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William John Wills (1834–1861)

by Ian F. McLaren

This article was published:

William John Wills (1834-1861), explorer, was born on 5 January 1834 at Totnes, Devon, England, son of Dr William Wills and his wife Sarah Mary Elizabeth, née Calley (Kelly). His father had studied medicine at Grainger's anatomical school, Guy's Hospital and St Thomas's, and became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1827. As a youth William John, known as Jack, suffered a fever which left him with a 'slow and hesitating speech'. He was tutored by his father, and then attended St Andrew's Grammar School, Ashburton, in 1845-50. Articled to his father on 30 May 1850, he undertook courses at Guy's and St Bartholomew's hospitals, London.

Interested in Australia, Dr Wills bought a share in a Melbourne gold-mining company in 1852, but cancelled passages to Australia for himself and his sons William John and Thomas after objections from his wife. However, the brothers left Dartmouth in the Janet Mitchell, arriving at Williamstown, Port Phillip, on 3 January 1853. They became shepherds at Deniliquin, New South Wales, where they were joined by their father in October. They went to Ballarat, Victoria, where Dr Wills began to practise, assisted by William, who later worked in the River Wannon district, studied surveying and became an assistant at the astronomical and magnetical observatories at Melbourne under Professor G. B. Neumayer.

Wills's extensive correspondence shows an examining and factual mind, with an interest in natural phenomena, literature and exploration. Described as having a 'clear … complexion, an expressive eye that always outstripped his tongue … golden hair, a thick tawny beard, a smile at once intellectual and sympathising, a light, clean, agile frame', Wills had a keen sense of the ridiculous. He was encouraged by Neumayer who was a member of the exploration committee of the Royal Society of Victoria which organized the government expedition to cross Australia to the Gulf of Carpentaria. When Robert O'Hara Burke was made leader, he chose Wills as surveyor, astronomer and third-in-command.

The well-equipped expedition left Melbourne on 20 August 1860 but after a dispute at Menindee, George James Landells was dismissed and Wills became Burke's lieutenant. The party arrived at Cooper's Creek on 11 November and William Brahe was placed in charge of the depot. Burke, with Wills, J. King and Gray, six camels, one horse and three months provisions, left for the Gulf of Carpentaria on 16 December and reached it on 11 February 1861. Wills's diary of the journey evidences his own physical toughness in the tribulations of rough terrain, tropical rains, hostile Aboriginals, shortage of rations and illness; it describes Gray's death on 17 April and the return to Cooper's Creek on 21 April, only to find that Brahe had left that morning for Menindee, leaving a small cache of supplies. Against Wills's personal judgment the three survivors moved down Cooper's Creek towards Adelaide. Had they followed the route back to Menindee, they could have met Brahe returning to look for them.

After their supplies failed the trio lived precariously on fish and nardoo. Wills was left in camp whilst Burke and King sought Aboriginals to replenish their supplies of nardoo. Burke died on 28 June and King returned to find Wills dead in the camp. He had written a farewell letter dated 27 June to his father, and the last entry in his diary dated 29 June stated 'weaker than ever … my legs and arms are nearly skin and bone'. Relieving expeditions under A. W. Howitt, Landsborough, McKinlay and others were searching for the party. Howitt found King with friendly Aboriginals on 15 September, and buried Wills on 18 September; later he returned the remains of Burke and Wills to Melbourne and they were accorded a public funeral on 21 January 1863.

The government's inquiry into the tragedy criticized Burke's leadership and decisions, the appointment of Landells and William Wright, the unsuitability of Brahe, and the errors and delays of the exploration committee; but there was little or no criticism of Wills, who was a faithful second-in-command, subjugating personal doubts on Burke's decisions: it was natural that at 27 he should have deferred to the 40-year-old leader. As Dr Wills stated 'he fell a victim to errors not originating with himself'. Memorials to the expedition have been erected in Melbourne and many Victorian towns. A memorial to Wills was placed at Totnes, Devon, England, in August 1864.

Select Bibliography

  • W. J. Wills, A Successful Exploration Through the Interior of Australia, W. Wills ed (Lond. 1863)
  • A. M. Moorehead, Cooper's Creek (Lond, 1963)
  • I. F. McLaren, ‘The Victorian exploring expedition and relieving expeditions’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 29 (1959), and for bibliography
  • F. McLaren, ‘William John Wills’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 33 (1962-63)
  • Australasian, 13 Mar 1886.

Related Thematic Essay

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Citation details

Ian F. McLaren, 'Wills, William John (1834–1861)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 24 June 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 Wills, n.d.

William Wills, n.d.

State Library of Victoria, H37475/29

Life Summary [details]


5 January, 1834
Totnes, Devon, England


1861 (aged ~ 26)
Cooper's Creek, South Australia, Australia

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