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John McKinlay (1819–1872)

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John McKinlay (1819-1872), by S. Solomon, c1860

John McKinlay (1819-1872), by S. Solomon, c1860

State Library of South Australia, B 5955

John McKinlay (1819-1872), explorer, was born on 26 August 1819 at Sandbank on Holy Loch, Argyllshire, Scotland, third son of Dugald McKinlay, merchant and feuar, and his wife Catherine, née McKellar. Educated at Dalinlongart School, he migrated to New South Wales with his brother Alexander in 1836. They worked with their uncle who held land near Goulburn until he became bankrupt in 1840. Strong, energetic and 6 ft 4 ins (193 cm) tall, John turned to outback districts and learned much bushcraft from the Aboriginals. He also made money by taking up squatting leases on the River Darling and selling them. By 1851 he held occupation licences in South Australia, some in partnership with James Pile of Gawler and others near Port Augusta. By then McKinlay was thoroughly self-reliant, an accurate shot and equal to almost any situation except public speaking.

In August 1861 McKinlay was chosen by the House of Assembly to lead the South Australian Burke Relief Expedition. Eight of the party assembled at Kapunda with 26 horses, 4 camels and a loaded cart. Further north he bought 12 cattle and recruited a bullock driver. At Blanchewater station he collected six months' stores sent up from Port Augusta and a hundred sheep. The party established a depot at Lake Buchanan in mid-October. McKinlay made many excursions and found what he thought was the grave of Charles Gray. On the assumption that all Burke's party had perished, W. O Hodgkinson was sent to Blanchewater to report and bring up fresh supplies; after a month he returned with a cook and newspapers announcing the rescue of John King by A. W. Howitt and the deaths of Burke and Wills. On 7 December at Cooper's Creek McKinlay found the tree marked by Howitt near Burke's grave and buried a document showing his intention to proceed back to his depot, then northward.

McKinlay had been instructed to explore north and west of Lake Eyre. After finding many lakes and much pastoral land he made for the Gulf of Carpentaria in hope of meeting H.M.V.S. Victoria. Heavy rain in February 1862 transformed Sturt's Stony Desert into 'running streams and blossoming meadows'. The stores had been depleted and the cart abandoned but for some time the party lived well on plentiful fish and meat. However, the leader never relaxed his strict discipline and good relations with the Aboriginals. He shaped the course accurately and on 20 May arrived near the mouth of the Albert River but mangrove swamps prevented sight of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Unhappily the Victoria had sailed for Melbourne and the party was bitterly disappointed. With his usual determination McKinlay decided to make for Port Denison (Bowen) six hundred miles (966 km) away on the east coast of Queensland. His watch had become useless for calculating the distance travelled, his bullocks were reduced to two, his remaining horses were in bad shape, his camels were lame and had to be fitted with leather boots, and his last four pounds of flour were reserved for making gruel in case of sickness. By 20 June his men were rationed to twenty ounces of salt meat a day and by 31 July all the livestock except ten horses had been eaten. On 2 August McKinlay saw fresh cattle tracks and soon the herd with two men came in sight. Within an hour the party was 'pitching in to roast beef and damper', but for weeks the men suffered great pains after meals.

McKinlay led his men slowly over the last eighty miles (129 km) to Bowen, where he was given a complimentary dinner and a handsome testimonial on the eve of sailing for Rockhampton on 17 August. A month later he reached Melbourne. The Royal Society of Victoria welcomed him, and with Landsborough he was given an enthusiastic reception in the Exhibition Building. In October McKinlay arrived in Adelaide, handed his journal and charts to the government and was awarded £1000; the five men who returned with him were given six months' pay. He was banquetted by the mayor and given a silver tea and coffee service. At Gawler he was welcomed as 'a conquering hero' but demurred from making speeches. Although he had summed up the actions of each day before he slept, he had no talent for talking or writing about his own exploits. Described as 'the knight-errant of explorers', he went his own way and ignored critics. His party was the second to cross the continent from south to north and, like J. M. Stuart, he never lost any of his men.

In 1865 McKinlay was chosen to lead an expedition to determine a better site for settlement than Adam Bay in the Northern Territory. He sailed from Port Adelaide in September and arrived at the bay in November. He denounced it as worthless for a port and city, and went in search of better country. He found patches of good country south-east of the Adelaide River. He then turned north to the East Alligator River but was hemmed in by floods. In June 1866 he killed his horses, dried the meat, bound the skins to saplings and made a raft on which he took his party safely to Adam Bay. In August he joined the Beatrice and by way of Timor returned to South Australia, reporting favourably on Port Darwin and Anson Bay. He revisited the Northern Territory in 1870 to select sites for holders of land orders and then offered to survey the route for the overland telegraph from Darwin but his terms were rejected by the government.

Between his explorations McKinlay continued to take up new runs. On 17 January 1863 at St George's Church, Gawler, he married Jane Pile. Worn out by hardships he died on 31 December 1872 and was buried at Willaston cemetery with a very large funeral. An impressive monument was erected in his honour at Gawler, its foundation laid by John Forrest on 14 November 1874. A portrait of McKinlay is in the Gawler Institute.  The Shire of McKinlay in north-west Queensland, was named after him in 1903.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Davis, Tracks of McKinlay and Party Across Australia, W. Westgarth ed (Lond, 1863)
  • B. Threadgill, South Australian Land Exploration 1856 to 1880, vol 1 (Adel, 1922)
  • Votes and Proceedings (South Australia), 1861 (147, 185), 1862 (12, 218), 1865-66 (131), 1866-67 (80, 82), 1870-71 (36)
  • Examiner (Melbourne), 7 Sept, 7 Dec 1861, 19 July 1862, 10 Jan 1863
  • Observer (Adelaide), 15, 22 Nov 1862, 4 Jan 1873
  • Town and Country Journal, 11 Jan 1873.

Additional Resources

Citation details

'McKinlay, John (1819–1872)', 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 McKinlay (1819-1872), by S. Solomon, c1860

John McKinlay (1819-1872), by S. Solomon, c1860

State Library of South Australia, B 5955

Life Summary [details]


26 August, 1819
Sandbank, Argyll, Scotland


31 December, 1872 (aged 53)
Gawler, South Australia, Australia

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