar  Chambers Pillar

When the Stuart party was about to turn back, heavy rains provided relief and they carried on to a riverbed which they named Tennant Creek. They were now only 800 miles from the northern coast of Australia.

They decided to travel on, but again lack of water and thick scrub — as well as attacks by Aboriginals of the Warramunga tribe — caused them to turn back. The creek nearby was named appropriately by Stuart as, Attack Creek. This was the first time that Stuart had not been able to bargain with the local inhabitants.

The South Australian Government voted to put up 2,500 pounds for Stuart to lead a party to find a route for the overland telegraph line from Darwin to Adelaide.

This fifth expedition was his largest, having a party of twelve men and forty-nine horses. (Can you imagine looking after that many animals!)  Stuart took off again for the northern coast. This time when they reached Attack Creek, there were no hostile Aboriginals.

From there, Stuart intended to continue in a northwesterly direction to Victoria River which entered the sea. However, once again thick scrub and a lack of watering places hindered their progress.

Travelling directly north from Attack Creek they came upon a body of water that they named Newcastle Waters. After having no success in penetrating the bushland from there, and more problems with Aboriginals tribesmen, he had to turn back.

The sixth and final expedition to cover the continent, south to north, was undertaken in October 1861. This trip was once again financed by the government with a suggestion that instead of attacking the final stage via Victoria River, Stuart should advance to Newcastle Waters and thence to Adelaide River and follow this to the sea.

An injury to Stuart’s hand, caused by a horse, nearly requiring amputation of a finger, had to be dealt with before he got under way. This must have created some frustration to a man like Stuart, especially when he knew that others may be competing for the prestige of being the first to cover the continent south to north after he had put so much previous personal effort into the project.

The main body of the expedition left in October 1861 and he caught up to them after 5 weeks  at Moolooloo station. This time 10 men and 71 horses made up the party. They had a good trip to Newcastle Waters, but once again had trouble with the locals.

Five more times – talk about perseverance — Stuart attempted the northwesterly direction to Victoria River, but was rebuffed by the vegetation. He turned north and eventually came across a series of small water holes leading to Daly Waters and to the northern coast.

After Stuart’s hard work, the much vaunted telegraph line was eventually erected.

finke-river2008, Modern day adventurers, ahem, bogged in the bed of the Finke River.

— Mal Hughes is a regular writer for GumshoeNews.com

Updated corrections 3/11/2016

Photos and Sources: The John McDouall Stuart Society.
Australian Dictionary of Biography Online, and


    • Mary, yes the “you beaut V8 Landrover ” was air conditioned but it was an automatic with not enough torque in the low gears, hence our predicament in the Finke River.

      • So much for the “you beaut V8 Landrover” LOL, Maybe you should have turned the A/C off to get that extra OOMPH ??
        B.T.W. did you reduce your tire pressure at all ????
        Consider buying a Nissan Patrol, they never get stuck in sand, IF the driver knows what he/she’s doing. LOL.

        • Thanks for your comment Eddy. I was a guest on the trip so the choice of vehicle was not mine. Yes we deflated the tyres but they were not the right type for that excursion. We had a snap and hand winch but the vehicle had dug itself too deep because of the torque situation.

  1. No doubt men such as Stewart are formidable, what is troubling many regarding to Australia today is after the exploitation of trillions of dollars extracted from Australia;s land and seas resources we today are facing national debt that appears to be surmounting as a ever lasting debt that Australia can never pay off, after selling all resources such as ports, energy and the National treasures Jackson Pollock, the National galleries, The Opera House and so on? weighing up the future of a dysfunctional society? some may wonder why such concern for the boat people? are these the real problems of Australia or is their something more creepy such as the National attitude of many who live here who are cock sure they know everything with a robust confidence and front bordering on endemic arrogance and a inferiority complex that enables the Australian to destroy possible the first real leader Gough Whitlam being usurped by over seas interests and the Australian psyche submitting to becoming the slavish servants of the financial conspiracy whereby a working individual however industrious and frugal they are will never be able to buy their home?
    The extraordinary thing about Australia is in spite of some several million square kilometres of land having built a shed of some 12 square metres in my back yard now having to destroy this building by order of the council? this incongruity of bureaucratic and the sacred obedience to the rules?
    The awesome feats of yesterday has now become today the petty pace of our daily existence other than the few we now extol as Virginia Trioli, on a mere $235.000, PA which would not be so bad other than the times we live in of a class warfare of who has the money? as the rich become richer and the social good is now a word relegated to the rubbish tip that we no longer permitted to speak and so what is it all about? its all about Me.

    • donwredford. How right you are. We are but a third world example. Nothing has changed from the “Rhodes mentality”. Pillage the land and make sure to keep its inhabitants at your mercy. Take many African countries with enormous wealth. O/s internationals come in and mine — and thru shell companies only pay pennies. After half a century of mining — the villages alongside are worse off than they were before the miners arrived. We are just an upscale version here in Oz

    • Donwreford, I am glad you mentioned Gough Whitlam in your comments. In my opinion he is the only Prime Minister since 1945 to have had the welfare of Australia and Australians in mind while in leadership before being ousted by the CIA through their agent John Kerr. Unfortunately younger Aussies than myself know nothing of his time as PM. Anything that has been recorded as history on him is as, usual lies.

    • Right near my home in SA there is both a Stuart Road and a Sturt Ave. Very annoying for delivery drivers. Next time one complains I’ll say For God’s sake, man, haven’t you read the Great Australian series on Gumshoe?

    • Hi Dee, unfortunately any Australian of my vintage already knows about these great Australians. We were actually taught this stuff at school, something sadly lacking in today’s schools.

  2. A commendable topic and one worth persevering with, so that we may understand some of the facets which developed the current form of the continent.

    However, facts are facts and some corrections need to be made.

    The character William Darton, referred to in the text beginning at Stuart’s 2nd expedition, does not exist. Nor does Kekwick, an aboriginal. The only aboriginal in all of Stuart’s expeditions was with them on the 1st expedition. He has never been identified with a name. William Darton Kekwick, born in East Ham, near London, was 2nd in charge on Stuart’s last four expeditions.

    None of Stuart’s expeditions had an armed guard – the statement re the 5th expedition is incorrect in that regard.

    It has never been claimed that Stuart and his party were first to cross the continent from south to north.

  3. Eddy, the Australian school curriculum effectively lets the teacher chose who they focus on in the history of Australian exploration. In this context, it appears there are few or no rigid parameters about who or what they teach of Australian history. Accordingly, the John McDouall Stuart Society has, over the last 5 years provided support and materials for teachers who wish to teach a little about the man dubbed ‘Australia’s Greatest Inland Explorer’.

C'mon Leave a Reply, Debate and Add to the Discussion