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William Landsborough (1825–1886)

by Gwen Trundle

This article was published:

William Landsborough (1825-1886), by Samuel Calvert

William Landsborough (1825-1886), by Samuel Calvert

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IMP23/08/62/1

William Landsborough (1825-1886), explorer, was born on 21 February 1825 at Stevenston, near Saltcoats, Ayrshire, Scotland, son of Dr David Landsborough, clergyman, entomologist and artist, and his wife Margaret, née McLeish. Educated in Irvine, he migrated in 1841 to New South Wales where his elder brothers held two stations in New England. By 1850 an expert bushman he leased a near-by run and next year joined the gold rush to Bathurst with some success. In 1854 he followed his brothers north to Monduran, their station on the Kolan River, and with various partners applied for leases. He explored and named Mount Nebo in 1856 and later leased blocks in the area. He explored around Broad Sound in 1857, the Comet and Nogoa Rivers in 1858 and with Stewart examined the Bonar (Bowen) River in 1859. They reached Torrens Creek and looked carefully for traces of Ludwig Leichhardt. From Rockhampton he then went with Nat Buchanan in search of new pastures, and traced Aramac Creek and the Thomson River. Their food ran out but they found good country. In 1861 Landsborough applied for 15 runs of 100 sq. miles (259 km²) each and with Buchanan and Edward Cornish formed the Landsborough River Co. to stock the new 'Plains of Promise', which he named Bowen Downs. To raise capital he sold all his stations except Glenprairie near Broad Sound. He also mortgaged Bowen Downs to the Scottish Australian Co. through its agents, Robert Morehead and Matthew Young, thereby forfeiting his place in management of the stations, although he held a quarter of the shares until 1869.

In 1861 Landsborough was chosen by the Victorian and Queensland governments to lead a search for Robert O'Hara Burke and William Wills from the Gulf of Carpentaria southwards. In August the party left Brisbane in the brig Firefly, escorted by H.M.S. Victoria. In a cyclone the brig was driven on to a reef sixty miles (97 km) south-east of Cape York. The frightened horses were unable to escape until Landsborough had the deck 'cut down to the water's edge'; all but one managed to swim to a near-by island. When the sea calmed, the Victoria pulled the Firefly off the reef. After makeshift repairs the brig was reloaded and in October arrived at Sweers Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria. A depot was formed on the Albert River at the site of Burketown and in November the party of 8, including 4 Aboriginals, and 25 horses started south. Landsborough followed the Gregory River and named the Barkly Tableland but near the site of Camooweal found desert with a network of dry channels. Realizing that rain could flood the country and isolate his starving party, Landsborough struggled back to the Burketown depot in January 1862.

With supplies from the Victoria he led his men south, 'hopping' from river to river. They encountered hostile Aboriginals on the Barcoo and on the Warrego their rations were reduced to boiled greenhide. On 21 May they reached Williams's station and learned that Burke and Wills had perished. With bulging tucker bags Landsborough continued his journey south and in October delivered the horses and gear to the authorities in Melbourne. He was fêted as the first explorer to cross the continent from north to south. He reported to the Royal Society on his route and the quality of land he had seen and at a reception in the Exhibition Building was presented with inscribed plate valued at £500. Critics in the Brisbane press had claimed that his search for Burke was a secondary objective because he had been commissioned by graziers to find good land. He emphatically denied these charges but Journal of Landsborough's Expedition from Carpentaria (Melbourne, 1862) and Exploration of Australia from Carpentaria to Melbourne (London, 1866) publicly revealed the locations of the best country he had traversed. In 1862 his second-in-command, George Bourne, also published his journal of the expedition in Melbourne. These reports led to a frenzied rush into the gulf country.

At a function in Sydney Landsborough had met Caroline Hollingworth Raine. They were married on 30 December 1862 and left for Britain where he was given a gold watch by the Royal Geographical Society in London and visited relations. He returned to Brisbane to find that he no longer owned Glenprairie; no record of its sale could be traced but rumour had his attorney losing the station on a throw of dice. Landsborough had been nominated for life to the Legislative Council. He took his seat on 2 May 1865 but resigned on the 11th. After a week he was reappointed but resigned again on 23 September. He then became police magistrate and commissioner of crown lands in Carpentaria. He found Burketown full of thieves and criminals fleeing from the law, and reprisals against Aboriginals for killing sheep and cattle were common. To keep order he recommended Wentworth D'Arcy Uhr to lead a local band of native police. Appointed, he carried out his duties with zest but became truculent and even threatened to chain Landsborough to a tree like other law breakers. Other difficulties proliferated but the gulf townships prospered so rapidly that settlers began to boast that the area would soon become a separate colony. High officers in Brisbane proposed to appoint Landsborough government resident on the ground that he would then be able to make decisions without reference to the capital and thus prevent delays of at least three months. Unfortunately Landsborough and another magistrate made a mistake on the bench. Untrained and with no local lawyers to consult, they had decided a case against Uhr under the Masters and Servants Act instead of the Polynesian Labourers Act.

In September 1870 Landsborough was summarily dismissed as police magistrate and his name was struck off the roll of justices. Indignant residents in Carpentaria protested to the government on his behalf but in vain. On 24 March 1872 he left Burketown to defend himself in Brisbane but the quest was unsuccessful. He had lived too long in the bush to know any influential politicians. In 1872 the government appointed him to survey a road from St George to Cunnamulla and later commissioned him to clear the track. In sizzling heat twenty-three miles (37 km) of the road had been cut but he was dismissed for 'paying his men the enormous high wage of 10 pence per hour'. He went to Stanthorpe where tin had been newly found in large quantities; he did well by mining alluvial tin.

Landsborough's wife had died of tuberculosis, leaving three daughters. Though friends cared for them he longed to be with them and to his joy he was made an inspector in the new Brands Office. He collected his daughters and made a home at Toowong. Worried about the girls being alone while he was at work, he sought an introduction to Maria Theresa Carr, née Carter, whom he had seen in church. A gifted musician but inefficient in business, she welcomed his proposal and they were married at Brisbane on 8 March 1873.

In 1877 Landsborough was restored to the Commission of the Peace. On 27 September 1882 the government rewarded him with £2000 for his explorations. He used the money to buy a property, which he named Loch Lamerough, at Caloundra. Hardships as an explorer made him a sufferer from chronic indigestion. He died on 16 March 1886 and was buried on his land, survived by three daughters and three sons. In 1913 his widow had his remains moved to the Toowong cemetery where a monument is over his grave; another is near his first grave. His journals are in the Oxley Library, Brisbane. His name is commemorated in Queensland by a town and an inlet near Burketown. In 1862 a gold-mining town in Victoria was named in his honour.

Select Bibliography

  • D. S. Macmillan (ed), Bowen Downs, 1863-1963 (Syd, 1963)
  • T. Welsby, ‘William Landsborough: Explorer’, Journal (Historical Society of Queensland), vol 2, no 6, Nov 1935, pp 296-326
  • Examiner (Melbourne), 23 Aug, 6 Sept, 4 Oct, 15 Nov 1862
  • Town and Country Journal, 14 Apr 1877
  • Brisbane Courier, 17 Mar 1886.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Gwen Trundle, 'Landsborough, William (1825–1886)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 21 April 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

William Landsborough (1825-1886), by Samuel Calvert

William Landsborough (1825-1886), by Samuel Calvert

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IMP23/08/62/1

Life Summary [details]


21 February, 1825
Stevenston, Ayrshire, Scotland


16 March, 1886 (aged 61)
Caloundra, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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