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Austin, Robert (1825–1905)

by Glen McLaren

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Robert Austin (1825-1905), explorer, surveyor and engineer, was born on 31 December 1825 at Wanstead House, Epping Forest, Essex, England, son of James Gardner Austin, architect, and his wife Mary Ann, née Pole. With his parents and brother James, Robert arrived at Australind, Western Australia, in the Island Queen in December 1840. Joining the surveyor-general's department in 1847, over the next fifteen years Austin carried out extensive fieldwork. He surveyed the Toodyay-Northam areas and was included in a number of expeditions—such as that of B. F. Helpman—but was remembered primarily for his exploration of the Murchison and Gascoyne regions.

Starting out from Northam on 10 July 1854, the party he led was dogged by disaster. On 21 August several horses ate poisonous native plants and died in agony in ensuing days; more were found dead a week later. Austin was compelled to discard much equipment and press on partly unmounted in an unforgiving environment. One of the men, Charles Farmer, accidentally shot himself on 19 September and died eight days later. Subsequently, the remainder battled dangerous salt marshes and poor feed for the horses. With temperatures rising rapidly, meagre surface water supplies were evaporating by the day.

Eventually, on 29 October, when approximately one hundred miles (160 km) from the mouth of the Gascoyne River, they came to a standstill. The horses had not drunk for two days. On his return from a reconnoitre Austin found, as he reported:

the whole of the party stripped and buried in the sand under the shade of their blankets thrown over a bush, and our horses standing up with their heads under their masters' blankets, too thirsty to feed . . . the men were drinking their own and the horses' urine, and a native I captured and kept to find water, as he knew the country, did the same, saying we should all die if I persisted in pushing on.

Austin had no option but to retreat some thirty-seven miles (59 km) to the last waterhole and then to return to Port Gregory, arriving on 25 November. In the course of the journey he had found and named Mount Magnet. He also reported indications of gold in the Murchison region, but his claim for recognition of its discovery was never acknowledged.

A month after resigning in April 1860, Austin was appointed surveyor, second class, in the Queensland Surveyor-General's Department. He was promoted to surveyor first class in January 1861. Eight months later he became a commissioner of crown lands and in May 1862 secured the position of engineer of roads for the southern district. 0n 22 October 1862 at St John's Church of England, North Brisbane, he married Sophia Catherine Douglas; they were to have ten children. By the late 1880s he appears to have transferred entirely to metropolitan civil engineering and surveying operations. In June 1891 he was appointed sergeant-at-arms to the Legislative Assembly. Due to economic depression, he was dismissed in August 1893. Austin died alone in bed on 24 February 1905 at Thornborough, Queensland, and was buried in the local cemetery. His wife, four daughters and two sons survived him. Lake Austin, Western Australia, was named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), The History of the North West of Australia (Perth, 1915)
  • West Australian, 8 June 1896, p 5
  • Western Australian Dept of Lands, exploration diaries, PR5441, v 4, pp 347-50 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • Austin papers (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

Glen McLaren, 'Austin, Robert (1825–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/austin-robert-12777/text23053, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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