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John Charles Darke (1806–1844)

by G. H. Stancombe

This article was published:

John Charles Darke (1806-1844), surveyor and explorer, was the son of John Darke of Hereford, England, and his wife Elizabeth, née Wedge, and a nephew of John Wedge with whom he arrived in Van Diemen's Land in the Heroine in April 1824. Darke was then too young for a grant of land, but at the request of his uncle he was awarded 500 acres (202 ha) in 1826 for assistance given to Lieutenant-Colonel William Balfour in pursuit of the bushrangers Jeffries and Matthew Brady. His father arrived with the rest of the family in 1827 and received a grant at Mill's Plains adjoining his son's land, which was doubled in 1831 when he inherited £1000 from his mother's estate.

Farming did not appeal to him and with his brother, William Wedge Darke, he applied for work as an assistant surveyor in the Survey Department. William was unsuccessful and established himself as private land agent and surveyor. John was accepted as temporary assistant surveyor in 1833 to continue exploration for the extension of settlement in the upper Derwent and Huon valleys. On two successful trips he identified the river found the previous year by William Sharland and climbed Wyld's Crag near which he recommended the setting up of a camp for further exploration. When a second attempt to gain permanency with the Survey Department failed, he went to Victoria where, by 1836, his uncle had become surveyor to the Port Phillip Association. Darke took up land at the Boorabool Hills and grazed sheep entrusted to him by Tasmanian speculators.

In 1838 he joined the South Australian Survey Department reorganized by Colonel George Gawler. Although given charge of a large team, he found his position uncongenial and, after frequent absences from duty, in November 1839 sent in his resignation which was promptly accepted. Until 1844 he practised as a private surveyor and in this time married Elizabeth Carter, the daughter of a Maidstone auctioneer.

As a result of rumours in 1843 of good land west of Port Lincoln private subscribers financed an expedition to explore and report on the Eyre Peninsula. Darke led the party of four which left Port Lincoln on 29 August 1844. Passing Lake Wangary they followed a chain of salt lakes west of the Marble Ranges northward to Wedge Hill and north-west to Wudinna Hill and reported many well-grassed plains. Seeing no good land beyond the Gawler Range, Darke turned back and, on 23 October near Waddikee Rock, was speared by Aboriginals who had previously been most friendly. He died next day and was buried beneath the peak which now bears his name.

His uncle had held no high opinion of his nephew's devotion to duty or sense of responsibility and had refused to recommend him to the Survey Department in Tasmania. The opinion was justified only in part: fellow surveyors were impressed by Darke's surveying ability and his kindly good humour, and it was when challenged with situations of uncommon difficulty and great responsibility that he achieved the successes of his career.

Select Bibliography

  • R. V. Billis and A. S. Kenyon, Pastures New (Melb, 1930)
  • S. Franks, Land Exploration in Tasmania, 1824-1842 (M.A. thesis, University of Tasmania, 1958)
  • J. D. Somerville, Life of John Charles Darke (State Records of South Australia)
  • correspondence file under Darke (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

G. H. Stancombe, 'Darke, John Charles (1806–1844)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




24 October, 1844 (aged ~ 38)
South Australia, Australia

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