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Peter Egerton Warburton (1813–1889)

by Denison Deasey

This article was published:

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Peter Egerton Warburton (1813-1889), by unknown photographer

Peter Egerton Warburton (1813-1889), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 7938

Peter Egerton Warburton (1813-1889), explorer, was born on 16 August 1813 at Arley Hall, Northwich, Cheshire, England, fourth son of Rev. Rowland Egerton Warburton and his wife Emma, née Croxton. Educated at home and by tutors in France, he entered the navy at 12 and served as midshipman in the Windsor Castle. Between 1829 and 1831 he was at the Royal Indian Military College, Addiscombe, Surrey, before joining the 13th Native Infantry Battalion, Bombay army, where he served until 1853, retiring as assistant adjutant-general with the rank of major. On 8 October 1838 he had married Alicia Mant of Bath.

In 1853 Warburton visited his brother George at Albany, Western Australia, before going to Adelaide where he replaced A. Tolmer as commissioner of police on 8 December, and was made a justice of the peace. In 1857 he visited the area of Lake Gairdner and the Gawler Ranges; and in 1858 the government sent him north to recall and supersede B. H. Babbage's exploring party. Warburton continued with a companion towards Mount Serle, finding a way through Lake Eyre and South Lake Torrens. He located groups of springs, grazing land and the ranges he named after (Sir) Samuel Davenport. While the government disapproved of Warburton's criticism of Babbage, it praised his skill and granted him £100 for his achievements. Next year however £100 per annum was taken off his salary, and he continued to receive this reduced rate.

In 1860 with three mounted police he ventured north-west of Streaky Bay; he covered about two hundred miles (322 km) of barren country and reported unfavourably on it. In November 1864 Warburton was defeated by inhospitable country north-west of Mount Margaret and in 1866 he examined the area around the northern shores of Lake Eyre. He searched unsuccessfully for Sturt's Cooper's Creek, but reached a large river, since named after him, which he traced to near the Queensland border. He returned in October.

After a secret court of inquiry into the police force, the government suggested 'that other employment more congenial to his habits and tastes should be found' for Warburton, but they refused to show him the evidence. He declined to resign and was dismissed early in 1867. A subsequent Legislative Council select committee on the police force failed to reveal why Warburton had been victimized, deplored his unfair treatment and vainly recommended reinstatement. On 24 March 1869 he accepted the lower salary of chief staff officer and colonel of the Volunteer Military Force of South Australia.

In 1872 Warburton left South Australia as leader of an expedition that included his son Richard and J. Lewis. It was financed and provided with seventeen camels and six months supplies by (Sir) Walter Hughes and (Sir) Thomas Elder, and sought to link the province with Western Australia. After leaving Alice Springs in April 1873, they endured long periods of extreme heat with little water, and survived only by killing the camels for meat. They reached the Oakover River with Warburton strapped to a camel. On 11 January 1874 they were brought to Charles Harper's de Grey station in northern Western Australia. They had conquered the formidable Great Sandy Desert to become the first Europeans to cross the continent from the centre to the west. Warburton was emaciated and blind in one eye; at a public banquet in Adelaide later he attributed their survival to his Aboriginal companion Charley.

Warburton was awarded the patron's medal of the Royal Geographical Society, London, and in 1874 he visited England for six weeks. He received the C.M.G. and the South Australian government granted him £1000. He had contributed much useful information to the colony and to later explorers about some of the driest and most difficult areas of the continent; his journal was published as Journey Across the Western Interior of Australia (London, 1875).

In 1877 Warburton resigned from the volunteer force. He had been an honorary fellow since 1858 of the Adelaide Philosophical (Royal) Society and lived at his property and vineyard, Norley Bank, Beaumont near Adelaide, where he died on 5 November 1889. He was buried in the churchyard of St Matthew's, Kensington, and was survived by his wife (d.1892), two sons and a daughter; his estate was sworn for probate at £5000. Warburton Mission, 580 kilometres north-east of Laverton in Western Australia, was established in 1933 as an outstation of Mount Margaret Mission and became a separate facility in 1937.  It closed in 1977, but the township and roadhouse, on the Great Central Road, remained occupied, under the supervision since 1973 of the Ngaanyatjarra Council.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Threadgill, South Australian Land Exploration 1856 to 1880 (Adel, 1922)
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1858, 1859, 2 (37), 1867, 3 (120), 1868-69, 3 (77), 1874, 1, 25, 27, 28
  • Royal Geographical Society, Proceedings, 44 (1874)
  • E. C. Black, ‘The Lake Torrens hoodoo’, PRGSSA, 64 (1963)
  • Australasian, 6 Mar 1875
  • Register (Adelaide), 6 Nov 1889
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 17 Dec 1889, p 10
  • Addiscombe College cadet records, and Bombay army service records 1831-53 (India House, London).

Citation details

Denison Deasey, 'Warburton, Peter Egerton (1813–1889)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 18 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

Peter Egerton Warburton (1813-1889), by unknown photographer

Peter Egerton Warburton (1813-1889), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 7938

Life Summary [details]


16 August, 1813
Northwich, Cheshire, England


5 November, 1889 (aged 76)
Beaumont, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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