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John King (1841–1872)

by Alan Moorehead

This article was published:

John King (1841-1872), by De Gruchy & Leigh, c1865

John King (1841-1872), by De Gruchy & Leigh, c1865

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an22761712

John King (1841-1872), explorer, was born on 5 December 1841 in County Tyrone, Ireland, son of Henry King, soldier in the 95th Highlanders, and his wife Ellen, née Orn. Educated at the Hibernian School, Phoenix Park, Dublin, he joined the 70th Regiment at 14 and went with it to India. The regiment was later involved in the mutiny and King was present at some of the main engagements. While convalescent in 1859 he met George James Landells who was in India buying camels for Robert O'Hara Burke's expedition. King was discharged from the army and engaged by Landells to supervise the coolies in charge of the camels.

Burke's expedition, sponsored by the Royal Society of Victoria, was fêted as it left Melbourne on 20 August 1860. Early in October they reached Menindee where Landells resigned and King was put in charge of the camels. He was also chosen as one of the advance party which set out for Cooper's Creek. They reached it on 11 November and set up Camp LXV. The party split again; Burke, William Wills, King and Charley Gray, a sailor, were to make a dash to the Gulf of Carpentaria, 750 miles (1207 km) away, while the depot was left in charge of William Brahe who was expected to wait there for at least three months, as the rearguard with further supplies was expected to arrive in a few days.

The four men with six camels and a horse managed to travel some fourteen miles (23 km) a day, reaching their goal on the tidewaters of the Albert River on 11 February 1861. Their return trip was disastrous. They lost their only horse and four of the six camels and ran low in rations. On 17 April Gray died. Four days later the exhausted men made a superhuman effort and in one day covered the remaining thirty miles (48 km) to Camp LXV, arriving at 7.30 in the evening. The only human sign was the word DIG carved on a tree. They dug and found a box of rations and a message from Brahe that the rearguard had not arrived and that he had decided that very morning to return to Menindee with his men. King's surviving camels were too weak to pursue Brahe's party so Burke decided to make for Mount Hopeless, 150 miles (241 km) away, and after two days rest they set out. For two months they struggled through inhospitable country, with their food diminishing, and growing weaker every day. Late in June Burke and Wills died, but incredibly King survived, kept alive by the kindness of Aboriginals until a relief expedition found him, half demented by starvation and loneliness, near to death himself.

King was taken back to Melbourne and given a public welcome. A royal commission of inquiry revealed the wretched mismanagement of the whole expedition but King's evidence was treated considerately. He was presented with a gold watch and an investment which yielded him £180 a year. He lived quietly with his sister until on 22 August 1871 he married his widowed cousin Mary Richmond, née Bunting. He never recovered from his privations on the expedition and died of tuberculosis on 15 January 1872 at his home in St Kilda.

Select Bibliography

  • A. M. Moorehead, Cooper's Creek (Lond, 1963)
  • Burke and Wills Commission, Evidence, Votes and Proceedings (Victoria), 1861-62, 3 (97).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Alan Moorehead, 'King, John (1841–1872)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John King (1841-1872), by De Gruchy & Leigh, c1865

John King (1841-1872), by De Gruchy & Leigh, c1865

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an22761712

Life Summary [details]


5 December, 1841
Tyrone, Ireland


15 January, 1872 (aged 30)
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

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