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Ernest Giles (1835–1897)

by Louis Green

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Ernest Giles (1835-1897), by unknown photographer

Ernest Giles (1835-1897), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24189206

Ernest Giles (1835-1897), explorer, was born on 20 July 1835 at Bristol, England, son of William Giles, merchant, and his wife Jane Elizabeth, née Powell. Educated at Christ's Hospital (where he was admitted as William Ernest Powell Giles) he followed his parents to Adelaide in 1850. He moved to Victoria in 1852, tried his luck on the goldfields without success and became a post office clerk in Melbourne. By 1861 he was in western New South Wales where until 1865 he engaged in several expeditions aimed at assessing the pastoral country beyond the Darling River. These journeys gave him both the experience and the taste for further exploration.

In 1872 Giles was chosen to lead a small expedition organized by Dr Mueller to investigate parts of central Australia west of the new overland telegraph line. From Charlotte Waters the party followed the Finke valley to the Missionaries' Plain south of the MacDonnell Ranges but found its way blocked to the west by lack of water and to the south by the salt-pans of Lake Amadeus which Giles named. There his second-in-command, Carmichael, insisted on turning back despite Giles's wish to find a route to the coast of Western Australia. This ambition was to inspire his remaining expeditions, the first of which, again backed by Mueller, was assembled next year. Starting further south Giles followed the line of the Musgrave Ranges which, unknown to him, had already been seen by William Gosse. On reaching Mount Olga which he had earlier named from a distance, Giles found from Gosse's draytracks that he had been anticipated but since they soon turned back he was encouraged to persevere. He spent the next summer trying to break through to the west from a base in the Tomkinson Range and in autumn persisted in attacking the desert from a northerly point in the Rawlinson Range. A desperate final effort cost him the life of one of his men, who gave his name to Gibson's Desert, and brought Giles himself close to death; the exhaustion of his supplies compelled him to retreat, defeated, to the overland telegraph line.

Although forestalled by Peter Warburton and (Sir) John Forrest, Giles succeeded in his cherished aim of making an overland crossing from South to Western Australia in 1875. Equipped with camels by Thomas Elder, he set out from Beltana and went for supplies to Port Augusta whence he proceeded first north-west and then west along a string of waterholes, Wynbring, Ooldea, Ooldabinna and Boundary Dam, until he reached the Western Australian border. He then risked a 312-mile (502 km) marathon across the Great Victoria Desert before reaching the Queen Victoria Springs; from there he was able to complete his journey to Perth in fairly easy stages. On the return trip in 1876 he went north to the Murchison and Ashburton Rivers, crossed Gibson's Desert and reached the Rawlinson Ranges where he had been held up in 1874. He thus achieved a double crossing of the western half of the Australian continent.

Although Giles found little good grazing country, his expeditions added substantially to European knowledge of central Australia. He published Geographic Travels in Central Australia from 1872 to 1874 (Melbourne, 1875), The Journal of a Forgotten Expedition (Adelaide, 1880) and a full account of his journeys in two volumes, Australia Twice Traversed (London, 1889). For his explorations he was made a knight of the crown of Italy, honorary member of several Continental societies and in 1880 fellow and gold medallist of the Royal Geographical Society, London. The South Australian government granted him £250 for each of his expeditions in 1872 and 1874 and a lease of some 2000 square miles (5180 km²) in the Northern Territory after 1876 but he was refused official appointment because, as Governor Sir William Jervois claimed on 11 October 1881, 'I am informed that he gambles and that his habits are not always strictly sober'. Giles was a land classifier in the Western District of Victoria in 1877-79, briefly revisited the Musgrave Ranges in 1882, represented a prospecting company he had formed in the Kimberley in the 1890s and joined the rush to Coolgardie. There he became a clerk in the warden's office and on 13 November 1897 died of bronchial pneumonia.

Giles is among the more interesting Australian explorers by virtue of his journals which, although overwritten, display a fine descriptive ability and constitute a record of inner experience as well as outward observation. His culture, perception and imagination were no less marked than his skill and determination.

Select Bibliography

  • E. B. Dow, On the Burke and Wills Track: The Giles Inscription (Broken Hill, 1937)
  • G. Rawson, Desert Journeys (Syd, 1948)
  • L. Green, Ernest Giles (Melb, 1963)
  • J. Young, ‘Recent Journey of Exploration Across the Continent of Australia …’, Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York, 10 (1878)
  • W. H. Tietkens, ‘Experiences in the Life of an Australian Explorer’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 5, part 2, 1919, pp 45-74
  • L. Green, ‘A Voss Among the Explorers: The Career of Ernest Giles’, Quadrant, vol 7, no 3, Winter 1963, pp 17-35
  • CO 13/139.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Louis Green, 'Giles, Ernest (1835–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Ernest Giles (1835-1897), by unknown photographer

Ernest Giles (1835-1897), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24189206

Life Summary [details]


20 July, 1835
Bristol, Gloucestershire, England


13 November, 1897 (aged 62)
Western Australia, Australia

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