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William Harry Tietkens (1844–1933)

by Mervyn Hartwig

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William Harry Tietkens (1844-1933), by unknown photographer

William Harry Tietkens (1844-1933), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6976

William Harry Tietkens (1844-1933), surveyor, prospector and explorer, was born on 30 August 1844 at Ball's Pond, Islington, London, son of William Henry Tietkens, chemist, and his wife Emily, née Dovers. Educated at Christ's Hospital until June 1859, he reached Adelaide in September in the Alma with his mother's friend George A. T. Woods. In 1860 he went to the Castlemaine diggings, Victoria, where he worked as newsboy, shop assistant and cowherd, and came to love the bush. Soon abandoned by Woods, he moved to Melbourne and served three years as ticket clerk with the Hobson's Bay Railway. In 1865 he spent two months with Ernest Giles assessing the pastoral potential of the upper Darling. Apart from a droving trip to Adelaide and three months on the Gippsland goldfields, he remained in western New South Wales and northern Victoria for seven years working mainly as a station-hand. With a party from Corona station investigating country 200 miles (322 km) beyond the Darling at lakes Cobham and Yantara, he observed the Aboriginal response to the invasion of their territories. He believed that two attacks were inspired by a desire both for Western goods and for the expulsion of whites. When blacks were killed and wounded, he concluded that exploration and settlement were acts of conquest.

In 1873 and 1875 he acted as second-in-command of parties led by Giles from northern South Australia to the western coast of the continent. The second expedition succeeded, and Tietkens left it at Perth to resume studies for the South Australian Licensed Surveyors' examination which he completed in 1878. He went to England in 1877, then worked as a surveyor at Richmond and Windsor, New South Wales. His dogged but unsuccessful attempt in 1878-80 to utilise country near Maralinga, South Australia, for pastoral settlement by well-sinking was motivated and financed by Louis Leisler of Glasgow, whom he had met in 1877 and after whom he named the Leisler Hills (now part of the Maralinga Tjaruta local government area). He then returned to surveying in New South Wales. After marrying Mary Ann Long at Richmond on 14 June 1882 he worked as a station-hand and prospected for silver near the Barrier Ranges.

Unemployed in Adelaide in 1886, Tietkens gave a lecture to the South Australian branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, shrewdly calculated to secure command of an expedition to the Lake Amadeus district. He argued that the lake was bound to have a supply channel probably coming from a chain of hills that he had seen to the north-west in 1873; this might open a reliable route to the north-west coast settlements. His expedition left Alice Springs in March 1889 and returned to the overland telegraph at Charlotte Waters in July. He reported no country suitable for European settlement, but reached and named Lake MacDonald (Karrkurutinyja), the Kintore Range (Walungurra), Mount Rennie (Nguman), and the Cleland Hills (Puritjarra). He defined the western borders of Lake Amadeus (Pantu), photographed Ayers Rock (Uluru) and Mount Olga (Kata Tjuta) for the first time and collected plants, including seven previously unrecorded species; his samples enabled the South Australian government geologist to compile a 'geological sketch' of much of the country between Alice Springs and the Western Australia border. The government awarded him £250 for his services and the Royal Geographical Society elected him a fellow. He resumed surveying in 1891 with the New South Wales Department of Lands. On retiring in 1909 he lived at Eastwood; he died of cancer at Lithgow on 19 April 1933 and was buried in the Field of Mars cemetery, Ryde. His estate was sworn for probate at £1946. He was survived by a daughter Emily Mary Daniels of Lithgow.

Although Tietkens took a leading part in three major expeditions, his most useful work was probably in defining the features, establishing the commercial worth and initiating white exploitation of the country between the tracks of the great explorers. He published numerous papers in geographical and scientific journals; his 'Experiences in the life of an Australian explorer' in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 1919, is a major autobiographical source. He has been aptly described as a 'wanderer by accident' and the last of 'the old school of explorers', who wanted 'nothing so much as to settle down to a quiet life with those he loved'.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Giles, Australia Twice Traversed (Lond, 1889)
  • R. Erickson, West of Centre (Lond, 1972)
  • L. Green, ‘A Voss among the explorers …’, Quadrant, 7 (1963)
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 27 Apr 1933
  • M. C. Hartwig, The Progress of White Settlement in the Alice Springs District and its Effect Upon the Aboriginal Inhabitants, 1860-1894 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1965)
  • Tietkens papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Mervyn Hartwig, 'Tietkens, William Harry (1844–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Harry Tietkens (1844-1933), by unknown photographer

William Harry Tietkens (1844-1933), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6976

Life Summary [details]


30 August, 1844
London, Middlesex, England


19 April, 1933 (aged 88)
Lithgow, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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