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James Charles Burnett (1815–1854)

by Don Dignan

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James Charles Burnett (1815-1854), surveyor and explorer, was born probably in England, the eldest of four sons of William Burnett. In the William he arrived at Sydney in December 1829 with his family. His father was bonded to the Australian Agricultural Co. and was its general superintendent of agriculture in 1830-35; he then lived in Sydney and in 1842 settled on the Paterson River. On 1 January 1833 James was appointed a clerk in the Surveyor-General's Department, where he rose rapidly through the ranks of draftsman and assistant-surveyor to head of the new Survey Office established at Brisbane in 1844.

In October 1841, after field work in the Illawarra district, Burnett was sent by the surveyor-general, Sir Thomas Mitchell, with his own son Roderick as second-in-command, on an expedition to trace the Dividing Range as far north as was practicably consistent with a speedy arrival at Moreton Bay. With great difficulty Burnett followed the range to about 30°S, and then had to take the quickest route to Brisbane, where he arrived in September 1842. In 1843 Mitchell instructed him to make a plan of the Richmond River from its source to its mouth. Starting from Brisbane, Burnett cut the first dray road up the Logan River valley and across the rugged McPherson Range west of Mount Lindsay into the Richmond valley. His report that the Richmond River was navigable for ships of up to seventy tons for some twenty miles (32 km) brought a coastal schooner service to the up-river stations after 1846.

In 1847 Burnett was sent to complete the work of Henry Stuart Russell, a squatter whose dissatisfaction with pastures on the Darling Downs had led in 1842 to his discovery of the headwaters of a large river system beyond the Upper Brisbane River. By 1846 thirteen squatters had taken up runs on this new system, and it was important to know where the river entered the sea and whether wool could be shipped from its mouth. In his first expedition in 1847 Burnett traced the largest of the rivers down to its tidal reaches, but since he could not penetrate the dense coastal scrubs he returned to Brisbane for a boat and explored the river from its mouth to the point where he had abandoned his overland expedition. Believing that the mouth of the river system was unsuitable for a port, he surveyed the mouth of a smaller river which entered Wide Bay. Burnett submitted reports which gave birth to Maryborough in 1847. In recognition of his work, Governor Sir Charles FitzRoy decreed that the large river be called the Burnett, whilst the Wide Bay river was named the Mary after Lady FitzRoy.

In January 1848 Burnett left the survey office in Brisbane to undertake surveys on the Darling Downs and did not return until January 1851. Three years later he received news from England of his election as a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He died aged 39 on 18 July 1854 in his home at Kangaroo Point, Brisbane. According to the Moreton Bay Courier, 22 July, Burnett's constitution decayed prematurely because of his enthusiastic and almost reckless devotion to the trying duties of his profession.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Dignan, The Story of Kolan (Brisb, 1964)
  • L. T. Daley, Men and a River (Melb, 1966)
  • manuscript catalogue under William Burnett (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Don Dignan, 'Burnett, James Charles (1815–1854)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




18 July, 1854 (aged ~ 39)
Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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