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Wells, Lawrence Allen (1860–1938)

by Christopher Steele

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Lawrence Allen Wells (1860-1938), by Townsend Duryea, c1890

Lawrence Allen Wells (1860-1938), by Townsend Duryea, c1890

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 1079

Lawrence Allen Wells (1860-1938), explorer, was born on 30 April 1860 at Yallum Park, Penola, South Australia, second son of Thomas Allen Wells, squatter, and his wife Isabella Elizabeth, née Kelsh. Educated at Donovan's National School, Mount Gambier, and later by private tutors, Larry entered the South Australian Survey Department in 1878, becoming a cadet the following year. At 23 he joined the Northern Territory and Queensland Border Survey; pegging of the 651-mile (1048 km) line to the Gulf of Carpentaria was completed in 1886.

He was surveyor in 1891 for the Elder Scientific Exploring Expedition, led by David Lindsay and administered by the South Australian branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia. It set out to investigate the country between Warrina, South Australia, and the Western Australian coast. Drought caused the expedition to be diverted and exacerbated dissension among the personnel. The loyal Wells became leader. His zeal enabled the team to complete part of the exploration and to discover the East Murchison goldfields. Later, his evidence was crucial in exonerating Lindsay. On 22 September 1892 in St John's Anglican Church, Adelaide, Wells married Alice Marion Woods.

Appointed in 1896 to head the Calvert Scientific Exploring Expedition, Wells engaged the camel driver Bejah Dervish with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. Like the 1891 expedition, this trip was well planned, directed by the R.G.S.A., and foiled by the arid interior: the 850-mile (1368 km) projected route from Lake Way to the Fitzroy River crossed heavy, high sand-ridges, the continent's last major uncharted area. After leaving Separation Well one of the two parties—comprising Charles Wells, Larry's cousin, and George Jones, Lindsay's nephew—perished from thirst in the Great Sandy Desert. The tragedy terminated the expedition, at the first of its proposed three stages. Although he had spent months backtracking to find his comrades' bodies, as the leader Wells was vilified by press and public in Adelaide; two years were to pass before a parliamentary select committee praised his conduct.

Having promised his family that he would give up exploring, Wells worked from 1897 for the South Australian Pastoral Board, but in 1903 led the government's North-West Prospecting Expedition, accompanied by Herbert Basedow. Wells customarily befriended the Aborigines and they named him 'Eagle-eyed Man'. Known as 'the last of the great inland explorers', he was modest and reticent, but was willing to reminisce among his intimates over lunch in a city café. In 1908 he completed a trigonometrical survey of the Victoria River district, Northern Territory, and later held administrative positions in the State and Federal public services where he was involved with land taxes. Chairman of South Australia's Land Board from 1918, he retired in 1930 and was appointed O.B.E. in 1937.

At 72 Wells led the Endeavour Expedition through the Great Victoria Desert in search of minerals; next year he and his prospecting party almost succumbed to thirst near McDouall Peak. After being struck by a rail car at Blackwood, Adelaide, he died on 11 May 1938. Survived by his wife and two daughters, he was buried in Mitcham cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £925.

Select Bibliography

  • W. and C. Steele, To the Great Gulf (Adel, 1978)
  • Quiz and the Lantern, 17 June, 22, 29 July, 4 Nov 1897, 22 Dec 1898
  • Proceedings (Royal Geographical Society of Australasia: South Australian Branch), 39 (1937-38), 85 (1985)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 28 June 1892, 13 Mar 1933, 12, 13 May 1938
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 1 May 1930, 9 Nov 1933
  • Personalities Remembered (ABC radio script, D5390 (misc) no 3, State Library of South Australia)
  • PRG 315 (State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

Christopher Steele, 'Wells, Lawrence Allen (1860–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wells-lawrence-allen-9043/text15931, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 17 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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