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Edmund Besley Kennedy (1818–1848)

by Edgar Beale

This article was published:

William Nicholas, Edmund Kennedy, 1848

William Nicholas, Edmund Kennedy, 1848

National Library of Australia, 8152963

Edmund Besley Court Kennedy (1818-1848), explorer, was born on 5 September 1818 on Guernsey, Channel Islands, the sixth of eight children of Colonel Thomas Kennedy and his wife Mary Ann, daughter of Thomas Smith, sometime lord mayor of London. All his brothers later distinguished themselves in either the Church of England or the public service, and a strong parental influence in both these directions is obvious. Edmund himself was educated at Elizabeth College, Guernsey, and trained as a surveyor. Impelled by what his admiring father admitted to be an 'almost mad ambition to distinguish himself', he embarked for Australia, arriving in Sydney in 1840, and while still only 21 was appointed an assistant surveyor in the Surveyor-General's Department.

He began duty on 7 August 1840 and immediately left under Charles Tyers for the Portland Bay settlement in western Victoria. In 1841 he began general survey work there and earned some praise, but in 1842 incurred official displeasure through an altercation with a local magistrate, James Blair. It was a parochial affair and, though Kennedy's motive was protest against an injustice, his crusade was juvenile. Moreover it left him open to further adverse reports as a result of a youthful and indiscreet alliance with an immigrant Irish girl, Margaret Murphy, by whom he had a daughter. Blair's main allegations were found by Superintendent Charles La Trobe to be not borne out by the facts. However, Kennedy was recalled to Sydney, where he wrote to the governor a manly defence of his action and expressed deep contrition for his alliance with the girl.

After his return to Sydney on 12 June 1843 his duties were slight; because of the falling off in land sales, most of the surveyors were on half-pay, and Kennedy had practically nothing to do for over two years. He did, however, establish himself as a popular and charming member of society, with a rowdy, boyish sense of fun. His gifts included a pleasant singing voice and considerable skill in sketching in pencil and water-colour.

Inactivity was galling to a man of such thrusting energy, and he found an outlet in November 1845 when he was suddenly appointed second-in-command, under Sir Thomas Mitchell, of the expedition to find an overland route to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Under this leader Kennedy was kept somewhat in the background, but after minor initial criticisms Mitchell praised his 'temperate and gentlemanly way, and highly honourable principles', with frequent references to his zeal and activity. Kennedy had the difficult assignment, which he performed to the satisfaction of his exacting leader, of maintaining a base camp for over four months while Mitchell probed the central west of Queensland, discovering in excellent country a river which he named the Victoria. The party returned to Sydney in January 1847.

Mitchell felt convinced that his 'Victoria' River flowed into the gulf, but his theory had to be tested, and Kennedy volunteered to lead an expedition to do so. With a small party of eight men and an Aboriginal boy, and with pack-horses and three spring carts, he left Sydney on 13 March 1847, retraced the tracks of Mitchell to his farthest point on the 'Victoria', and followed it down its course, only to find that instead of flowing north-west to the gulf it flowed south-west to become, as he correctly deduced, part of Cooper's Creek. He renamed the 'Victoria' the Barcoo, and discovered and named the Thomson River. He then traced the Warrego River down until its waters gave out, whereupon he crossed south-east to the Culgoa, and thence back to Sydney, arriving on 7 February 1848. The result of his exploration was somewhat negative, but he had successfully overcome many difficulties and was acclaimed for his sagacity, patience, skill and perseverance.

Within a few months he was again in the field, this time on an ambitious plan of landing at Rockingham Bay to traverse Cape York Peninsula along the east coast to its most northerly point, where supplies would be replenished from a ship waiting at Albany Passage; thence he was to traverse the west coast southwards to link with the recent discoveries of Mitchell and Ludwig Leichhardt, and to return overland to Sydney. Leaving Sydney on 28 April 1848, the landing was made on 24 May. He found, however, that he was hemmed in by mangrove swamps and mountains, and two months later the party was still in about the same latitude and only about twenty miles (32 km) inland. Having ascended the mountains, progress became a little better, but misfortune had beset them: sickness, a growing shortage of stores, extreme fatigue. Yet Kennedy maintained his cheerful manner and good spirits and proved thereby his excellent qualities of leadership. Eventually on 13 November Kennedy decided to leave eight of his thirteen men at Weymouth Bay while he and four others made forced marches to the supply ship for help. Starvation now confronted them all; only two of the men at the Weymouth Bay camp ultimately survived. Meanwhile one of the advance party shot himself accidentally, and Kennedy therefore left the wounded man and two others to look after him—they too all perished—whilst he and the Aboriginal boy, Jackey Jackey, pressed on alone. With weakening strength but superb courage and endurance, they reached to within about twenty miles (32 km) of the supply ship, only to find themselves trapped by the Escape River and its crocodile-infested mangrove swamps and thick scrubs. In the second week of December Aboriginals, who had become increasingly hostile, attacked; Kennedy was speared and soon afterwards died in the arms of the devoted Jackey Jackey, who alone reached the ship and was saved.

Kennedy died unmarried. His nature was unaffected and straightforward; actuated by high ideals and a strong religious sense as he was, his character was revealed in his deeds. Thomas Huxley, who admired him and nearly joined his last expedition, later commented: 'a fine, noble fellow poor Kennedy was'.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Carron, Narrative of an Expedition: Undertaken Under the Direction of the Late Mr. Assistant Surveyor E.B. Kennedy, for the Exploration of the Country Lying Between Rockingham Bay and Cape York (Syd, 1849)
  • E. Beale, ‘Edmund Besley Court Kennedy’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 35, part 1, 1949, pp 1-25
  • Kennedy to Colonial Secretary, 1 Sept 1843 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue under Edmund Kennedy (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Edgar Beale, 'Kennedy, Edmund Besley (1818–1848)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 25 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Nicholas, Edmund Kennedy, 1848

William Nicholas, Edmund Kennedy, 1848

National Library of Australia, 8152963

Life Summary [details]


5 September, 1818
Guernsey, Channel Islands


December, 1848 (aged 30)
Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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